The Crimean peninsula is a valuable asset, especially for its military attributes. When Russia illegally annexed Crimea in February–March 2014, it notably gained full de facto control over Sevastopol (where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based and had until then been leasing its facilities) and Donuzlav Bay (before 2014, the site of the Ukrainian Southern Naval Base). But in addition, Moscow obtained an important complementary asset—the Shore Based Test Facility (in Russian NITKA)—which could prove useful in achieving its ambitions of restoring Russia’s status as a blue-water navy Great Power (Topwar.ru, March 27, 2014).
Located near the northwestern Crimean town of Saky, NITKA is a truly unique military facility and was the only such complex ever built in the entire Soviet Union. The training site is designed for testing pilots of carrier-based aircraft. Specifically, at NITKA, pilots can practice carrier-deck take offs and landings on dry ground. The training facility features an exact replica of the deck of a Russian Kuznetsov-class heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser (a.k.a. “aviation cruiser”), complete with its notable “ski-jump” ramp (Arms-expo.ru, July 6, 2016).
The history of Moscow’s yearning to become a true Sea Power is fraught with failures and disappointments. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union built a handful of aviation cruisers, which feature close-in weapons systems but are smaller than the “true” carriers found in the United States Navy. Only one still remains in service with the Russian Navy: the Admiral Kuznetsov. The Kuznetsov is the only vessel currently in the Russian fleet capable of carrying and launching naval attack aircraft: MiG-29Ks (Fulcrum-D) and Su-33s (Flanker-D). Two other aviation cruisers have, in the meantime, been sold off to China and India. In the Soviet era, NITKA’s facilities were precisely adjusted to train naval pilots who would take off and land on those vessels (Lenta.ru, July 17, 2013).
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the situation for the Russian Navy drastically deteriorated. Two crucial naval aviation infrastructure complexes—NITKA, in Crimea, and the Black Sea Shipyard, in Mykolaiv, which built the Soviet Union’s carriers—were both left outside Russia’s borders, in Ukraine. As a result, Moscow was hampered in training new pilots to fly from the Admiral Kuznetsov or in building any new aircraft carriers (Topwar.ru, July 2, 2014).
By 1997, the two states signed an agreement allowing Russia continued use of the NITKA complex for training new pilots for its aviation cruiser (Mid.ru, accessed February 13). This cordial arrangement persisted until 2008; but Russia’s aggression against Georgia that year sparked a forceful diplomatic protest from Kyiv. On August 9, 2008, the Ukrainian government banned Russia from using the training facility. The Kremlin waited until 2010, when Viktor Yanukovych won the Ukrainian presidency, before pressing the matter further. Already, in August 2010, the training of Russian naval pilots at NITKA was restored.
Nevertheless, after the experience of again temporarily losing access to NITKA, the Kremlin realized it needed to reduce its dependence on Ukraine. In 2009, the government announced it would build an analogous pilot training facility in Yeysk, Krasnodar region. Unlike the Crimean NITKA, the nearly-billion-dollar Yeysk facility is thoroughly modern. Construction is almost complete, aside from the installation of arresting gear for practicing carrier-deck landings. Moreover, the complex will eventually be equipped with a unique flight-training platform, floating directly on the Azov Sea, for marine helicopter pilots to practice take offs and landings in choppy waters before having to put those skills into practice on board the Admiral Kuznetsov (Oborona.ru, November 2016).
The more Russia-friendly government that came to power in Kyiv in 2010 was ultimately amenable to restoring Russia’s access to NITKA, but President Yanukovych did raise the lease price on Moscow. The two countries signed a new agreement on use of the facility, in 2012 (Mid.ru, accessed February 13). But as early as April 2013, Russia officially informed Ukraine that it had no further plans to train its pilots at the NITKA complex anymore (Moscow Defense Brief, May 2014). Tellingly, throughout most of 2012 and 2013, the Kuznetsov sat in its home port of Severmorsk undergoing maintenance (Rbth.com, June 1, 2013; TV Zvezda, December 17, 2013).
After Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, Moscow regained control of NITKA, its years of massive investment in the Yeysk complex notwithstanding. On one hand, Russian shipyards still lack the technical know-how to build new aircraft carriers for the navy. Therefore, having two naval flight training facilities seems superfluous. But on the other hand, the deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov to the eastern Mediterranean last year identified a grave problem: namely, Russia lacks sufficient numbers of professional pilots able to fly from the deck of an aircraft carrier. In the span of a few weeks, during the operations off the coast of Syria, Russia lost two aircraft, which fell into the sea, pointing to inadequate levels of professionalism among its carrier fighter-jet pilots (see EDM, November 14, 2016; RT, December 5, 2016). Fewer than two dozen Russian pilots are certified to land on an aircraft carrier, and their average age is 50 years old (VPK-news.ru, October 5, 2016).
Henceforth, Russia will probably make greater use of both training complexes in the near future in order to boost the professionalism of its naval pilots and enhance Russia’s naval aviation capabilities. The Yeysk facility will more likely be used for pure personnel training. Whereas, NITKA has the potential to be employed in much bigger projects, including testing the technology and operational practices that Russia will need to master to construct and operate a new aircraft carrier. Illustratively, Moscow intends to revamp the steam catapult built at the NITKA facility by installing an Electromagnetic Launch System. The Admiral Kuznetsov notably lacks a launch catapult (of either type), which decreases the bomb load its aircraft can carry upon taking off from the carrier deck (see EDM, October 27, 2016). An advanced electromagnetic catapult will presumably be included in any future Russian supercarrier designs (Flot.com, April 22, 2014).
Today, Russia has two out of three crucial elements of naval aviation—aircraft and land-based training facilities. But it has only one, outdated, aircraft cruiser and no domestic ability to build more carriers. This is a limitation Moscow desperately seeks to address, and both the NITKA and Yeysk facilities will play a key role in Russian attempts to rebuild the country’s carrier capabilities.