Is Russia really flying combat missions from the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov? That is a question percolating as recent satellite photos caught some of the planes that are known to operate from the carrier at a land base, as opposed to operating directly from the carrier.
According to a report by IHS Jane's, a satellite photo from Airbus Defence and Space shows eight Su-33 "Flanker D" fighters on the ramp of Humaymim Air Base.
That airbase, located near the coastal city of Latakia, has become Russia's main center of operations during its intervention in Syria. Russia also has a naval facility in Tartus, roughly 45 miles to the south of Latakia, that has been used since 1971 under an agreement by the Soviet Union with the regime of Hafez al-Assad.
While it is not uncommon for carrier-based planes to operate from land bases (the n Cactus Air Force at Guadalcanal, which featured planes from the air groups of damaged carriers, is perhaps the most famous instance), this is a sign that Russia's carrier is less than it seems. In essence, while the Russians are claiming that the Kuznetsov is carrying out a combat deployment and launching sorties, this ship really was more of a glorified aircraft ferry. This is the purported flagship of the Russian Navy.
Sukhoi Su-33 launching from the Admiral Kuznetsov in 2012. | Russian MoD Photo
The Kuznetsov displaces 61,000 tons, and usually carries 15 Su-33 Flankers, but is also capable of carrying up to 20 MiG-29s. One of the MiG-29s crashed earlier this month due to issues with the carrier's arresting gear combined with an engine failure on the modern multi-role fighter.
The pilot ejected and was recovered, a very unexpected hiccup in Russia's efforts to showcase the carrier, which has had a reputation for breaking down while on deployment. Since the crash, the MiG-29s have apparently been grounded.
Russia has used the conflict in Syria to test out new weapon systems like the Su-35 "Flanker E" and the SS-N-27 Sizzler. Russia also has deployed the S-400 surface-to-air missile system to defend its bases in Syria.