Posted by lex, on August 1, 2009
[Editor’s Note: The video to which Lex referred was nowhere to be seen in the Wayback Machine. However this video was found on YouTube and was one of the few (if only) video of a Flanker on the Kuznetsov. So this may or may not be the correct video. I found Lex’s comments on Russian flight operations to be fascinating and was not going to pass this post by. – Ed. 04-03-18]
And now, for something entirely different.
First impressions: An interesting video, in that “not-quite-right” kind of way. I guess it’s what you get used to. The only thing wronger than that strange transition at the opener – did Russian archers really show that much thigh in battle? – was the flight deck crewman taxiing the Su-33 around without a float coat or cranial.
Pretty impressive pitch pulse capability with the canards. I have to wonder at all that slow speed maneuvering with the speed brake out. I’d be more impressed by the deck run capability and jump ramp if I didn’t know that the Flanker pilot has to download fuel and ordnance to make it happen. I guess you can get more fuel once airborne – the probe should be on the right side, by the way – but it’s harder to onload weapons once the wheels have left the deck.
Speaking of which, with a flight deck that small, cyclic operations are going to be a treat. Kuznetsov carries between 17 and 20 fixed wing aircraft to go with a dozen or so helicopters. Twelve to fifteen of those fixed wing are the Su-33s. Operating anywhere close to shore in a contested battle space they’ll have to run a minimum of three two-ship CAPs, six aircraft plus at least one tanker up front to give them some loiter time. Half of the ship’s outer air defense capability is airborne on the first launch, with half left on deck to replace them – this is problematical.
(This assumes that each of the 15 possible Flankers on the ship is in an up status and on the roof, which would be a marvel, airplanes break and anyway I’m not seeing room on that deck for fifteen 70,000 pound fighters.)
Let’s make a few assumptions and do some back of the napkin math: Empty weight for the Flanker is 40.6k pounds, “loaded weight” is 66k, and max take-off weight is nearly 73k. Assuming loaded weight is what’s used for the deck run, that leaves us roughly 26k worth of pilot, fuel and stores. Figure four hundred pounds for a pair of short range missiles and somewhere between a thousand and two thousand pounds of medium range missiles, another thousand pounds or so for the hanging hardware, that leaves us between 2.4 to 3.4k worth of stores on a minimally loaded air defense platform, and 23.6 – 24.6k of fuel. With a maximum load of 14.3k of external ordnance you’re down to 11.7k pounds of fuel.
Splitting the difference between the minimally loaded jet and one “loaded for bear” yields 6k of stores and roughly 20k of fuel. Each engine puts out 16k pounds of static thrust, about 60% higher than a GE F404 engine, with commensurately higher fuel flow – nothing comes for free – call it roughly 8000 pounds of jet fuel being burned per hour at max endurance. With a minimum of 4k of fuel kept in reserve for a day recovery, that’s 16,000 pounds of gas or 2 hours of flight time (20k of initial gas – 4k landing reserve / 8000 pph average).
We can extend that time by tanking, so if you’ve got a Flanker configured as a mission tanker carrying nothing but gas and the refueling store (1000 pounds at a guess), he’s got 25k to give, minus his own recovery fuel. Call it 20k, or roughly 3.5k for each fighter manning a CAP. That fuel is delivered at 290 gallons per minute, or 2000 pounds per minute, which sounds pretty high to me, but let’s take Sukhoi’s marketing at face value. That gives them another 26 minutes of flight time, and we’re up to 2.4 hours of flight time or 146 minutes.
Let’s make some more assumptions about max endurance speed and call it 280 knots. Spend ten minutes getting airborne and 15 minutes getting everyone their gas (transfer time plus rendezvous), that leaves 111 minutes of there and back time, minus 10 minutes to organize and execute the recovery, roughly 100 minutes of useful tactical time.
If all a fighter does is touch CAP and return – 50 minutes each way – that position is roughly 250 miles from the ship. If he wants to loiter for at least 30 minutes – let’s leave combat time out of the equation for simplicity’s sake – that leaves 70 minutes of transit time, 35 each way and his station is 150-170 miles from the Kuznetsov.
What does all this add up to?
Say the first launch of the day is scheduled for 1200. The six CAP aircraft and their tanker are fully airborne by 1210 and tanking complete at around 1225. They get to station at around 1300 or so, CAP for 30 minutes until 1330 when they are relieved on station by the second launch. The first wave of Flankers is back overhead Kuznetsov at 1355 or so and the recovery takes 10 minutes – 1405, or right around a 2.1 mission time.
In order to relieve them on station – otherwise they’d leave a gap in the airborne defense grid – the second sortie has the same launch, rendezvous, tank and transit constraints as did the first: 10 minutes to get airborne, 15 minutes getting gas and another 35 minutes getting to CAP – 60 minutes. That means they started launching from Kuznetsov to relieve the first sortie at 1230. The first wave’s tanker was mission complete with his package at 1225, and has to land after the second launch – he can’t get back on deck in time without disrupting the 1230 go. That means that the second launch of six has to have its own dedicated mission tanker, leaving no gas overhead for the first recovery if things go south. We’ve now accounted for 14 of the 15 possible Flankers in the air wing.
I hope the maintenance guys know their job.
The second wave of six Flankers relieved the first on CAP at 1330 and needs to head home at 1400 after their 30 minutes of loiter time is complete. Which means the first launch has to be refueled, repaired (if necessary) and re-armed (if applicable) and launched again at 1300 – an hour before they recovered from the first sortie.
And that, mes amis, is the difference between having 44 strike fighters on a ship and 15-17.
You can launch two CAPs instead of three, or leave some ordnance behind in favor of fuel to extend your on-station time, but it still ends up looking like a self-licking ice cream cone to me.
Or maybe the Russians don’t do cyclic.