After successfully replacing the US as the best-connected player in the Syrian conflict, Russia’s deployment of their sole aircraft carrier and entire Northern Fleet to Syria represents its latest attempt to unseat the US as the premier naval power in the Middle East.
A successful deployment of a full-blown aircraft carrier represents the kind of sophisticated military task only a first-rate world power can pull off, and that seems to be exactly what Russia hopes for.
Much like their 2015 salvo of cruise missiles fired from the Caspian sea into Syria, the event will likely serve as a commercial for Russian military exports — one of the few bright spots in Russia’s ailing economy.
The deployment will seek to present the best and brightest of Russia’s resurgent military. The Kuznetsov, which has suffered from a litany of mechanical failures and often requires tow boats, will stay tight to Syria’s shores due to the limited range of the carrier’s air wing.
The air wing, comprised of only 15 or so Su-33s and MiG-29s and a handful of helicopters, does not even have half of the US Nimitz class carrier’s 60 plus planes.
Furthermore, the carrier lacks plane launching catapults. Instead, the carrier relies on a ski-jump platform that limits how much fuel and ordnance the Russian jets can carry.
Even so, the Russian jets aboard will be some of the latest models in Russia’s entire inventory, according to Russian state-run media. The bombs they carry will be guided, a sharp departure from Russia’s usual indiscriminate use of “dumb” or unguided munitions which can drift unpredictably when dropped from altitude.
Russian media quotes a military source as saying that with the new X-38 guided bombs, “we reinforce our aviation group and bring in completely new means of destruction to the region.” The same report states the bombs are accurate to within a few meters, which isn’t ideal, but an improvement.
Indeed, the Kuznetsov’s entire flight deck will function as somewhat of a showroom for Russian military goods. China operates a Soviet-designed carrier, as does India. Both of those nations have purchased Russian planes in the past. A solid performance from the jets in Syria would bode well for their prospects as exports, even as India struggles to get its current crop of Russian-made jets up to grade.
“Despite its resemblance to the land-based version of the MiG-29, this is a completely different aircraft,” Russian media quotes a defence official as saying of the MiG-29K carrier-based variant.
“This applies to its stealth technologies, a new system of in-flight refuelling, folding wings and mechanisms by which the aircraft has the ability to perform short take-offs and land at low speeds.”
But the Russian jets practice on land bases that simulate the Kuznetsov, and any US Navy pilot will tell you that landing on a bobbing airstrip sailing along at sea is an entirely different beast.
One thing Russia’s upcoming carrier deployment does have going for it will be having the world’s premier naval and carrier power, the US, at least nominally aligned with them in a recently brokered cease-fire.
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