Decades-long Struggle: Russian Navy Faces More than Just Aircraft Carrier Challenges, Struggles to Develop Jets

Decades-long Struggle: Russian Navy Faces More than Just Aircraft Carrier Challenges, Struggles to Develop Jets

Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, has been undergoing repairs since 2017 and has been out of action for years. This is not a new problem for Russia, as both its navy and its predecessor, the Soviet navy, have struggled to maintain operational aircraft carriers. In addition to the carrier itself, Russia has also faced challenges with carrier-based jets.

According to Russian state media, the Admiral Kuznetsov is expected to return to active service by the end of 2024. However, the carrier’s return has been repeatedly delayed due to mishaps and malfunctions. Despite its nearly 30-year career, the Admiral Kuznetsov has only been on one combat deployment. Its return to duty would be a significant milestone, but equipping the carrier with a fully functioning air wing remains a major task for Russia.

Russia has long struggled to develop effective fixed-wing jets for its aircraft carriers. The Yak-38, introduced in 1976, was the Soviet Union’s first fixed-wing aircraft for its Kiev-class carriers. However, the Yak-38 faced numerous mechanical issues, especially in hot and humid environments. Its automatic ejection system also caused problems, leading to accidents and destruction of the jets. The Yak-38 had limited range, payload, and speed compared to rival aircraft, and its lift engines were inefficient, making vertical takeoffs rare.

The Yak-38 saw combat only in landlocked Afghanistan, where its performance was unremarkable. The Soviet leadership decided not to pursue further upgrades and retired the Yak-38 after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the mid-1970s, as the Kiev-class carriers and Yak-38s entered service, the Soviets recognized the limitations of V/STOL jets and started planning for larger carriers and jets capable of conventional takeoffs and landings. This led to the development of the Kuznetsov-class carrier and the Su-33 jet. The Su-33, a naval variant of the Su-27, had improved capabilities compared to the Yak-38. However, it was still of limited effectiveness due to the carrier’s size constraints and limitations on takeoff weight and weaponry.

The MiG-29K, a naval variant of the MiG-29, was also developed during this time but was put on hold in 1991. It was later revived for the Indian navy, which wanted the jet for its Admiral Gorhskov carrier. The MiG-29K had better ground strike capabilities than the Su-33 and was chosen by India because of its familiarity with the airframe. However, the MiG-29K also faced performance issues and engine defects, leading to a high rate of crashes.

India has now decided to retire its MiG-29Ks by 2035 and move on to other jets. Russia, on the other hand, ordered 25 MiG-29Ks for use aboard the Kuznetsov. The jet made its combat debut in 2016 during a deployment to Syria but faced its own challenges, including accidents and damage to the carrier.

Russia’s struggles with aircraft carriers and carrier-based jets highlight the difficulties it has faced in developing and maintaining a capable naval aviation force. Despite operating aircraft-carrying ships for over 50 years, Russia has yet to overcome these challenges and build effective jets for its carriers.