On November 14, Russia lost a MiG-29K Fulcrum, which crashed while attempting to land on its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. The incident happened as the Kuznetsov was en route to Syria, where it is to participate in Russia’s air campaign there.
Later, on December 5, after the Kuznetsov arrived off Syria’s coast, one of its Su-33s also crashed into the sea following a similar landing accident.
But is this deployment really necessary? Russia has already deployed a fleet of warplanes to Syria’s western coastal province of Latakia and has been bombing various groups across that war-torn country for over a year now. The Kuznetsov only carries a small number of fighter-bombers and because of its bow-ramp its fighters cannot carry as heavy a payload or as much fuel as their counterparts deployed in Hmeymim, meaning its contribution is a minimal improvement to the existing Russian air force in Syria at best.
Granted a couple of MiG-29Ks and Su-33s would complement the fighter-bomber fleet at Hmeymim, but certainly not drastically nor fundamentally. It is clear this deployment has more to do with a symbolic projection of power more than anything.
Recent satellite imagery reveals that the Kuznetsov has simply left eight of its assumed nine (ten before the aforementioned December 5 incident) Su-33s and one of its, now three, MiG-29KRs at Hmeymim to operate with the rest of Russia’s land-based aircraft. Leaving at most two Su-33s and two MiG-29s on the Kuznetsov. This fact alone demonstrates the symbolic nature of the carriers voyage since these jets — if they were really necessary in the Syrian theatre of war — could easily have flown to Syria with tanker aircraft in a much shorter space of time.
Russia’s short-lived deployment of Tu-22M3s to Iran last August did much more to enhance Russia’s ability to pound its enemies in Syria than the deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov off Syria’s coast will. One Russian Tu-22M3s can carry more bombs than Russia’s Su-34 fighter-bombers based at Hmeymim or the Su-33s and Mig-29Ks from the Kuznetsov (a Tu-22M3 can carry as many as 70 FAB-250-class weapons or 8 FAB-1500-class weapons).
Iran quickly tired of Russia’s boasting of its strategic position from Iranian territory and the Tu-22M3s were no longer permitted to use Hamadan as a launchpad. But that brief deployment nevertheless enabled the Russians to pound their adversaries across Syria in ways the Kuznetsov flotilla could only dream.
It’s for these simple reasons that the closely observed voyage of the Kuznetsov flotilla to the Syrian coast can be interpreted as more a symbolic projection of Russian power than a practical one. The aforementioned Su-33 and MiG-29K crashes demonstrate the difficulties the crew of the carrier have faced operating it. Also, more broadly, it indicates that this is an overly unnecessary, burdensome and risky deployment done simply in order to add another dozen or so light fighter-bombers to the sizeable air arm already in Syria.
This is the first time the Kuznetsov will see combat. Moscow’s deployment in Syria was also the first time Moscow fired its Kalibr cruise missiles in combat. On different occasions the cruise missiles were launched from ships in the Caspian Sea (see video below) and Mediterranean, allegedly at Islamic State (ISIS) or other militant targets in Syria. Here also the use of such advanced missiles may have been more about symbolic power projection than the practical choice of weapon for targeting militants.
It’s worth addressing the fact that in September 2014, the US also fired Tomahawk missiles at the mysterious Khorasan group in Syria at the start of its air campaign against ISIS in that country. Unlike Moscow however Washington was, and is, not acting in Syria in coordination with the regime in Damascus. Early in its ongoing bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria, US fighter jets even carried HARM anti-radiation missiles as a precaution to protect themselves in case the Syria’s air defense would try to shoot them down. This clearly showed they didn’t rule out the possibility that Damascus would attempt to forcibly oppose their frequent uncoordinated violations of Syrian airspace.
From the start of its intervention in the Syrian conflict in September 2015 Moscow never had to worry about the Syrian regime attempting to hinder its operations. Russian warplanes flying from Hmeymim can bomb any militant target across the country with impunity, essentially making any usage of cruise missiles (which are an extremely more expensive way to target an essentially defenceless target on the ground than airstrikes) wholly unnecessary.
Nevertheless, using these weapon systems in Syria provides Moscow with an apt opportunity to test them in combat. With the Kalibrs to determine how effectively they can strike targets from hundreds of miles away and with the Kuznetsov to determine how readily it can be deployed and how effectively it can conduct air operations.
“There is no more efficient way of training than real combat,” remarked Russian President Vladimir Putin last March, when Moscow claimed it was drawing down its forces. The Kuznetsov flotilla is likely being deployed for that precise reason.