Updated Nov. 28, 2016 2:13 a.m. ET
A flotilla of Russian warships in the Mediterranean is providing a high-profile show of force in support of the Syrian regime. But the deployment has also thrown into sharp relief the limits of Moscow’s conventional military.
State television broadcasts to the domestic audience Top Gun-style footage of bombers taking off from Russia’s flagship aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. Foreign observers get to see one of the country’s most important weapons exports, the MiG-29 fighter plane, in action.
But the quarter-century-old Kuznetsov lacks the kind of powerful catapult system that is featured on U.S. carriers, forcing Russian planes to carry lighter payloads and less fuel, according to North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials.
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And a dearth of highly trained aviators able to take off and land at sea has forced the ship to carry fewer pilots, according to Western officials. Moscow already lost one jet fighterwhen it crashed this month during a training flight on an approach to the carrier.
“The Russian navy has not had a lot of operational experience in recent years in actual combat,” said Eric Wertheim, author of The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World.
Russian navy’s frigate, the Admiral Grigorovich. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters
Russian planes are bombing forces opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and its attacks on the besieged city of Aleppo have prompted sharp criticism from Washington and other Western capitals.
The Russian military hasn’t said that the Kuznetsov is taking part in the assault on Aleppo, though top NATO officials say that is the primary purpose of the deployment. Russia also has a number of planes stationed at an air base in Syria.
Western officials see the Kuznetsov operation—along with recent announcements that Russia will permanently base Iskander missiles in its Baltic Sea enclave of Kalingrad—as part of a two-pronged strategy from Russian President Vladimir Putin, particularly since the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency.
“They are trying to play it both ways,” a Western official said. “On one hand, at the Putin level they have these messages of openness to rapprochement and dialogue and discussion. But…they are in effect taking out insurance in the case the Trump administration continues the course the West has been on vis-à-vis Russian misbehavior.”
In many respects, the Russians are taking a page from the U.S. Navy—albeit on a far smaller scale.
America’s carrier strike groups are perhaps the most potent symbol of Washington’s ability to project power. The U.S. maintains 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, allowing the president to send multiple battle groups to any part of the world.
Naval experts and Western military officials say the Russians have limited experience with long combat deployments.
The Russian flotilla also has been logistically stretched. Moscow withdrew a bid to refuel at Spain’s North African exclave of Ceuta while the ships were en route to Syria, meaning the navy had to send supply ships to replenish the vessels, military analysts said.
At the same time, the Russians have tested their ability to launch and recover aircraft from the deck of the Kuznetsov under real-world combat conditions, a difficult skill for pilots to master, especially at night or in rough seas.
The Russian navy has a chance to “shake the rust out of their experience and equipment, both figuratively and literally,” in the Syria operation, said Mr. Wertheim.
There are other benefits for Moscow. “The navy has been showing the flag and getting headlines,” said Norman Polmar, a naval analyst and author who has studied the Russian and Soviet navies. “Deploying the Kuznetsov has increased the navy’s prestige.”
Yet Mr. Polmar said the Russians are limited in comparison with the U.S. Navy in naval aviation and carrier operations.
He added that Russian aviators would maintain combat skills “with great, great difficulty” after the Kuznetsov goes in for an anticipated major overhaul and refurbishment following the Syria operation.
NATO has been keeping close watch on the flotilla with Norwegian, British and Spanish surface ships and a Dutch submarine.
A British frigate and a destroyer following the battle group stayed within close enough distance to stop the carrier from carrying out some training missions that the Russians didn’t want NATO to observe, according to a British official.
CREDIT: EPA/ DOVER MARINA.COM
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