May 28, 2009:
Ukraine will rent its carrier pilot training center to Russia for several years, until Russia completes building a new one in southern Russia. The Ukraine carrier aviation training center was lost to Russia when the Soviet Union broke up and Ukraine, where the training center was located, became independent in 1991. Recently, Ukraine has been offering the use of the carrier aviation training center to foreign nations, like China. Diplomatic relations between Russia and Ukraine deteriorated over the last decade, to the point where Ukraine no longer would rent the center to Russia. But now, the prospect of a new Russian training center, and improving relations with Russia, have led to a new rental agreement.
Meanwhile, Russia is spending $730 million to build a carrier pilot training center near the town of Eisk, on the Sea of Azov in southern Russia. This investment was the result of a decision, a year ago, to proceed with the creation of a major aircraft carrier force. A new class of carrier is being designed, based on the experience with the 65,000 Kuznetzov.
Construction is to begin in 3-4 years, and the admirals see a force of 5-6 carriers in service over the next half century. Such a long distance plan means that, as a practical matter, the admirals are working to get at least one of this new class of carrier, and then another (you need at least two to insure you always have at least one available.)
Long term, Russia has to fix some fundamental economic and political problems before they could afford 5-6 carrier battle groups. But if they actually begin construction on the new carrier aviation training at Eisk, which they say will take two years to complete, than that is an indication that the carrier project is moving forward. Since the end of the Cold War, only aircraft carrier Russia had in service was the Kuznetsov. Three years ago, Russia decided to refurbish the Kuznetsov, so that it can remain in service until 2030.
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. 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.