Russian Navy Suffers Another Blow as Aircraft Carrier Is Damaged While Undergoing Repairs

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 156

Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in dock (Source: PressaTV)

Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, suffered another mishap while undergoing overhaul work (capitalny remont) at a dockyard in Roslyakovo, near Murmansk. The Kuznetsov was being renovated while moored inside floating dock PD-50—the biggest such dock in Russia and one of the largest in the world. On October 30, the PD-50—which is much bigger than the Kuznetsov and designed to handle and elevate out of the water ships with a deadweight of up to 80,000 tons—suddenly began to list at an increasingly dangerous angle as its tanks chaotically took on water. One of the PD-50’s two 70-ton cranes fell onto the deck of the Kuznetsov, causing damage. The second crane apparently fell into the water and sank to the bottom. The PD-50 did not capsize; the Kuznetsov floated as water filled the dock and was successfully dragged (tugged) out to a nearby pier of a military shipyard. The PD-50 continued to take on water and eventually went under, some four hours after the calamity was first reported to port authorities. One shipyard worker has been listed as missing and is considered dead; four other workers were injured, one of them critically (Kommersant, October 31).

Russia’s state-owned shipbuilding monopoly, the United Shipbuilding Corporation (Obyedinenaya Sudostroitelnaya Kampanya or OSK), immediately went into public crisis-management mode, telling the press first that the damage to the Kuznetsov was manageable and would “not undermine plans to return the vessel back to active service in 2021.” The OSK’s president, Alexei Rakhmanov, insisted the renovation work on Russia’s only carrier will continue as planned, but at a pier. OSK officials blamed the PD-50 disaster on power shortages that apparently caused the water pumps of the floating dock to malfunction (Interfax, October 30). Local electrical power authorities in the Murmansk region deny that the shipyard where the PD-50 was moored with the Kuznetsov inside had suffered any power shortages on October 30. Moreover, the PD-50 has its own inbuilt power generators, which should have kicked in and saved the ship. Russia’s investigative committee began legal procedures and may be pressing criminal charges (Interfax, November 1). The OSK’s management seems terrified of the Kremlin’s wrath and is seeking ways to shift blame, as the PD-50 disaster could seriously undermine President Vladimir Putin’s plans to make Russia a great military and naval power once again.

The Kuznetsov may have indeed suffered relatively minor damage, but the loss of the PD-50 is a severe blow to Russian naval renovation plans. Most of Russia’s big surface ships, including the Kuznetsov, were built in Soviet times, in the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv (Russian—Nikolayev), which is now in Ukraine. Mykolaiv’s large dry shipbuilding docks are unavailable because of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict and mutual sanctions. The PD-50 was the only large floating dock in northern Russia that could elevate out of the water the Kuznetsov or the nuclear battle cruiser Pyotr Veliki, which is also scheduled to soon undergo renovation. The Kuznetsov itself requires another docking procedure starting in June 2019, according to OSK; and if that proves impossible, the aircraft carrier’s remont may be further delayed (Interfax, November 1). The nuclear battle cruiser Admiral Nakhimov—a sister-ship of the Pyotr Veliki—is currently undergoing refitting at the Sevmash shipyard, in Severodvinsk. It took almost a year to elevate and drag the Nakhimov into a dry dock in Sevmash, which was initially designed for nuclear submarines. The Nakhimov has been out of service since 1999. But it was supposed to again be ready for action in 2021–2022—apparently, together with the Kuznetsov and Pyotr Veliki. The Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoy Flot—VMF) plans to maximize its battle readiness by that time period, as Russia’s confrontation with the West and the United States continues to escalate.

The PD-50 was built in the late 1970s, in Sweden, and was delivered to the Soviet navy in 1980; however, there seems to be no available replacement to it at present. Another big floating dock is located in the Russian Far East, constructed in Japan more or less at the same time as the PD-50. And there is a smaller dock in the Black Sea. But both of those are old and rusty, and pulling them to the Murmansk region through stormy winter seas would be a dangerous gamble—and even if successful, it would surely take lots of time and effort.

A special government commission will consider the cause of the PD-50 disaster and the possibility of salvaging the sunken dock. The PD-50 could have suffered severe damage and deformations. Even after a costly and perilous salvage, which may take many months, the old rusty hulk could end up as scrap anyway (Interfax, October 31).

Before 2014 and the forceful annexation of Crimea, the sinking of the PD-50 might have been a less serious problem: Nearby Scandinavian shipyards likely would have appreciated receiving an order to build a replacement floating dock for Russia. But with present-day military tensions in the Baltic Sea region extremely high, local governments may not be willing to allow the building of a dock to help the Russian navy boost its fighting power. Chinese and Korean shipyards could probably do the job quickly and relatively cheaply; but pulling a massive dock from the Pacific to Murmansk would be a logistical nightmare.

The main reason the PD-50 went down appears to have been mismanagement and human error. Likewise, according to a special space industry commission, the October 11 in-flight disintegration of a Soyuz rocket that was carrying a Russian and US astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) was the result of human error during the final assembly of the rocket at the Baikonur space launch pad. The space vehicle’s capsule had to make an emergency landing, but both astronauts safely walked away from the incident (Interfax, November 1).

The Russian space industry, just like the Armed Forces and the defense manufacturing sector, still use technologies and equipment from the 1970s and 1980s or even 1960s. This seems to explain the increasing number of technological disasters in Russia. However, in addition to outdated technologies and equipment, there is also a growing lack of well-trained Russian personnel educated in the 1970s who know how to responsibly mange Russia’s Cold War–era non-digital technology. This old Soviet generation is aging out, while Western sanctions are hampering efforts to fully put Russia’s defense industry and military on a new digital-age footing.