Recent aircraft losses by the Russian navy have provided a salutary reminder of the demanding nature of fixed-wing aircraft operations at sea. Here, Douglas Barrie explains what operational insights can be gleaned from the incidents.
Flanker/Fulcrum by Russia MoD

By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace

Days after reaching station off the coast of Syria, the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov lost a combat aircraft. Shortly after ‘fixing’ a shipboard problem, a second fighter went into the sea.

The Russian navy, no doubt keen to show that it too could provide expeditionary air power alongside the air force, appeared to have come adrift. The mix of an ageing ship, maintenance issues and perhaps a lack of operational experience had resulted in two accidents, though neither fatal.

While the above no doubt contributed, the aircraft losses were also a salutary reminder, were one needed, of the demanding nature of fixed-wing aircraft operations at sea, where there is even less margin for error than for the land-based equivalent.

The first loss was a MiG-29KR Fulcrum multi-role carrier borne on 13 November. An arresting gear problem resulted in the pilot reportedly being told to enter a holding pattern while the issue was dealt with. Fuel starvation resulted in the aircraft crashing into the sea. An early decision to divert to a land base would have saved the aircraft and negated the risk to the pilot.

On 3 December, the Russian navy lost a second carrier-borne fighter, when an Su-33 Flanker D could not be arrested on landing and instead fell into the sea at the end of the angled deck. The pilot ejected successfully and was rescued. The recovery of the air crew from the Fulcrum and Flanker indicates that the navy had at least adequate safety support.

The Kuznetsov is not fitted with a catapult launch system, instead using a ramp on the fore-deck to assist take off. Aircraft recovery is by means of arrestor gear.

Following the first accident, Su-33 and MiG-29KR aircraft appear to have been deployed to the Khmeimim Russian air base near Latakia in Syria.

The MiG-29KR is an upgraded naval variant of the MiG-29 and has a genuine multi-role capability. The aircraft has been seen fitted with what appeared to be the R-77-1 (AA-12B Adder) active radar-guided air-to-air missile. It has also been seen on the carrier deck fitted with the KAB-500 electro-optically guided bomb. Unguided iron bombs have also been seen loaded on trolleys on the deck.

The Su-33 was designed originally as an air defence aircraft equipped with R-73 (AA-11 Archer) and R-27 (AA-10 Alamo) air-to-air missiles. Some have also been the subject of a modest upgrade to provide a limited air-to-ground capability.

This is part of a series of posts for the 2016 Manama Voices blog, which provides analysis and commentary from IISS experts throughout the IISS Manama Dialogue, to be held in Bahrain on 9–11 December 2016.

For full coverage of the proceedings visit the IISS Manama Dialogue 2016 website. All participants will be encouraged to use #IISSMD2016 to share their insights on social media.

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12th Regional Security Summit

IISS Manama Dialogue 2016

The 12th IISS Manama Dialogue will take place in the Kingdom of Bahrain from 9–11 December.

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