UK Defence Journal, By George Allison, June 27, 2017
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has mocked Russia over fears it will attempt to spy on HMS Queen Elizabeth during sea trials.
Writing in the Telegraph, Fallon said:
“It’s really routine for the Russians to collect intelligence on our ships. We will take every precaution to make sure that they don’t get too close, but I think they will be admiring her.”
He added: “When you saw that old, dilapidated Kuznetsov sailing through the Channel, a few months ago, I think the Russians will look at this ship with a little bit of envy.”
The smaller Russian Kutnetsov has been plagued by technical problems and is accompanied by a tug when she sails.
The Russian carrier is designed to lead a flotilla of vessels or operate solo while keeping enemy fleet at bay using its anti-ship missiles and using its aircraft to deter enemy aircraft.
The Queen Elizabeth class are designed to operate with a battle group to maintain air superiority, strike a variety of strategic and tactical targets using aircraft in addition to providing an air assault platform.
Despite recent sensationalist tabloid headlines, describing the Admiral Kuznetsov as “massive” while decrying the UK’s “tiny ships”, the Queen Elizabeth class are of a significantly higher tonnage than the Russian vessel, each sitting at 70,600 tonnes compared to its 55,000.
That being said, size is a poor indicator of carrier capability so let’s look beyond tabloid headlines.
What are the basics?
The Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers will be the largest surface warships ever constructed for the Royal Navy.
The vessels will be utilised by all three branches of the UK Armed Forces and will provide eight acres of sovereign territory. Both ships will be versatile enough to be used for operations ranging from high intensity conflict to providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
Surprisingly for their sheer scale each ship will only have a total crew of 679, only increasing to the full complement of 1,600 when the air elements are embarked. This is made possible by extensive automation of many systems.
HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first in a fleet of two, is currently in the final stages of completion, the vessel is due to go sea for trials after the New Year.
The Admiral Kuznetsov serves as the flagship of the Russian Navy and is their only aircraft carrier. The initial name of the ship was Riga; she was launched as Leonid Brezhnev in 1985.
She was originally commissioned in the Soviet Navy and was intended to be the lead ship of her class but the only other ship of her class, Varyag, was never completed or commissioned by the Soviet, Russian or Ukrainian navy. This second hull was eventually sold to the People’s Republic of China by Ukraine, completed in Dalian and launched as Liaoning.
The Russian vessel carries a number of offensive weapons typically associated with guided missile cruisers and the carrier itself is capable of engaging surface, subsurface and airborne targets.
What kind of power can they project?
The Queen Elizabeth class carriers, in peacetime, will usually deploy with around 24 F-35Bs and typically around 14 helicopters. The exact types and numbers of aircraft embarked being adjusted to meet current requirements and threats.
In addition to the joint force of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35Bs, the air wing is expected to be composed of a ‘Maritime Force Protection’ package of 9 anti-submarine Merlin HM2 and four or five Merlin for airborne early warning; alternatively a ‘Littoral Manoeuvre’ package could include a mix of RAF Chinooks, Army Apaches, Merlin HC4 and Wildcat.
The vessels are capable of deploying a variety of aircraft in large numbers, up to a maximum in the upper fifties in surge conditions.
The Queen Elizabeth class mark a change from expressing carrier power in terms of number of aircraft carried, to the number of sortie’s that can be generated from the deck. The class is estimated to be able to sustain a maximum sortie generation rate in surge conditions of up to 110 sorties per day.
The Admiral Kuznetsov can hold up to about 40 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, including Su-33 fighters and various versions of Ka-27 helicopter, however it rarely sails with more than half of that number.
While designated an aircraft carrier by the West, the design of Admiral Kuznetsov implies a mission different from that of either the United States Navy carriers or those of the Royal Navy.
The Admiral Kuznetsov is a heavy aviation cruiser rather than just an aircraft carrier. The vessel carries a number of offensive weapons typically associated with missile cruisers. The carrier itself is capable of engaging surface, subsurface and airborne targets, independently of its air wing.
According to War is Boring here:
“Admiral Kuznetsov has never seen combat, nor would she be of much practical military use. The 55,000-ton carrier has a bow ramp, not steam catapults, requiring her aircraft to shed weight before taking off.
This means her planes will go into combat with less fuel or bombs than the ground-based fighters Russia has already deployed to Syria.”
During the voyage the Admiral Kuznetsov reportedly “will have about 15 fighters Su-33 and MiG-29K/KUB and more than ten helicopters Ka-52K, Ka-27 and Ka-31”.
STOBAR (Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery), the system used for the launch and recovery of aircraft from the Admiral Kuznetsov, does not allow for the same frequency of launches/recoveries and tempo of operations afforded by American carriers or even the Queen Elizabeth class.
With Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery, the aircraft take off using the ramp and are arrested by a cable when landing back on the deck. This means that the Admiral Kuznetsov’s aircraft will only be able to fly a relatively limited number of sorties daily.
Other relevant factors include the process and capacities for transporting ordnance to assembly areas and from there to the flight deck, refuelling and arming stations layout, number and capacities of aircraft elevators, etc.
These vessels clearly cannot do some of what the other can, while the Admiral Kuznetsov can venture alone at times, the Queen Elizabeth would be unable due to a lack of offensive capabilities.
These vessels although similar in overall form are designed for different roles and with different ideologies in mind. The topic of which ideology is more practical today however is an entirely different topic.
As an aviation platform however, the Queen Elizabeth class will certainly be more capable and in the role of a cruiser, the Admiral Kuznetsov clearly comes out on top.
Is the press right to portray the Kuznetsov as something akin to the Bismarck however? No, clearly not.
The Russian flagship while a potent symbol is heavily outdated and its mix of roles, cruiser and carrier, severely restricts its capabilities in the mission has been deployed for off Syria.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the more modern Queen Elizabeth class vessels will be far more capable aviation platforms.