Russian naval officers recently learned. Or were reminded of, an expensive lesson. Off the coast of Syria Russia’s only aircraft carrier (the Admiral Kuznetzov) lost two aircraft because of problems with the arresting gear (the cable the landing aircraft connects with as it lands to end the landing sequence). Russia has had problems with arresting cables before. In 2005 a Su-33 was lost due to an arresting cable snapping. This occurred when on the Kuznetzov while it was operating in the Baltic. By 2016 it is believed money shortages led to Russia buying fewer cables and not replacing as frequently as their American counterparts. The money shortage also meant that Russian naval aviators got to spend a lot less time landing and taking off from their carrier. As was observed after the 2005 incident, the Russian aviator involved had spent a lot of years flying, but not much time operating off a carrier. It’s all about experience and the lessons learned.
American carrier sailors have long since learned to pay attention to the condition of these cables. The U.S. also has have far more experience with using carrier landing equipment. For example, in 2011 the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) had its 400,000th aircraft landing, after having been in service for 50 years. Only three other carriers have handled 400,000 landings. The first to do so was USS Lexington (CV 16), a World War II Essex class ship that served 48 years (1943-1991), but spent 30 years as a training carrier. Then came USS Independence (CV 62), which served 39 years (1959-98). Next came the USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), which served 48 years (1961 to 2009). Thus American carriers much older than Kuznetzov rarely lose aircraft because of a bad arresting cable because the pilots and deck crews know what is needed to get it done without suffering a cable related aircraft loss.
Not only do Russian pilots and carrier deck crews get less practice, but they have a reputation for not maintaining their equipment as effectively as their Western counterparts. In addition the Russians don’t have the latest equipment. For example in 2007 the U.S. Navy began using the ARC (Advanced Recovery Control) system. ARC replaces the older, analog, system for operating the arresting cable (stretched across the deck) that stopped a landing aircraft by catching the tailhook found on carrier aircraft. ARC uses software and digital controls to monitor the landing, and put the arresting cable at the right position to stop landing jets. ARC is easier to use and maintain, and is more accurate. Thus it also reduces damage to aircraft and injuries to crews.
The recent aircraft losses on the Kuznetzov were not unexpected. In early November, for the third time since 2011 came south, via the English Channel on its way to the Mediterranean. Leaving northern Russia on October 15th the Kuznetzov task force arrived off Syria a month later. The carrier had seven escorts (three warships and four support vessels) and is carrying fifteen Su-33 and MiG-29K jet fighters plus at least ten Ka-52K, Ka-27 and Ka-31 helicopters. Foreign military pilots flying close by could not help but notice that there was a lot of rust on the deck of the carrier. This was not a good sign. The only other ship of the Kuznetzov class was purchased by the Chinese in 1998 and completely refurbished by 2012 to become the Chinese Liaoning. It is now in service and looks a lot better than the original that serves as flagship of the Russian Navy. The Kuznetzov has had some updates since the 1990s but a lot of this work is suspect. Back in 2012 a military procurement official was prosecuted for substituting cheaper, substandard parts for new ones meant for the Kuznetzov. The corrupt official used forged documents to get away with this but members of the crew noticed the substandard parts and reported it. The Kuznetsov has been sent back to the shipyard several times during the last decade to fix problems and update equipment. Much was wrong with the ship, due to poor design, sloppy workmanship, or corruption. It’s gotten so bad that lackadaisical sailors are threatened with being sent to serve on the Kuznetsov as a way of motivating them. These cruises south are mainly for publicity purposes.
Not surprisingly China is paying more attention to American carrier experience than what the Russians are going through.