The Russians have got it. Aircraft carriers are as dead as the dodo.

Cruise Missile Systems Are Becoming More Efficient Than Carrier Aviation

Just as significant, according to the observer, is the growing importance of surface ship and submarine-launched high-precision cruise missiles – especially because these systems now often have a longer range than carrier-based aviation.

There are also three other reasons why cruise missiles are a more effective tool against ground targets than carriers, Tuchkov noted. “First of all, the maximum deviation of missiles from their target has dropped to between 5-10 meters, or even less. Second, when striking targets via cruise missiles, there is no need [for aircraft] to enter the enemy’s air defense zone. Third, strikes can be applied with the highest degree of secrecy, especially when carried out from submarines.”

Reason #3: Carriers are Extremely Complex and Expensive

Given these facts, the analyst stressed that it was only natural to ask whether Russia today really needs to develop the kind of aircraft carrier technology that’s so cherished by the US. After all, the construction of even one such ship would be an extremely expensive proposition, while a lone new carrier shared among Russia’s four fleets simply wouldn’t be enough.

Tuchkov noted that the construction of one carrier with a 100,000 ton displacement (i.e. the Shtorm) “would cost, by the most conservative estimates, about a trillion rubles, including research and development costs,” equivalent to about $16.8 billion US.

“But that’s not all,” the observer added. “To support the vessel during campaigns, it would be necessary to create an entire carrier strike group. And this, American experience has shown, requires about fifteen escort and service ships, ensuring anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defense, logistical support, reconnaissance and other necessary measures. For this we can add another 100 billion rubles ($1.6 billion US).

And that’s not mentioning expenditures on the ship’s air wing, the expert recalled. If the Defense Ministry foregoes the existing carrier-based MiG-29Ks and Su-33s, fourth-gen planes which will be reaching obsolesce by the year 2030, this leaves the option of a carrier-based version of the fifth-gen T-50 PAK FA.

However, to convert the aircraft for naval use, “it’s not enough to attach a hook, fit it with folding wings and reinforce its anti-corrosion protection. It will be necessary to seriously modify the plane’s avionics, since naval aviation has its own specificities. It will also be necessary to revise the composition of weapons, in turn requiring changes to weapons control systems, and to bring the system’s location and early warning systems up to Navy standards.”

“That is, this should result in a new project called PAK PA,” (a Prospective Airborne Complex of Carrier-based Aviation). And this, according to Tuchkov, would bring the cost up another 500 billion rubles ($8.4 billion) – taking account of the estimated 6 billion ruble apiece cost of a standard T-50, and the Shtorm’s prospective complement of 80 fighter planes.

T-50 fifth-generation multirole fighter in Zhukovsky, Moscow Region.
© SPUTNIK/ ALEXANDER VILF
T-50 fifth-generation multirole fighter in Zhukovsky, Moscow Region.

Furthermore, the analyst noted, it’s necessary to take account of the cost of creating a special dock and coastal infrastructure to actually build the new ship, given the fact that such huge ships have yet to be built in Russia, with all the Soviet Union’s aircraft carrier-building infrastructure currently rotting in the Ukrainian city of Nikolaev. Taking these expenses into account, plus any inevitable additional costs, the cost of the ship rises to 2 trillion rubles ($33.6 billion). For the record, Russia’s total military budget for 2016 was to $69.2 billion.

“With this money, it’s possible to build…80 nuclear submarines of the latest, 4th generation, at 25 billion rubles apiece. The benefits from them would be much greater than from one aircraft carrier,” Tuchkov argued.

The nuclear-powered submarine Severodvinsk, the first of the Yasen-class of attack subs.
The nuclear-powered submarine Severodvinsk, the first of the Yasen-class of attack subs.

As far as the Shtorm was concerned, the expert stressed that it was only natural that Russian military enterprises are currently trying to attach themselves to this “financially grandiose project.”

Nevertheless, even so far as aircraft-carrying surface ships were concerned, there are arguably much more cost-effective solutions available – including the prospective attack helicopter-carryingPriboy-class amphibious assault ship, another Krylov Center design. These vessels, expected to be delivered to the Navy by 2025, will be equipped with Ka-52 Katran attack helicopters, an option that’s significantly more cost-effective than the options for US-style carrier aviation, even if their range and operational capabilities are admittedly more limited.

Ultimately, Tuchkov wrote that he remains hopeful that talk of the potentially “financially ruinous” Shtorm project would subside under the weight of all of its potential problems – first and foremost its gargantuan expense.

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