Project 23000E Shtorm. A 100,000 tons aircraft carrier for Russia ? Not so fast…
For the past year or so, the internet has been awash with rumours about a 100,000 tons nuclear powered aircraft carrier for the Russian navy: Project 2300E Shtorm.
On paper, Shtorm looks good: The 330 metres long dual islands carrier could embark up to 90 planes and helicopters, has one ramp and two electromagnetic catapults (EMALS) and could achieve a speed of 30kn.
So, when are we going to see this majestic ship sail the oceans ?
Well… It won’t be for tomorrow. And it won’t be for the day after either: The 2018-2025 rearmament plan does not mention it. Why doesn’t it mention it, I hear you ask ? The haters will answer you that Russia is broke. The reality is a little bit more complex than that.
See, Russia has never built an aircraft carrier. All of the carriers built for the USSR were assembled at the Nikolayev 444 shipyards in Ukraine. The largest shipyard capacity currently at Russia’s disposal is 60,000 tons. That’s a Kuznetsov class at full load.
So why don’t the Russians build a brand new shipyard with the capacity to build a 100,000 tons vessel ? Well, the cost of creating that infrastructure alone is estimated at $7 billions. And having the shipyard does not mean you have the skilled manpower or suppliers and subcontractors chain to push such an ambitious project through.
Then, you have the cost of the ship itself. The research, development and construction of such a ship is estimated at around $17 billion. That’s apparently a conservative figure. Then, you need the 80-90 aircrafts operating from the carrier. The obvious move is to “navalise” some PaK FA. But a lot of work goes into making a plane compatible with naval operations. For 80 PaK FA, the estimation is $8 to $9 billions taking into account research, development and production costs.
Now, we have the shipyard, the ship and its air wing. We just need to create an ad-hoc battle group. That’s another $2 billion, thank you very much.
So… We end up with a conservative figure of $35 billion. That’s not the kind of change one can find behind one’s sofa. That’s just short of half the annual Defence budget for the Russian armed forces. And that’s for one carrier. One unit. Now, it does not make sense for a country that want to invest in such projection capabilities to only invest in one units… Each of Russia’s main fleets would want one…
You know what you can get for $35 billions in Russia ? 50 Borei nuclear submarines. Yup.
So… Shtorm or no Shtorm ?
As said above, having the facilities to manufacture a 100,000 tons vessel does not guarantee you can actually do it. You need an army of skilled labours and skilled architects/engineers. Your blueprints and concepts must be flawless and must be replicated flawlessly by the workforce on the ground.
Not many countries in the world could actually build a 100,000 tons aircraft carrier. The Americans have managed this feat with the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier, but that happened on the back of 95 years of carrier building and operation. And it was far from painless.
The way to proceed is usually to start with a smaller concept and gradually put into work the experience gained with the construction and operations of those concepts, then up scale the next project. It is basically what the Soviets went through between 1967 and 1988.
They started in 1967 with the Moskva class helicopter carrier. The Moskva was slightly smaller/lighter than a Mistral class ship, weighting in at 14,950 tons.
8 years later, in 1975, the Soviet built their first “heavy aviation cruiser”: The Kiev Class. At 42,000 tons, it was lighter than its American contemporary, the USS John F. Kennedy which came in at 60,728 tons, but it gave the Soviets a platform to experiment with carrier based operations: The Kiev could carry up to 18 helicopters and 12 VTOL Yak-38.
In 1985, things got serious for the Soviets with the launch of their brand new modern heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov. At 43,000 tons, it was still a lightweight compared to its American counterparts, but it was still 10,000 tons heavier than its French counterparts and double the weight of its British equivalents. The Kuznetsov’s current airwing is 36 planes and 24 helicopters.
In 1988, the Soviets were finally ready to try their hands at constructing and operating a “real” aircraft carrier and the keel of the 65,800 tons Ulyanovsk was laid down. With 50 aircrafts, 18 helicopters and a classic aircraft carrier layout, the Ulyanovsk was to give the Soviet Union a real potential at projecting force in faraway theatres. Fate decided otherwise and as the Soviet Union crumbled, work on the Ulyanovsk -suddenly finding itself in a newly independent Ukraine- ceased in 1991. It was subsequent scrapped.
So, is it really just a question of money and production capabilities ?
No. Not really. There is also a doctrinal battle at play. The Soviets have long seen the aircraft carrier as an imperialistic tool to project forces in faraway theatres (invade/attack) as well as a vanity project. For them, the Soviet Union did not need such a tool. Those people also saw aircraft carrier ownership as a weakness and a drain on resources rather than as a strength: A sole aircraft carrier requires a lot of resources to manufacture and operate. A lot of assets are based on and around an aircraft carrier and its escort / battle group. That is its strength but also its weakness. A carrier group is expensive to operate, it is bulky, cannot hide and the loss of just one carrier group would mean in theory the loss of several thousand men, several ships and dozens of planes, not including a crushing blow to the morale.
Since the 1950’s, the Soviets have based their doctrine at sea (as well as in the air and on land) on standoff platforms. The soviets and the Russians after them have always been -to put it simply- obsessed with long range missiles, be it SAMs, AshM or cruise missiles.
Since the 1950’s and their first real anti-ship missile (P-15 Termit), the AshM has been their main tool against Carrier Groups. In their view, engaging such expensive assets with relatively inexpensive missiles was efficient and cost effective. At sea, the Soviet cruisers of the Slava, Kirov and Kuznetsov classes were purpose built to confront and engage NATO carrier groups in case of a conflict. Those ships are armed to the teeth with long range AshM and SAM.
The Slava embarks the P-500 Bazalt and / or P-1000 Vulcan AshM. The P-500 and P-1000 can be launched in salvoes of 8 units. They can fly as low as 50 metres and as fast as Mach 2.5. Their range is about 500km. The launcher can keep control of the missiles through data-link meaning they can be reassigned to a new target mid-flight. A “master” missile flies higher than the swarm and directs the other missiles. Should the master missile be shot down, another missile automatically rises in altitude and takes control of the remaining missiles. The Bazalt and the Vulcan can be equipped with a 350kt nuclear warhead.
The Kuznetsov embarks the Granit AshM. Granit can also fly in swarms, has roughly the same speed as the P-500, but has a longer range (625km) and can be equipped with a more powerful nuclear warhead (500kt).
In fact, the Soviet and subsequently the Russians have consistently pursued the development of Anti-Ship Missiles that could be fired from a multitude of platforms at sea, on land and from the air. The list is endless… P-270 Moskit, Kh-35 Star, K-300 Bastion, P-800 Oniks, Kh-59 Gadly, 3M-54 Kalibr, BrahMos and the upcoming 3M22 Tsirkon… There are Russian AshM that can be launched from fighter planes, from bombers, from land based coastal batteries, from submarines, small littoral ships, helicopters and large surface vessels… Their range varies from 50km to 625 km and their speed varies from Mach 0.7 to Mach 5. The upcoming Tsirkon is a hypersonic model capable of achieving speeds in excess of Mach 8. And many of those missiles can be equipped with a nuclear warhead making them a potent threat to any carrier out there.
Against the concentrated firepower that is represented by an American carrier group, the Russians are opposing the asymmetric concept of Distributed Lethality. After having spent decades developing tactics and weapons to confront aircraft carriers, it is easy to understand why some Russian officers are against acquiring one or several of their own.
In November 2016, Russia deployed the Kuznetsov off the coast of Syria. It was the first time the Kuznetsov was used as an aircraft carrier (“Western style”). As the ship was due for a mid-life overhaul after this deployment, rumours were rife. Maybe her Granit missiles silos would be removed to turn her into a fully-fledged aircraft carrier… Then the list of modifications that would be applied to the Kuznetsov was published. The Granit silos will indeed be removed, but only to be replaced by Kalibr VLS silos. So in the end, the Kuznetsov will remain a Heavy missile cruiser carrying planes rather than an aircraft carrier.
Last week, a Russian defence expert made a powerful case against aircraft carrier. According to him, why operate a carrier when its missions can be fulfilled as well by other less expensive platforms ? He argued: You can engage enemy targets with long range cruise missiles. Those missiles can be launched from (stand off) long range, outside of the defence envelope of your enemy. They are accurate, stealthier than jet aircrafts and are less likely to be intercepted. Those missiles can be launched form a variety of platforms (plane, surface vessel or submarine) and no pilot’s life or large crews are put at risk. The deployment of long range strategic aviation or submarines launched cruise missiles is also stealthier than the deployment of a carrier group, meaning you can retain the element of surprise. For the price of an aircraft carrier group, you can manufacture and operate a multitude of other platforms armed to the teeth.
His case will no doubt be well received in Russia.
So, that’s it. Russia will not build an aircraft carrier.
Well. It is not that simple… This is Russia, after all.
While cruise missiles can engage targets from a safe distance, they can’t be used for air superiority or for supporting / protecting troops on the ground… And then, the ownership of an aircraft carrier guarantees your entry to a very small exclusive group.. Prestige is still sought after. So it seems that even in the eyes of the Russian high command, the aircraft carrier can be a very useful tool after all, in certain conditions.
A couple of weeks ago, rumours were floated that the Russian armed forces had instructed Yakovlev to have a look into (re)creating a VTOL capable platform. Everyone remembers the Yak-141 Freestyle of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s… We remember it because in the early 1990’s, Lockheed was working on the X-35 project and cooperated with Yak. And the current F-35 platform borrows from the Freestyle concept.
And why would you need a VTOL aircraft if it is not to base it on some kind of aircraft carrying platform ? It can’t be the Kuznetsov as she already has her complement of Su-33 and MiG-29K… And it can’t be the Shtorm project as she is supposed to receive PaK FA…
So from here, it is only guess work. But my guess would be that Russia will end up building another aircraft carrier. It won’t be the Shtorm. And it won’t even be a fully-fledged aircraft carrier. My guess is that Russia will end up building another missile cruiser carrying aircraft. An evolution of the Kuznetsov, with roughly the same dimensions, capabilities and weight. A platform heavily armed with AshM, SAM and land attack missiles, but which will also be able to embark an air wing.
This type of platform has several advantages:
– It is within the operable limits of Russia’s largest shipyards. Unlike the Shtorm project, it can in theory be pursued to completion from research, development, manufacture all the way to operation. It would not be an easy task due to the lack of experience and supplier/subcontractors chain, but it is achievable in the medium term, unlike the Shtorm project. It would also be cheaper to manufacture and operate.
– It fits within the current Russian doctrine of engaging enemy shipping, including carrier groups if needed, with long range missile. The Kalibr family of missile also gives it the kind of stand-off / long range land attack capabilities the Russians so love. At the same time, it can provide air cover for a battle group at sea or provide air superiority and air cover for troops on the ground on an oversea deployment. In Russian minds, this type of hybrid cruiser/carrier is more flexible than a fully fledged carrier and is less vulnerable on its own. It is just another tool in the box with a measure of autonomy rather than the main tool around which the rest of the navy operates.
– A cruiser carrying aircrafts can enter the Black Sea. All aircraft carrier over 15,000 tons are forbidden to transit through the Turkish Straight.
– It can provide the Russian navy with the opportunity to build its first indigenous aircraft carrying platform. That way, Russia would not only remain in the “aircraft carrier owners club” once the Kuznetsov inevitable retires, but it would also gain invaluable experience in the process, ending up with the skilled manpower, facilities and suppliers/sub contractors chain needed to maybe finally be able to tackle a project such as the Shtorm.
Baby steps, if you like.