Kuznetsov Back in Service
October 3, 2006: After nearly a year of maintenance and refurbishment, the Russian navy putting its only aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov, back into service. Russian admirals want to build more carriers, and if the refurbished Kuznetsov performs well, that may happen. But that won't be for another ten years, at the earliest. That won't be easy, given the track record so far. The Kuznetsov didn't enter service until 1995, and encountered a lot of problems with defective, or improperly installed, equipment. The refurb was supposed to put all that right. Time will tell.
Originally the Kuznetsov class of four carriers were conceived of as 90,000 ton, nuclear powered ships, similar to American carriers (complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the cost, and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their goals, and ended up with two 65,000 ton (full load ) ships that lacked steam catapults, and used a ski jump type flight deck instead. Nuclear power was dropped, but the Kuznetsov class was still a formidable design. The thousand foot long carrier normally carries a dozen navalized Su-27s (called Su-33s), 14 Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopters, two electronic warfare helicopters and two search and rescue helicopters. Alternatively, the ship can carry up to 36 Su-33s and sixteen helicopters. The ship carries 2,500 tons of aviation fuel, allowing it to generate 500-1,000 aircraft and helicopter sorties. Because there is no catapult, aircraft cannot take off with large weapons loads. Kuznetsov is largely an air-defense vessel (its official description is as a "large aircraft carrying cruiser," even though it looks like an aircraft carrier.) Crew size is 2,500 (or 3,000 with a full aircraft load.)
Only two ships of this class exist; the original Kuznetsov, which is in Russian service, and the Varyag, which was sold to China, by Ukraine, which inherited the unfinished ship then building in a Ukrainian shipyard when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The Varyag is still uncompleted, but the Kuznetsov entered service in 1995, after a decade of construction. In effect, the Kuznetsov is an experiment to see if Russia can operate a large carrier. For the past decade, while there was no money to send the carrier to sea much, a mock up of the flight deck was built on land, so the Kuznetsov's air group could practice carrier landings.