Russia has only one remaining navy aircraft carrier, and in a couple of weeks, two airplanes were not able to land on it resulting in their destruction. The carrier, named Admiral Kuznetsov, had some technical issues in arresting gear compartment which led to the loss of the Mikoyan MiG-29KUBR Fulcrum-D and a Sukhoi Su-33 Flanker-D. Although the carrier’s technology is obsolete, the real problem might be the incompetence in naval aviation as well as experience in sending the fighters to their mission and safely grounding them onto the Kuznetsov.
The first incident happened on November 14th when a MiG-29KUBR flew around the Kuznetsov until it ran out of fuel and eventually fell into the Mediterranean. During that time, the carrier crew was trying to repair an arresting cable, which was entangled in one of the three wires. Another MiG-29KR, which had a safe landing, might be responsible for the incident since it broke the fourth cable on deck. The same problem with arresting cable occurred on December 5th when a Su-33 Flanker was destroyed.
Even though we can agree that navigating an airplane to land on a carrier is quite difficult and hazardous maneuver, most of Russia’s troubles start with inexperienced crew and procedures that don’t function properly. Safety procedures are not developed well, and with the carrier’s mechanical flaws it combines for a destruction course.
Admiral Kuznetsov was built on December 25th, 1990 and while it seems that was a long time ago, that shouldn’t be the main reason for failures as the US has much older carriers that work well. Some of these are Nimitz, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Carl Vinson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and USS Enterprise (CVN-65). The last one on the list, the USS Enterprise was commissioned in 1962, and it served for 50 years with great success until it was retired on December 1st, 2012.
The key to the success of the US Navy is well-trained crew and taking great care of their carriers. Kuznetsov hasn’t been nurtured as it should be since the fall of the Soviet Union which is a long period of 25 years. Moreover, the people working on the carrier didn’t have time, nor the chance to upgrade their experience and do the job with more regards to safety.
Occasionally, even the US has problems with cables snapping. In 2005, a cable broke on USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) when Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet tried to land which almost lead to many deaths on the carrier. The pilot and his weapons systems officers were unharmed after the airplane fell into the water, but some crew members were injured since the broken cable landed on the flight deck. This is one of the rare incidents in the US Navy. It looks like Kuznetsov has some big issues because two big accidents in three weeks are not just bad luck.
One senior naval aviator stated that “Cables separate/break at some interval—and that’s big news usually leading to injury, death or mishap. The cable system breaking does happen regularly and they usually just remove it and work with less wires—two or three now with the new design.” He also concluded, “The bottom line is that it’s very rare, sometimes preventable (settings, maintenance, etc.) and it’s big news when it happens.”
The destruction of the MiG-29KUBR could have been prevented only if the Russian commander in charge had ordered the pilot to land on a shore base in Syria. The procedure in US Navy when the carrier is close to the shore is to find close-by airports that would serve as emergency options if something were to happen. Also, the navy usually deploys recovery tankers such as Super Hornets that refuel the aircrafts mid-air. The Russian carrier is in no shape to send a tanker or a similar airplane to refuel the fighters, which is why the only logical option is to steer the plane to another airfield.
One more senior US naval aviator said that “When the carrier and air wing team first put to sea they are considered to be in divert ops until they pass their Combat Operations Efficiency (COE) evaluation, which is also called ‘blue water certification.’ We also use divert ops if there is an engineering casualty on the carrier, for example if we’re only using one reactor… whether by necessity or by choice.” He also stated, “Typically, a ship-based limitation that could put the recovery of fixed-wing aircraft at risk leads to a divert ops situation, so we’d need to be in relatively close proximity to land—say, 200 nautical miles or so.”
The US has a proof that it can be safely done, as they are known to conduct spotless procedures during which many of their fighters are deployed and landed miles away from the shore. The senior aviator concluded “Blue water ops enable the carrier and air wing to conduct flight operations anywhere, anytime. We utilize tankers to provide the required gas — ‘front side’ gas to give us more to train with, with ‘back side’ gas available as required when an aircraft’s fuel state gets low.”
Although the US has carriers from the same time or older than the Admiral Kuznetsov, their success lies within their qualified crew and strict procedures. It is obvious that Russia is not up-to-date when it comes to naval aviation since the key components are well-trained staff and well-established procedures, which Russians lack.