Admiral Kuznetsov’s bad luck strikes again – or how Russia may have lost its largest dry dock in the north

On the night of October 29th, Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only remaining aircraft carrier nearly sank together with the dry dock it was inhabiting while undergoing overhaul and modernization in Roslyakovo (Murmansk region). Although Kuznetsov survived, with some degree of damage (extent unclear), Russia’s largest floating dry dock PD-50 is now completely submerged and likely to result in a total loss. The story is likely to become infamous in the annals of Russia’s notorious shipbuilding and ship repair industry, piling on to a spate of bad news regarding engine production for project 22800 missile corvettes, and delays in modernization timelines.

Kuznetsov is the Russian Navy’s most unlucky ship. The vessel has a reputation for killing carrier aviation, breaking down, lethal accidents on board, and major spills. There is something uncanny about this particular ship’s ability to wreak disaster. In this brief blog entry I will discuss what happened last night in Murmansk, and how Russia lost its largest dry dock in the north, which will undoubtedly result in delays for the overhaul and modernization of the Northern Fleet’s principal surface and submarine combatants.

PD-50 sinking rapidly next to the smaller dry dock PD-82

PD-50 sinking.jpg

Kuznetsov was undergoing overhaul and modernization inside dry dock PD-50 at shipyard #82, owned by Rosneft. This is Russia’s largest dry dock, able to lift 80,000 tons, at 330 x 88 meters (working space 300m x 79m). It is one of the largest if not the largest dry dock in the world, and the only one of its kind in the Russian north, supporting the Northern Fleet. PD-50 was originally built by Sweden for the USSR (transferred in 1980), and often serves as the overhaul or repair shipyard for the Russian Northern Fleet – the dry dock regularly hosts several surface combatants and nuclear powered submarines at the same time.

PD-50 on a good day

PD-50 dry dock

According to the prevailing media narrative, Kuznetsov was being readied for launch when the dry dock lost power from shore, causing it to lose stability, list, and eventually sink. Supposedly wet snow and sleet led to a buildup of ice on the transmission power lines which created problems across Murmansk. There may have been a large power surge, resulting in the emergency shutoff of the pumps maintaining ballast on board PD-50. A different story holds that the power lines were severed resulting in an outage. Either way, the dry dock lost electricity and began to sink while holding the Kuznetsov.

Ilya Kramnik, a long time reporter on the Russian navy at Izvestiya wrote that according to his sources there was no plan to bring the Kuznetsov out of dock that night, and in fact it was a struggle to keep the ship from going down with PD-50. Of course the dry dock should have had its own independent electricity supply via four on board diesel power generators (the sort of thing that would have prevented it from sinking), but in the interest of cost savings and ‘efficiency’ the shipyard saw fit to reduce the crew responsible for power generation and not buy fuel for the generators. The rest of this sordid tale almost writes itself. PD-50 was entirely dependent on Murmansk’s power grid that night and when the power went out it began sinking.

Kuznetsov’s crew was busily trying to save the ship from flooding – the ship was not fully sealed and ready to leave to the dock at the time of the incident. As PD-50 listed heavily, one of the dock’s 50 ton cranes fell onto Kuznetsov’s deck, leaving a hole several meters wide. The carrier was ultimately saved and towed away to shipyard #35, while the dock sank entirely, with perhaps one crewman lost and three injured (as of this morning).

That looks like it may be the crane

Crane.jpg

A more recent photo shows the 50 ton crane now comfortably resting on the flight deck

Carrier now with 50T crane for air wing

Kuznetsov’s modernization will invariably be delayed. The only other option in Russia’s north is Sevmash shipyard, which is currently occupied by the modernization of Admiral Nakhimov (Kirov-class cruiser), and supposedly not wide enough at the entrance for Kuznetsov. There is an alternative large dry dock in Russia’s far east, PD-41, which services the Pacific Fleet and was originally built by Japan. PD-41 has similar characteristics to PD-50 and may prove Kuznetsov’s only possible alternative once the ship is ready to make the journey.

As of now, the Northern Fleet only has smaller dry docks available which can lift 30,000 tons. That’s still big enough for Kirov-class and Slava-class cruisers, or Oscar II submarines, but PD-50 could potentially hold two large vessels at a time. Russia’s Northern Fleet lost an important asset, which could have knock on effects on ship modernization and overhaul.

This is PD-50 now

PD-50 gone

The Kuznetsov survives, though the carrier is largely a white elephant with no real mission besides sustaining Russia’s fledgling carrier aviation, and projecting status, i.e. it’s primary mission is to exist. Meanwhile, the ship’s track record of bringing bad luck continues unbroken.

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