Does Russia even need a carrier?

Russia’s aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov on fire. Image from Reddit.

Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is on fire, and not in a good way. A large fire spread throughout the ship during recent welding work, and has so far killed one crew member (likely more, due to the extent of the fire). Anyone that has seen the fires aboard Forrestal can’t help but make an eerie connection.

Fighting the fire aboard the Forrestal. By Official U.S. Navy Photograph – This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID USN 1124794 1124794#mw-category-media.

You would think this would be big news, but its barely scratched the Google News feed. Given that its Russia’s only carrier, you’d think this might change their Naval strategy or ship building priorities. For Russia though, this might prove to be overall a good thing.

Unlike the United States, Russia doesn’t have nearly the amount of foreign interests around the world. Most of Russia’s interests are right next door to them, in Eastern Europe and the South and Central Asia. These nations don’t require a Navy to reach. When war broke out in Syria and the Kuznetsov couldn’t launch and recover planes, Russia shifted to using other nearby airbases.

This is quite different from the United States, which uses aircraft carriers to project power around the world. The U.S. has multiple islands, two entire states and a number of Caribbean and Pacific territories to defend. Additionally, there are a significant number of Americans overseas, as well as a number of American owned companies that do business around the world. The U.S. needs a Navy to protect all these interests.

Russia’s Navy, in contrast, exists to foil the U.S. Navy. The small Russian economy can’t produce 11 supercarriers. Instead, Russia builds small, extremely capable vessels (such as the Buyan) that are fast, difficult to track and yet carry capable weapons such as the Yakhont anti-ship missile. Russia also builds an extensive and capable submarine fleet, with anti-ship missiles for use against carrier strike groups and fast attack submarines against U.S. ballistic missile submarines.

Remember too that Russia doesn’t need an outright win in any U.S. conflict. It’s sufficient for Russia to slowly take back former Soviet Union territory and keep the U.S. out of a conflict. Georgia and Ukraine are prime examples of Russia “nibbling on the edges of NATO” but keeping the U.S. at bay. In a possible large conflict, Russia would need a quick strike that would hurt the U.S. and convince them to do nothing. A strike on a carrier strike group from a Russian submarine, or an exchange of fire from a small Russian vessel against a NATO surface group, might be sufficient.

So for Russia, it would come as no surprise if they scrap their carrier. It doesn’t fit their naval strategy, and the cost to repair would be far better used building more submarines and smaller, more capable surface vessels. While we might laugh at them for this, given our wasting of money on stealth destroyers that can’t deploy or small ships that can’t fight, perhaps we have something to learn from the Russian Navy.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

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