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Wanna-be Superpower By: Reuben F. Johnson
The Weekly Standard | Friday, August 15, 2008


Kiev - COMPLETELY MAD MILITARY DIRECTIVES that have no chance of being fulfilled are usually the sign of a delusional commander in a desperate and hopeless armed conflict. Hitler issuing orders for non-existent, long-ago destroyed armies to attack during his last days in the bunker or Stalin demanding that overrun and demolished armies counterattack against the Wehrmacht invasion in June 1941 are classic examples.

What should one make of the announcement from one of her chief admirals, Vladimir Vystosky, on the July 27 Navy Day holiday, that the Russian navy would add six carriers to its fleet--along with all of the necessary support ships that form a carrier battle group?

Vysotsky did not appear to have started early on the vodka toasts, so instead of the chest-thumping that comes after several rounds he was probably instead following up on a visit made at the beginning of the year by Dimitri Medvedev (then first deputy prime minister) to the Russian naval base at Murmansk. The man who is now president announced then that the Russian Navy's (VMF) powerful status should be revived, "so that Russia would be a maritime and naval power. This work is underway, maybe it is slower than we would like to do it, but we got down to it for the first time in the last 20 years."

Construction of these carriers would begin sometime after 2012, according to Vysotsky. Three of them would be assigned to the Northern Fleet and the other three to the Pacific Fleet. This plan for where the ships would be based is about the only part of the announcement that is rational.

"This facilitates a normal type of rotational deployment," said a U.S. Government Russian naval analyst, "that allows for one of the carriers to be at sea in each theater at all times. With three carrier groups in each fleet main staging base you are able to--at the same time--have one on station, one returning to port for rest and refitting, and a third in port undergoing re-fitting to be ready to replace the group currently on station."

Unfortunately for the admiral, there are several problems with these grandiose--and prohibitively expensive--plans. Leaving aside that the navy is always the first of Russia's services to suffer budget cuts, the cost for these six carriers would be more than the total of all Russia's military spending for the last decade or more. Furthermore, the only shipyard that built carriers in the Soviet period is in located in Nikolayev, Ukraine. Moscow is unlikely to contract with Kiev and pour billions into the Ukrainian economy, which it has thus far been doing its best to keep in a shambles.

Russia does have its own shipyards, but their record on carrier building has been disastrous. In 2004 Russia signed a contract to modernize, refit, and extend the flight deck on one of its Soviet-era carriers, the Admiral Gorshkov, for the Indian Navy. The carrier was to have been delivered this year, but the Indians are now being told that it will not arrive before 2012 and that the program is more than 100 per cent over budget.

The Indian defense ministry was so alarmed by this long delay that they offered to send several hundred Indian shipyard workers to Russia to help speed the work along. Sources in New Delhi now state that they do not expect this carrier ever to be delivered, so how Russian can expect to build new carriers from the keel up is unknown.

The mainstay aircraft aboard the one VMF carrier in service, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is the Sukhoi Su-33 CV-capable fighter, but it has been out of production at the Komsomolsk-na-Amure (KNAAPO) plant for almost 20 years. A re-start of its production might prove difficult and too costly unless there is an order from the Chinese Navy. Previously KNAAPO officials had revealed an interest by the Chinese Navy in acquiring up to 50 Su-33s, but no orders have actually been placed yet by Beijing. Given the current tensions with Beijing over its Shenyang J-11B fighter, which KNAAPO has called an illegal copy of the standard land-based Su-27s, this type of an order seems unlikely.

Even if Russian industry could--in addition to the untold billions that these six carrier battle groups will cost--bear the costs of re-starting the Su-33 production, the avionics and other on-board systems of this aircraft would be ancient by the time they entered service. An entirely new configuration of on-board equipment would have to be developed and integrated onto the air frame--another expensive operation.

An advanced variant of the Mikoyan MiG-29K that is now being produced for the (possibly never to be delivered) Indian carrier might be a better option, since this aircraft has a more advanced structure and avionics suite. At the Paris Air Show in June 2007, MiG officials stated that there had already been discussions about replacing these older-generation Su-33s in the Russian Navy with the more contemporary MiG carrier aircraft.

Even if there was a way to build these carriers in Russia (which there does not appear to be) and even if the funding for this massive expansion of the Russian Navy were forthcoming (which seems an even more dubious proposition), the real question is what would be the function of these carrier battle groups.

The Pentagon uses carrier battle groups for power projection--placing air power, Marines, naval guns, and guided missiles into hot spots of the world to support U.S. foreign policy objectives. But the Russian military has never shown itself to have any interest in being an expeditionary force. The sole motivation behind building these carriers seems to be the ego-boosting act of Moscow's being able to wave its arms and shout "see we have some too - we're also a superpower."

The only real benefit to these carrier battle groups would be for Moscow to be able to extend its air defense network out beyond its borders and into the sea. But, in an age of increasingly high-speed, long-range air-to-air missiles launched from fighters, it appears to be a marginal increase in the ability to intercept incoming enemy aircraft at an astronomical cost. And, intercept how and who--by the way? Does Moscow still expect an attack from B-2 stealth bombers or B-52s 17 years after the Cold War has ended?

Looking for an explanation that makes sense is to commit the error, as one Moscow colleague reminded me regularly, "of looking for logic inside Russian officialdom where none can possibly exist." The only explanation is more of the same irrationality that was the hallmark of the Soviet years. Announcing a robust presence with a high profile hides the basic structural defects of the Soviet military.

At the same time, the Russian government continues to shovel billions of dollars into the coffers of defense enterprises that are controlled by the inner circle of officials in the Kremlin. Which may be the ultimate explanation for an order to build carriers that cannot be built and which no one really needs. Just like arms sales to Venezuela, Algeria, and elsewhere, this aircraft carrier fantasy may end up being a wonderful mechanism for laundering money.


Reuben Johnson is a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.


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