Russia Admits It Doesn't Have Any Dry Docks That Can Fit Its Lone Carrier After Accident

The country is scrambling to find alternatives as concerns grow about the Russian Navy's capacity to maintain its ships and submarines.

Lev Fedoseyev/TASS

Russia has officially confirmed that it does not have any facilities that can service its lone carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, after the country’s massive PD-50 floating dry dock sank in October 2018. State-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation, or USC, says that it is looking into alternatives for servicing the flattop, but those substitutes could be months, if not years away from becoming operational.

USC chief executive Alexei Rakhmanov provided the new details while talking with reporters on Nov. 7, 2018. PD-50, one of the largest floating dry docks in the world, sank at the 82nd Shipbuilding Plant at Roslyakovo near Murmansk on Oct. 30, 2018. At the time, Kuznetsov was on board undergoing a major overhaul and the carrier sustained damage during the incident.

“We have alternatives actually for all the ships except for Admiral Kuznetsov,” Rakhmanov explained. “We hope that the issue of the docking … will be resolved in the near future. We are also preparing several alternatives, about which we will report to the Industry and Trade Ministry.”

Russia’s most likely course of action will be to try and refloat and repair any damage to PD-50. The cause of the accident was reportedly an electrical malfunction that left the pumps in the dry dock’s ballast tanks stuck on, causing it to sink rapidly.

Christopher Michel via Wikimedia Commons

Kuznetsov sits in PD-50.

“Instructions have already been given to set up a commission that would carefully look into the causes, calculate damages and outline response measures,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov had told reporters on Oct. 31, 2018. “This is up to the commission to decide, but the ‘yes,’ answer is more likely than ‘no,’” he added when asked about working to get PD-50 back into operation.

The dock may have simply settled softly to the bottom of Kola Bay and have not suffered any major structural damage, but it's not meant to rest on uneven land and could have come down at an angle. Pictures we have seen of it right before it submerged showed it listing heavily, so this is a real possibility. Any protracted time spent fully underwater will almost certainly lead to major issues with its apparently already problematic electrical and mechanical systems. Russia says it intends to force “the side that will be found guilty of allowing the incident to happen” to pay for any recovery effort, according to TASS.

Refloating anything can be an arduous task, to begin with, even before considering the environmental factors at play in Kola Peninsula region. Situated above the arctic circle, but in the path of the Gulf Stream, the average ambient temperatures in the Summer do get to an average of 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but may not ever get above freezing during the winter months. The water temperature is colder in either case. Four shipyard employees suffered hypothermia after escaping the sinking PD-50 during the accident.

Together with any high winds or other inclement weather and that the dock may be sitting nearly 100 feet below the surface, divers could find it challenging to perform various tasks and do so for protracted periods of time, dragging out the process of just getting the dry dock back to the surface. Small submersibles or unmanned underwater vehicles could help mitigate these issues, but would only add the array of specialized assets necessary for the recovery operation. 

What happens after PD-50 comes back up from the bottom of the Kola Bay is unclear, too. Trying to repair it while it afloat, especially if its seriously damaged, could be problematic and there's no easy way to get it ashore for maintenance. An unnamed defense industry source told TASS that PD-50 could be out of commission for at least six months

Without PD-50, it’s unclear what other alternatives Russia might have for servicing the Kuznetsov. Rakhmanov has now acknowledged that the PD-190 floating dry dock, situated at Novorossiysk on the Black Sea is not a viable substitute as some had suggested could be the case.

Russia lacks any fixed shipbuilding or dry dock facilities able to accommodate the carrier, as well. Ukrainian shipyards built the Kuznetsov, as well as all of the Soviet Union’s other flattops.  

The need for the capacity to repair the carrier nearer to its Northern Fleet homeport in Severomorsk likely helped prompt the Soviets to purchase PD-50 from neutral Sweden in the 1980s, to begin with. There’s no indication that USC has the ability to produce a similarly sized floating dry dock itself.

The cool state of the Kremlin’s relations with its Swedish counterparts, along with international sanctions, make it very unlikely that Russia would be able to buy another example from that Scandinavian country or any other member of the European Union. If Russia were able to source a new large floating dry dock from another country, it would still take time to build and deliver it to Murmansk.

Russian state oil and gas company Rosneft, which has been operating the 82nd Shipbuilding Plant since 2015 and manages operations at other shipyards across the country, does plan to open a massive dry dock in Russia’s Far East in 2020. This facility at the Zvezda Shipyard in Bolshoy Kamen near Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan will reportedly be nearly 1,600 feet long and more than 370 feet wide.

Office of the President of Russia

A view of part of the Zvezda Shipyard, including a smaller floating dry dock.

Intended to service massive oil and liquid natural gas tankers, it should be able to accommodate the Kuznetsov. But that dry dock is still at least two years away from opening its gates, though, with workers only beginning to pour the first concrete in September 2018. It also sits thousands of miles away from the flattop's home port, calling into question how readily it would ever be able to support the flattop’s routine operations. Workers at Zvezda have no experience working on an aircraft carrier, either, yet along the Kuznetsov's unique and dated systems.

One final option the Russians might have would be to reach out to the Chinese and seek their assistance in servicing and sustaining the Kuznestov in the future. China purchased Kuznetsov's sister ship, the half-built Varyag, from Ukraine and subsequently completed her and put her into service as the Liaoning. In 2017, that country's Dailan Shipbuilding Industry launched another Kuznetsov-like clone further demonstrating its understanding and ability to work with the design. Still, the idea of Moscow forking over their only carrier to China for servicing would be embarrassing, to say the least, and doing so wouldn't support Russia's crucial shipyard workforce.

When it comes to Russia's only aircraft carrier, the real question is whether or not this mishap provides the impetus for the country to finally abandon the often unreliable, dated, sometimes dangerous, and debatably useful ship entirely as well as its air wing. That Kuznetsov's fate is so closely linked to that of PD-50 highlights the continuing difficulties the Russian Navy will face in maintaining the flattop in the long term even if they get the floating dry dock back into service in a timely manner.

There are also still serious concerns about how even the temporary loss of PD-50 will impact the Russian Navy’s maintenance schedules for other large ships and submarines, as well. The dry dock provides vital repair capacity for Russia’s Northern Fleet as a whole, especially its large submarines.

Lev Fedoseyev/TASS

A ship sails through the part of the Kola Bay where PD-50 sank.

The loss of PD-50 “creates certain inconveniences. In actual fact, this was one of the largest docks in the world,” USC’s Rakhmanov conceded. “Our enterprises are in operation, [including] the Nerpa [Ship Repair Factory]. After all, we can perform certain docking works in Severodvinsk, not far from Murmansk. We don’t feel any special problems in this regard,” he insisted.

However, TASS itself noted that the shipbuilding executive did not mention how many other vessels were already waiting for their turn in PD-50 after Kuznetsov’s overhaul was complete. That work was originally supposed to finish up in 2021 and it now seems less likely that Russia will be able to keep to that timeline.

The time it takes to refloat the dry dock, get it operational again, and finally finish the work on Kuznetsov could easily have a cascading impact and sideline various other ships for extended periods of time. In addition, just because USC has other facilities that are physically capable of servicing most of Russia’s other major ships and submarines in the meantime doesn’t mean those shipyards and dry docks have the schedule capacity to do so.

We have already seen how this can play out with the U.S. Navy, which has experienced similar maintenance logjams that have been particularly pronounced in its submarine community, leaving boats pierside for months at a time. The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Boise will have been out of commission for the better part of three years by the time it gets back into service in 2019.

Whatever the state of PD-50 is if and when the Russians successfully refloat it, the country’ Northern Fleet looks set to experience a major gap in maintenance capacity in the coming months, if not longer.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com