In his latest move to demonstrate that Russia is again a world power, President Vladimir Putin has sent an 11-ship carrier task force to the Mediterranean Sea. Speaking at a Kremlin conference also attended by Putin, Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov said that the sole Russian aircraft carrier, two large anti-submarine ships, and a guided missile cruiser, along with replenishment ships from Russia’s Northern and Black Sea Fleets as well as 47 naval aircraft would be part of the task force that will operate in the “Med” beginning in mid-December. It is not clear if submarines are included in the force.
Earlier this year, Admiral Vladimir Masorin, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, called for restoring a permanent Russian presence in the Mediterranean. He declared that the Mediterranean was a strategically important zone for the Black Sea Fleet. The Soviet Navy had maintained an almost continuous naval presence in the Mediterranean from the mid-1960s until the demise of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Since then Russian naval operations there have been intermittent and brief.
The current deployment of the nation’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov, has been delayed for two or three years because of the poor condition of the ship and the lack of qualified carrier pilots. Reportedly, there are only about a dozen Su-33 shipboard multi-role aircraft available for the Kuznetsov. The Su-33 — with the NATO code-name Flanker-D — is a carrier-based version of the highly capable, Mach 2-plus Su-27 land-based aircraft.
The remainder of the ship’s air group probably consists of a few Su-25 (NATO Frogfoot) attack-trainer aircraft and helicopters. The latter include Ka-27 Helix anti-submarine and rescue variants, and Ka-31 Helix helicopters configured for the Airborne Early Warning (AEW) role. The Ka-31 has large air-search radar suspended under its fuselage which folds upward for landing and takeoff. (This is a variation of the British Sea King AEW-configured helicopter concept.)
A Russian spokesman has said that the Kuznetsov task group would conduct three tactical exercises with real and simulated launches of sea- and air-launched missiles, and would make nearly a dozen port calls. The ports will include Syria’s Tartus, once a major port-of-call of the Soviet Mediterranean squadron. There is still a Russian technical facility there.
The Kuznetsov deployment, believed to be only the second such sortie into the Mediterranean since the end of the USSR, is important for Russia as President Putin attempts to demonstrate that the country is again a major military power. At this time his only other means of demonstrating the prowess of the Russian armed forces is by the long-range flights of bomber aircraft over international waters, which periodically approach Western countries.