Russian jets keep crashing, and it may be an aircraft carrier’s fault

A Russian Su-33 fighter jet, like the one reported crashed, sits on the flight deck of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. (AP)

By David Filipov and Andrew Roth

The second crash of a Russian warplane off the coast of Syria in less than a month intensified scrutiny Monday of a critical weakness in Moscow’s show of naval force in the Mediterranean and the 1,000-foot hulk leading it.

The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s sole, aging aircraft carrier, made a very public entry into the Syrian conflict when it steamed through the English Channel in October. But analysts say it is not suited to the task of providing ground support in a protracted conflict.

Nor is it suited for the job President Vladi­mir Putin intended when he ordered the ship into the Mediterranean: to project Russian naval power.

“The Admiral Kuznetsov was not designed for such tasks,” Alexander Golts, a military writer for the independent Moscow-based news journal New Times , said in an interview. “It’s a very old ship with very old technologies. It is not prepared for intensive flights.”

Golts spoke after Russia’s Defense Ministry announced Monday that an Su-33 Flanker returning from a combat mission plunged into the Mediterranean as it tried to land on the Kuznetsov. The accident occurred when an arresting cable on the aircraft carrier snapped during the landing, the ministry said in a statement. The pilot ejected and was saved by a search-and-rescue team, the statement added. He was not injured.

Last month, a Russian MiG-29K fighter jet crashed while attempting an emergency landing on the aircraft carrier shortly after takeoff.

The Syrian conflict is the first combat deployment for the Admiral Kuznetsov, which has a history of onboard accidents during training missions since being launched in 1985.

Unlike modern aircraft carriers, the Kuznetsov does not have a catapult system, and the jets it carries must launch off a ramp, which makes takeoff and landing extremely challenging.

“We have a very limited number of pilots who can fulfill this task,” Golts said. “I doubt there are many in the world.”

The Kuznetsov’s design also limits the loads of fuel and weapons that its jets can carry, which was not a serious impediment for its intended purpose: to defend Soviet submarines preparing to launch nuclear weapons.

“This carrier was never designed for projecting power on shore,” said Pavel K. Baev, who studies Russian military reform at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. “The fact of the military matter is that this deployment adds nothing, just absolutely nothing to the capabilities” that Russia has on the ground in Syria.

When the Kuznetsov set sail, state media said the expedition demonstrated Russia’s independence as a regional power. But by mid-November, military analysts were questioning the ship’s suitability for the task.

“The intermediate results produced by the Admiral Kuznetsov’s carrier air wing have been not what the top brass expected,” military analyst Sergei Ishchenko wrote in the Svobodnaya Pressa online news agency a week after the carrier launched its first attacks in Syria. For one thing, the “Su-33 is an air-superiority fighter designed to provide air defense to friendly naval forces far away from home shores,” not to attack ground targets.

The MiG-29K is a multi-role fighter capable of attacking targets in the air and on the ground, and it is a newer, carrier-based variant of the traditional MiG-29, but Ishchenko said the jets were grounded, at least for a while, after one of them crashed, leaving the Su-33s to shoulder the burden.

Asked about the latest crash Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said only that the important thing is that the pilot was not injured.

“This is a very intense, hard, heroic job,” the news agency Interfax quoted Peskov as saying.

Translation: Don’t look for Moscow to order the Kuznetsov to set sail for home anytime soon.

“One lost plane was not enough for exposing the absurdity of this demonstration of nonexistent force,” Baev said. “And two may be not quite enough, either.”

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