The Russian Navy’s aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, has begun its journey back to its base at Severomorsk having concluded air operations over Syria in support President Assad’s government forces. Between November and December 2016 the carrier’s air group conducted over 400 sorties over Syria alongside Russian Air Force aircraft flying from land bases but lost two aircraft in accidents. As well as air strikes, the accompanying warships that made up the carrier group also conducted powerful cruise missile strikes in November in the form of Kalibr missiles launched from the frigate Admiral Grigorovich.
Speaking to Russian news service RT.com the commander of the Russian forces in Syria, Col. Gen. Andrey Kartapolov, praised the involvement of the carrier stating,
All combat tasks assigned to the aircraft carrier group have been accomplished
The carrier group’s return journey to its base in Severomorsk will likely mirror its journey to the war zone in October which will see the Russian ships transiting through the English Channel as they head toward the northerly base from the Mediterranean. During its journey south the carrier was the focus of intense NATO activity with the Royal Navy assigning two warships – the Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan (right) and Type 23 frigate HMS Richmond – to escort the group through the UK’s area of interest. The RAF also conducted an intelligence gathering effort aimed at the battle group involving the RC-135W Rivet Joint electronic intelligence gathering aircraft. It is likely that a similar operation will be mounted on the group’s return journey.
The deployment of the carrier to Syria has given observers a chance to assess its combat effectiveness which despite the fanfare by Russian media has been judged as being of minimal importance in the conflict by western analysts. The carrier’s air wing conducted only a small fraction of the estimated 19,000 sorties Russian aircraft have made over Syria and the Sukhoi Su-33s and Mikoyan MiG-29Ks it carries did not offer any advantage over the Russian Air Force’s aircraft deployed in-theatre. Additionally, the loss of an Su-33 during a landing accident in December saw the air wing flown to land bases in order to continue their operations while repairs were conducted to the arresting gear used to recover the fast jets.
On the other hand, despite the carrier’s reputation for mechanical breakdowns and being unsuited to real combat operations, the Russians have proven – to their credit – that the Admiral Kuznetsov can deploy far from its home port and project Russian air power. Having done it once they can certainly do so again.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has revealed that the Royal Navy is to receive an additional £1bn investment on top of previous financial projections for the service. The additional money looks set to be spent on advanced early warning and tracking systems as well as up to eight new patrol vessels leading most observers to speculate that they are in direct response to increased clandestine Russian naval activity around the British Isles.
We are investing billions in growing the Royal Navy for the first time in a generation – 2017 is the start of a new era of maritime power, projecting Britain’s influence globally and delivering security at home.
The Royal Navy has been under increasing criticism from a British public that has become alarmed at the number of Russian ships and aircraft that have been sailing around the UK in the last five years. With its dwindling number of ships, the feeling has been that years of decline under three consecutive governments have left the “island nation” vulnerable from the sea. This new announcement is hoped to reverse that situation.
The emphasis placed on tracking systems reflects the problems the Royal Navy has had in locating Russian submarines in recent years thanks in no small part to the previous Conservative-Liberal coalition government’s decision to scrap the UK’s maritime patrol aircraft in 2010. It is also in response to the Russian Navy’s modernisation program for its nuclear submarines which has lead President Vladimir Putin to claim that their new submarines are “undetectable”.
Regarding the additional patrol ships it is likely this is to free up the Royal Navy’s major surface combatants such as the Type 45 from home waters patrol duties which will be instead needed to protect the new aircraft carriers as they come on line. The first new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is expected to make her maiden voyage this year.
While this is much welcome boost in equipment from the government, it is now up to the Royal Navy to find the personnel to support it. The service has suffered a severe shortfall in recruits and personnel retention in the last decade which has lead to speculation that limited recruitment may have to be undertaken abroad primarily from British Commonwealth nations such as Australia and New Zealand. Like the Army and Royal Air Force the service may also place greater emphasis on reserve forces in the coming decade.