07 March 2008

Russia's (Only) Aircraft Carrier

After a four year hiatus, Russia's aircraft carrier has resumed operations:

[T]he Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov -- is Russia's only aircraft carrier. The 59,100-ton ship, completed in 1991 . . . [this year] deployed to the Mediterranean . . . from the Northern (Arctic) Fleet, where the Admiral Kuznetsov is based, [with] two ships from the Black Sea Fleet, the [Russian] Navy has only some 18 Su-33 Flanker-D shipboard fighters to operate from the carrier. The "flattop" also embarks one or more Su-25 Frogfoot trainers and helicopters.

In contrast, an American aircraft carrier is typically about 97,000 tons and has about 70 aircraft, including about 46 fighter aircraft (F-18s of a couple of types), and another 8 fixed wing aircraft (S-3 Vikings) that are capable of bringing down ships or submarines (which typically come with an entourage of six surface warships and two nuclear attack submarines). The U.S. has 11 ships in this class, and another 10 amphibious assault ships (Tarawa and Wasp class), each of about 40,000 tons, that typically carry six fixed wing aircraft (AV-8B Harriers) and 22 helicopters, but could carry a larger compliment of fixed wing aircraft instead (an option first utilized during the Iraq War), they are typically accompanied by three other ships loaded with Marines and their equipment, and perhaps a small surface warship.

From here.

The same source describes Russia's current long range bomber capabilities, which have resumed patrol flights (one overflying a U.S. aircraft carrier) after a post-cold war interruption:

The large four-turboprop Tu-95 Bear -- flown by the Russian Air Force as a missile-armed strategic strike aircraft . . . pose little threat to Western warships, especially if Western carrier- or land-based radar warning aircraft are available. These Bears are updated variants of the Tu-20/95, which first flew in 1955.

The Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-22M Backfire missile-armed strike aircraft . . . are newer, turbojet aircraft, which first flew in 1987 and 1974, respectively, and are more of a potential threat although they have less range than the Bear . . . The [Russian] Air Force is estimated . . . to have only 16 to 18 operational Tu-160s, and less than a dozen Tu-22Ms. However, the Russian Navy has more than 100 Backfires[.]

In the "ecology" of weapons system, the Tu-95 Bear is in roughly the same niche as the American B-52 bomber. The Tu-160 and Tu-22M are in roughly the same niche as the American B-1B bomber.

The last time I checked, a few years ago, the U.S. had 49 B-52 bombers (1955 vintage) in active service (plus 8 in reserve), 68 B-1 bombers (1987 vintage) in active service (plus 16 in reserve), and 16 B-2 bombers (1993 vintage) to which there is no close Russian equivalent with radar stealth capabilities.

For military planners, the capabilities of high end potential adversaries, like Russia and China drive procurement planning (arguably excessively) because the theory is that any military force sufficient to match these potential adversaries can overwhelm less capable adversaries.

The limit of this approach is that different weapons systems may be more appropriate for engaging less technology advance adversaries because they are more tailored to low tech threats and can be made less expensively. At the end of the Cold War, for example, the U.S. military which was tailored for conflicts with the Soviet Union and Warsaw pact, was ill suited for counterinsurgency missions.

Also, military planners are not in the business of looking at alternatives to military procurement, like conventional weapons treaties or other diplomatic arrangements, that can eliminate the need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to address the military capabilities of a handful of nations in a small number of potential scenarios that drive a great deal of military spending.

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