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Russia's SHTORM Concept Design a Worthwhile Investment? How Moscow Would Deploy its Supercarrier

Part Two

May 04th - 2018

While a supercarrier based on the SHTORM concept could prove a useful asset and grant Russia a unique means of power projection, the program has several drawbacks which put to question whether it is a worthwhile investment for the Russian Navy. Not only is the carrier itself extremely costly, but the aircraft on its flight deck would add considerably to this expense. While Russia is not set to abandon its use of carrier borne air superiority fighters as Western nations operating aircraft carriers have, the SHTORM carrier will not operate the Su-33 fighters currently in service on the Admiral Kuznetsov. Instead the new supercarrier will operate both advanced variants of the lighter MiG-29K multirole fighters, also currently in service on the Kuznetsov, as well as a carrier variant of the Su-57 fifth generation air superiority fighter. These fighters are set to cost well over $100 million each, and the development costs for such carrier based stealth platforms would be high. This would however make the Russian platform the only carrier in the world to operate fifth generation air superiority fighters, granting the SHTORM a significant technological edge in combat and the ability to gain air superiority over almost any rival naval contingent. While the United States Air Force can deploy the F-22 fifth generation air superiority fighter to match the Su-57, the U.S. Navy's carrier based variant of the F-22 was cancelled meaning that should Russia develop a carrier borne Su-57, the aerial warfare capabilities of its Navy would likely outmatch those any potential adversary.

If Russia were to invest in a modern supercarrier, the question arises as to where it would be deployed. Russia's Defence Ministry has repeatedly expressed confidence that its Black Sea fleet is capable of overwhelmingly defeating any hostile forces deployed to the region, where NATO ships are in any case well within range of Russian land based fighters leaving little role for carriers. International treaties prohibiting the deployment of carrier aircraft to the Black Sea meanwhile make such deployments extremely difficult. In three other zones of key strategic importance however, where Russian Naval forces are currently expanding their presence, the balance of powers is not so decisively in their favour and a supercarrier could well prove a considerable asset. In the Mediterranean Russian forces have expanded their military presence both to combat Islamic State and Al Qaeda in Syria and to deny NATO forces complete dominance of the region. As the Admiral Kuznetsov was poorly suited to long range power projection operations in Syria, deployment of the SHTORM carrier to reinforce Damascus' security against a number of hostile powers and militant groups would significantly alter the balance of power and allow Russia to provide far better security guarantees to its most critical Middle Eastern ally. Should Russia's defence ties across the Persian Gulf continue to grow, deployment of a supercarrier to that region also remains a possibility as a symbol of support to its regional partners should the need arise.

The SHTORM class carrier is set to be built with the capabilities to operate at extreme temperatures including in the Arctic. With Russian forces increasing their military presence there against Canadian and American rivals, all of which seek to exploit the region's extensive natural resources, deployment of a supercarrier armed with fifth generation air superiority fighters could well tip the military balance decisively, particularly as U.S. carriers would struggle to operate in such a climate. If the SHTORM proves the key to granting Russia uncontested aerial dominance over the Arctic, and so better access to the resources there, the program could prove to be well worth its considerable expense.

The third region where the SHTORM carrier could be deployed is the Asia Pacific, where almost all newly commissioned carriers have been sent in recent years. While China's expanding carrier fleet is set to be deployed defensively in the waters surrounding its coast, the United States, Japan and France have all deployed their own carriers to the seas surrounding China in shows of force and along with Britain staged naval drills targeting China and North Korea. British Defence Minister Michael Fallon pledged in July 2017 to deploy his country's two carriers to the region to join this force immediately upon their completion, a promise the country is likely to keep. As a region of critical importance, Russia too has increased its naval presence in the Pacific significantly and held large scale naval drills jointly with China. The deployment of a Russian supercarrier to the region could well also shift the naval balance of power against Western and Japanese forces. 

While a significant burden on Russia's shrinking military budget, the SHTORM carrier could prove a game changer in any of the three strategic regions to which it can be deployed. The potency of the carrier could well lead to more foreign customers commissioning more carriers of the same design from Russia. India for one, having previously purchased Russian carriers and seeking to expand its carrier fleet, could well be a potential customer while China, whose carriers are closely based on Russian designs, would be more likely to attempt to acquire the technologies of the SHTORM to enhance its own shipbuilding capabilities and allow it to build its own supercarriers in future. China could also be a potential customer for a carrier based Su-57 to base on its own carriers, which would be a significant upgrade from the capabilities of the J-15 Flying Shark and seriously enhance the potency of the country's carrier fleets - assuming Beijing doesn't develop a fifth generation carrier based heavy fighter of its own first. Should the Su-57 carrier variant be deployed to the Pacific onboard the SHTORM class, this would be an excellent demonstration of its capabilities which could well facilitate a Chinese acquisition and help Russia to cover the development costs of the fighter. Ultimately the strategic benefits, resulting financial gains, particularly in the case of an Arctic deployment, and the potential for exports of the technologies developed for the carrier all have potential to more than make up for the development costs - thus making the SHTORM a potentially highly feasible supercarrier program.

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