Last week, the media went in overdrive and bloggers and editors went into meltdown as a Russian battlegroup centered around the missile cruiser Kuznetsov sailed from Severmorsk down the English channel on its way to Syria. The articles written in blogs, websites and newspapers went from hyping up the threat and showing how dangerous the Russians are (“Putin’s ATTACK fleet” ; “The Russian’s are coming!” ; “Russian fleet ready to sail in British waters”) to ridiculing the smoking Kuznetsov and pointing at how not dangerous the Russians are… A lot was said, but very few articles listed facts and reasons or explained why this deployment was special and important.
Let’s talk about ships, baby.
The Russian battle group consisted of the missile cruiser carrying plane Admiral Kuznetsov, 1 Kirov class heavy missile battle-cruiser “Pyotr Veliky” (Peter the Great), the Udaloy class destroyer “Severomorsk”, the Udaloy class destroyer “Vice-admiral Kulakov”, a Sierra class attack sub and 4 auxiliary ships.
The Udaloy class destroyer is an anti-submarine destroyer and comes equipped with 8 anti-ship / anti-submarine missiles, a twin-barrelled 100mm naval gun, two 213mm anti-submarine rocket launchers and two 553mm torpedo tubes. The ship also sports SAMs and CIWS as well as decoys against aerial threats and several types of anti-torpedo weapon systems.
Kirov Class Battle cruiser
This 827 feet / 252 metres ship is filled to the brim with weapons: 20 long range anti-ship missiles, 96 long range AA missiles with anti-ballistic capabilities, 40 medium range AA missiles and 320 short range AA missiles. You can add to that 6 CIWS equipped with 30mm canons, a twin barrel 130mm auto-canon, 10 rocket assisted torpedoes and 144 anti-submarine rockets. Additionally, it can carry and operate 5 ASW helicopters.
The most important thing you need to know it that the Kuznetsov is NOT an aircraft carrier…
When this ship was designed and built, the USSR did not see the point in having aircraft carriers. A carrier is a tool to project power abroad. It is an offensive weapon. Its main armament is its aircrafts and it needs a whole battlegroup to defend itself. The Soviet Navy was mainly build around defense. As the Soviet identified the US aircraft carriers battlegroups as the main threat, they designed their own defensive battlegroup that could take them head on. That is where the Kuznetsov comes in.
The Kuznetsov may be carrying planes, but at heart, it is a missile cruiser. Its main armament is its Granit anti-ship missiles. Its planes are only there for defense.
So… What is so important about this Russian battlegroup ?
At the moment, as it is cruising to Syria, the Kuznetsov is operated as first intended, with his Su-33 providing overwatch and sailing alongside a flotilla of destroyers and battlecruiser. The Su-33 is mainly geared up for air to air combat and as it is heavy and large and as the Kuznetsov lacks steam catapults, it cannot take off with a full combat load.
However… It seems the Kuznetsov is this time embarking for the first time some MiG-29K. The MiG being smaller and lighter can take off from the Kuznetsov with a heavier weapon and fuel load. It is also a versatile aircraft that is well suited for air to ground attacks…
Onboard, we also find the Ka-52K, the naval version of the reconnaissance and attack helicopter Ka-52.
This is why this mission is so important: For the first time ever, the Kuznetsov is going to be employed in a “Western way” with its aircrafts taking part in air to ground operations in Syria.
You see, the debate has been raging for years within the Russian navy: The Kuznetsov was badly designed and is unreliable. Some admirals want to replace it with a new class of missile cruisers carrying planes, arguing that the Russian navy is still geared up for defense. Other admirals, however, would love to have fully fledged carrier groups to gain offensive / force projection capabilities as well as the prestige attached to operating aircraft carriers…
The deployment of the Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean Sea is not only going to boost Russian capabilities in Syria, it is also going to be a giant real life test.
It is the first time the Kuznetsov is being deployed in a conflict and takes part in real life military operations. It will also be the first combat missions for the Su-33, MiG-29k and Ka-52K.
It is going to give Russian sailors and naval pilots invaluable experience in operating in this fashion. It is also going to provide many data for the admirals to fight over (Carrier or not carrier ?). Finally, it will enable Russia to showcase some of its most recent weapon platforms which is always good for exports…
Strategically speaking, while it was not planned that way, the group will arrive in Syria at a pivotal and much needed moment: The Syrian troops need all the air support they can in their battle for Aleppo, but at the same time, they need somehow to secure their border with Iraq as the Coalition’s offensive on Mosul threatens to send thousands of ISIS fighters back over the border into Syria.
Have we forgotten something ?
We have, haven’t we… What about the Kirov ? This is the largest surface combat ship in the world (excluding carriers). It was designed to take on US carrier battlegroups head on and it has few sea to ground capabilities…
Well, it seems Peter the Great was deployed not as an operational tool against ISIS, Al-Quaeda and other rebel groups, but as a message to the west, just as the S-300 battery deployed in Tartus was a couple of weeks ago. Russia is digging-in in Syria. While the S-300 should deter Coalition air and missile attacks against Assad’s forces, the Kirov is there to keep US carriers at bay. It is not a subtle message, but in this new Cold War, not many things are subtle indeed…