Russia is to upgrade its sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov warship, which it inherited from the Soviet Navy in 1991 following the USSR's dissolution. While the warship is based on a near identical design to China’s Liaoling and Type 001 carriers, the Russian warship has long left much to be desired in its capabilities compared to its Chinese counterparts - with the Russian Navy far more restricted in its access to funding for modernisation. China's People's Liberation Army's far greater emphasis on enhancing naval capabilities, where for geographical reasons Russia has focused more on the ground and air, remains another major factor in the current state of the Kuznetsov. The Chinese carriers as a result today deploy far more modern cruise missiles, air defences and combat aircraft, with China’s J-15 Flying Tiger carrier based far surpassing the capabilities of Russia’s older Su-33. Indeed, the Russian Su-33 heavy carrier based fighter is set to be retired entirely, leaving the Admiral Kuznetsov to rely in cheaper and less capable light fighters were Chinese carriers deploy elite and more sophisticated air superiority aircraft. China’s carrier has meanwhile continued to deploy new systems including fixed wing radar early warning aircraft, the KJ-600, and carrier based electronic warfare aircraft, the J-15D. Russia’s carrier is today much in need of an upgrade, and refurbishment could well help to close the gap between the Admiral Kuznetsov and its Chinese counterparts.
Refurbishment of Russia’s carrier will be completed in 2021, and changes are set to be extensive and all encompassing. Russian Navy Deputy Commander in Chief Viktor Bursuk stated regarding the extent of the planned work: "Its air defences will be improved and new shipborne Pantsir systems will be installed on it. Besides, its power-generating equipment will be replaced by new boilers, a number of new pumps and new flight control systems: landing, surveillance, control systems and so on.” Alongside the Pantsir, the Russian warship is also set to integrate new 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missiles to significantly strengthen its long range strike capabilities - fitting in with a long history of Russian and Soviet naval doctrine. While Western aircraft carriers such as the U.S. Nimitz Class and French Charles De Gaulle have been scantly armed, relying on large carrier strike groups to engage enemy warships at sea, Russian carriers have always been designed to operate more independantly and if needed engage enemy warships, and carry a complement of advanced anti ship weapons to facilitate this.
In service since 2012, only Russia’s newest or most recently refurbished warships have deployed Kalibr cruise missiles and Pantsir air defence systems - platforms set to seriously enhance the performance of the Soviet build warship. Anti ship variants of the Kalibr are capable of travelling at speeds of Mach 2.9, allowing them to disable most warships with a single strike with the sheer force of their kinetic energy. The missiles were designed as sea skimmers with a flight altitude of just 4.6 meters, making them extremely difficult to detect, much less intercept, by enemy warships. They carry a 200kg warhead, and are set to be deployed in large numbers by the Kuznetsov. While Russia’s surface vessels, the Kuznetsov included, are in many ways less capable than the U.S. and Chinese counterparts, falling behind since the Soviet Union’s collapse as Russia focused more on its submarine building capabilities, the deployment of more sophisticated and powerful cruise missiles does much to mitigate this disadvantage.
While the Soviet Union’s large warships, including carriers and destroyers, were built and largely serviced in Ukraine, Russia today is seeking to enhance its capabilities in the field of shipbuilding. The Kuznetsov’s servicing is set to take place in the 35th Ship Repairing Yard in Murmansk city. With the future of Russia’s plans to build a supercarrier based on the SHTORM design uncertain, the Russian Navy has sought to extend the Admiral Kuznetsov’s life to ensure its carrier aviation is not entirely lost - a base which would be extremely difficult to rebuild if all carriers were retired. Refurbishment is set to provide a considerable life extension for the warship, and is set to address some of the warships biggest problems. This includes installation of a new propulsion system to replace the troubled one currently in service, with all eight turbo pressurised boilers currently in use to be removed.