Small carrier with a great potential

Small carrier with a great potential

Dmitry Kurochkin
PhD in Engineering, Head of the Foreign Economic Activity Sector, Severnoye Design Bureau

Not in a very distant past the USSR possessed one of the most potent amphibious fleet in the world. Today, Russia’s Navy does have a serious number of big landing ships, however the youngest of them, Korolev, is 28 years old. Almost all of the ships have come of age, are obsolete and their replacement has long been overdue. Besides, an issue has been raised multiple times to get for the Navy amphibious ships carrying helicopters. Russia still lacks such ships

Continued from No. 1 (34), 2018

The most advanced amphibious ship in Russia is Project 11711. The lead ship Ivan Gren was commissioned last year, while the first production ship, Peter Morgunov, undergoes her trials. She is expected to join the ranks of the Navy in 2019.

The lead ship was laid down at the Yantar shipyard in December 2004. At first planed as a series of six ships, Project 11711 took shape in conditions of the lack of a united opinion as for what amphibious ship the Russian Navy needed, which led either to controversies over French Mistrals, designed to commercial specifications, thus falling short of becoming true combat ships, or serious changes to the specifications of the Russian design. Even the concept of deployment of the future ship has not been left intact, either. As the construction was already in progress the project was amended in terms of the weapons, radio-electronic equipment and tactical and technical characteristics. The protracted construction precipitated the desire to save money and cut the building time. This led to the decision to reduce the class to two ships.

On the plus side of this unique, albeit rather controversial, project is the fact that she carries two Ka-29 helicopters. However, one has to factor in that they are arranged one after the other for the main hangar, accommodating only one helicopter, features a folding section, extended towards the landing pad. This means that lengthy flight preparations and post-flight maintenance come in the way of operating both helicopters simultaneously.

The results of trials and operational performance tipped the scale in favor of building another two ships in the class. In April 2019, during the laying-down ceremony of the 3rd and 4th ships, USC’s President Alexei Rakhmanov noted that they would be built to amended specifications. Though, this did not result in changes in the project index.

With no claim to be a zealot of our military science or naval tactician and strategist for that matter, I would like to voice general thoughts on the future amphibious ship of the Russian Navy.

Obviously, the Navy needs both big amphibious platforms, possessing the capabilities of Ivan Gren, and smaller ships, air-cushioned landing craft (LCAC), and ground-effect aircraft, which will inevitably enter another development loop.

But since the goal is to reestablish a blue navy, fit to shoulder the burden of being one of the key tools for solving Russia’s geopolitical tasks, we need to abandon the path of bringing back though adapted to the requirements of the 21st century, but already classic platforms. It is worth starting from studying the world experience, applying it to our goals and tasks, and then designing and building a larger and more expensive utility platform, a relatively small amphibious aircraft carrier, boasting enormous capabilities.

It has long been proven, that in modern combat conditions the ship-to-shore maneuver is an unthinkable thing to do without aviation support and cover or vertical envelopment tools delivering troops or sabotage teams to the enemy’s rear or flanks.

Thus, one may suggest that in conditions of the lack of full-fledged aircraft carriers, the role of the most combat-capable, mobile and advanced operational units of Russia’s Navy can be assigned to marine expeditionary combat groups, built around amphibious aircraft carriers, housing in their hangars not only equipment and marines, but transport and attack helicopters, and light attack aircraft and fighters as well. It is them, not troop transports like the Mistral, that the Russian Navy needs for conflicts based on the scenario of the five-day war in South Ossetia or projection of power to any point of the world ocean.

At some point in the future, this groups will be enhanced by attack FW drones. At this phase, UAVs cannot do much and are used primarily to suppress the AD of an enemy, as well as engage targets, whose positions have been fixed beforehand. Capable of attacking threats, they perform more of a combat support (CS) role, similar to that of land attack cruise missiles.

But it was our country that pioneered high-performance disposable anti-ship UAVs. That is exactly what Russia’s supersonic heavy anti-ship operational missiles are. The transfer of the on board “intelligence” of these weapons from a disposable to reusable unmanned platforms should not become much of a challenge. It would not be completely out of place to mention the first Soviet space unmanned vehicle Buran, performed its famous flight 30 years ago in 1988. Thus, we have grounds to hope that in the end Russia will get advanced drones, capable to fly missions like CAS, A2/AD, air supremacy, dogfight, etc., provided the government extends support and grants sufficient funds for their development.

Before we get “smart” UAVs, the aviation component of carriers will keep manned aircraft, dictating that flight decks should have a ramp at the bow to assist their take-off. Besides, drones will allow to reduce the ramp on flight decks, which is a good sign, given that these places are notorious for being extremely congested. Its length will be far shorter compared to the conventional 90m ramp, also because drones can be exposed to higher loads unlike their manned counterparts.

The Navy needs big amphibious platforms and smaller ships, air-cushioned landing craft and ground-effect aircraft

Still on the table are a number of critical issues to be resolved by military scientists. For one thing, it has not yet been considered whether to have a dock bay and landing craft, as well as to endow the ship with the capability to launch landing vehicles afloat.

When constructing their Cavour, the Italians had to cut corners, turning a full-fledged carrier into a sea transport, carrying equipment and marines. Unlike her, Trieste, a more advanced utility amphibian, boasts broader true landing capabilities.

The Spanish, well aware of the fact that a bay results in a more complex design of the ship, higher price tag, lower survivability, reduced useful capacity, etc. went for the trade-off, getting a full-fledged bay for their Juan Carlos I, housing four standards LCMs (landing craft, medium), at the same displacement that Italian Cavour has.

The likelihood is that anything larger than a bay for four SP lighters or two LCACs will not fit into a ship of medium displacement, let alone her role as a full-fledged aircraft carrier. Thus, her landing options will remain poor at best.

Given the number of the landing party the ship carries (a battalion-sized marine unit) along with their heavy equipment, the four lighters will have to make several runs each to land them all to an unprepared beach.

Thus, this number of landing craft is far from being sufficient for a full-fledged landing assault, if the carrier is forced to act alone. Her transport helicopters will not make the situation much better. After a beachhead is secured, other tasks facing the ship ranges from logistics support of the landed party, landing of the main body of troops, their deployment, to evacuation of casualties, and finally to expansion of the footprint to the operational scale.

It calls for a question about the role and place of such an amphibious platform in the Russian Navy.

Obviously, her size, let alone price and possible role of the flag ship or command ship of a group, will deny her the ability to land the first wave of troops. This job will go to far cheaper and less complex platforms, capable to land afloat after getting as close as possible to the shore line. LSTs come to mind first. But there are also LCACs and ground-effect aircraft, whose deployment is dictated by the surf conditions.

The future amphibious carrier has to be adapted for a different set of missions. The most critical ones are C2 of a combined-arms team (expeditionary marine unit), establishment and maintenance of superiority in the landing area, aviation support of the landing party and air cover of other ships, logistics support of the landed troops, evacuation of casualties, landing of follow-up troops, etc.

A rather controversial issue today is the worthiness of the so-called over-the-horizon, ship-to-shore maneuver. It provides for landing amphibious equipment outside the visual range of the enemy.

Well, one has to admit that the concept in modern conditions sounds beautiful, glamorous if you will, but its effectiveness is doubtful. Countries, possessing a powerful air force and modern missile and artillery systems, will be able to mess up even a stand-off landing operation. On the other hand, if the enemy’s shore defenses have been suppressed from air and ship artillery has gained air superiority, the over-the-horizon concept becomes useless.

Some thoughts have to be given to the ship armament as well. Nobody questions the necessity to equip her with self-defense assets, i.e. AA guns/missiles and SAMs. However, whether to have MLRS and artillery mounts is still an open issue today even when it comes to arming a huge amphibious ship, which is expected to fight close to the shore, exposing herself to direct fire of the opposing forces.

Given the availability of attack helicopters and support ships, the likelihood is that the job of suppressing emplacements and engaging armored targets to include those in covered positions, will end up on their plate. Meanwhile, MLRS and artillery mounts, their magazines and control posts included, will strip the ship of her precious space and drive the cost up in exchange for a rather dubious gain.

Another controversial issue in the design of the new ship is the choice of the main propulsion and top speed. Recently, the scales started tipping in favor of moderate speeds in the designs of capital surface ships. Top speeds are traded off for more crucial aspects, namely economic operation, maintainability and lower operating costs. Thus, diesel or diesel-electric options fit the bill perfectly well.   

Major characteristics of the future amphibious assault ship


C2 ship of a combined-arms team, flag ship of an expeditionary combat unit

– Projection of power to the landing area

– Aviation support of landing operations and air cover of ships

– Reconnaissance and engagement of enemy’s personnel and equipment on the shore

– Logistics support of committed troops

– Evacuation of casualties

– Landing of follow-up troops to a secured beachhead

Aviation architecture: a monolithic flight deck complete with a ramp with provisions made for retrofitting a short catapult for drones

Aircraft wing, comprised of attack and transport helicopters, aircraft, and future FW attack drones

Hangar for aircraft

Bay for Serna or Dugon landing craft,as well as future LCACs

Additional BK-16 landing boats

No provisions made for launching equipment afloat (no bow shelldoors or other systems), as well as performing over-the-horizon landing

Self-defense systems – AA guns/missiles and mid-range SAMs

No MLRS and general-purpose medium artillery

Enhanced medical capabilities for humanitarian missions and treatment of casualties when deployed in her primary role

Advanced radars and electronic equipment for C2 tasks and EW assets

Relatively low speed of 19-21Kt

Economic propulsion – diesel or diesel-electric

Fit for deployment in northern latitudes,given Russia’s expanding footprint in the Arctic

Suitable for loading modular weapons and special equipment in standard shipping containers