The Complex

Is Your Aircraft Carrier a Lemon?

Imposing, flexible, able to sail fast and launch devastating air strikes at long range, aircraft carriers are the ultimate expression of national power. And many of the world's best-armed countries are acquiring them. China, Russia, India, Brazil, the U.K., France, America.

But just getting your hands on a flattop is hardly enough. For every example of a country that succeeds in deploying a functional carrier and matching air wing, there's a counter-example: a flattop hobbled by mechanical problems, stricken by age, sidelined by bad design or stuck with warplanes that simply don't work.

What follows are not the success stories. They are the case studies in flattop failure ... and object lessons for all the countries building aircraft carriers today.

Admiral Kuznetsov being monitored by a British warship. Royal Navy photo

Mother Russia’s tugboat bait

The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, was launched in 1985 and joined the fleet in 1991. Since then the 55,000-ton, fossil-fuel-powered flattop has managed just four frontline deployments—all of them to the Mediterranean, and all of them just a few months in duration.

By contrast, American flattops typically deploy for at least six months every two years. The nuclear-powered USS Enterprise, commissioned in 1962, completed 25 deployments before leaving service in 2012.

One of Admiral Kuznetsov’s major problems is her powerplant. The vessel is powered by steam turbines and turbo-pressurized boilers that Defense Industry Daily generously described as “defective.” Anticipating breakdowns, large ocean-going tugs accompany Admiral Kuznetsov whenever she deploys.

Poor maintenance makes life difficult and dangerous for Admiral Kuznetsov’s 1,900 sailors. A short circuit started a fire off Turkey in 2009 that killed one seaman.

Her pipes are bad. “When it’s this cold, water freezes everywhere including pipes which may cause a rupture,” English Russia reported. “To prevent this, they just don’t supply almost 60 percent of the cabins with water (neither in winter nor in summer). The situation with latrines is just as bad. The ship has over 50 latrines but half of them are closed.”

Almost 2,000 men. Twenty-five latrines. Do the math. Training and morale are so poor that in 2009 Admiral Kuznetsov sailors apparently botched an at-sea refueling, spilling hundreds of tons of fuel into the Irish Sea, pictured below.

Satellite image: European Space Agency EMSA/2009; photo: Irish Coast Guard - MCA

And even when the ship functions as intended, her design limits her utility. Admiral Kuzentsov does not have steam catapults like American flatttops do. Instead, her Sukhoi fighters launch into the air off a bow ramp. The fighters must stay light, meaning they can carry only a few air-to-air missiles and a partial fuel load. Their patrol endurance is measured in minutes rather than hours.

English Russia summed up the Russian aircraft carrier’s fundamental limitations succinctly. “Actual aircrafts visit this ship pretty rarely.”

Moscow appreciates its flattop problem and has vague plans to replace Admiral Kuznetsov sometime in the 2020s, by which time planners can realistically expect to have deployed the decrepit old lady maybe two or three more times.

Vikramaditya. Wikimedia Commons photo

But the Russians promised us she would work

Admiral Kuznetsov's ill repute did not deter the Indian and Chinese governments from acquiring second-hand Russian carriers. China's Liaoning, a rebuilt sister ship of Admiral Kuznetsov, began limited testing in the summer of 2012, serving a mostly educational role while a Chinese shipyard slowly built a new carrier from scratch.

Outfitted with the same faulty powerplant and performance-limiting bow ramp, Liaoning is unlikely to venture far from shore or send her lightly-loaded J-15 fighters-copies of Russian Sukhois-into serious combat. In a rare pique, Chinese state media denounced the J-15s as "flopping fish."

India's experience has been even worse. In 2004 New Delhi inked a $1.5-billion deal for the 1982-vintage Russian flattop Admiral Gorshkov. In Russian service, the 45,000-ton vessel had carried a few helicopters and small Yakovlev jump jets; the Indians paid to have the flight deck expanded and a bow ramp fitted to accommodate up to 16 MiG-29 fighters.

Renamed Vikramaditya, the flattop was due to enter service in 2008. But the poorly-managed Russian shipyard was overwhelmed by the scale of the refit. The cost doubled and trials were bumped back to September 2012. And when the crew pushed the conventionally-powered ship to her theoretical top speed of 32 knots, her boilers overheated.

"India didn't want to use asbestos as heat protection for the boilers," Defense Industry Daily explained. "Instead, the boilers' designer had to use firebrick ceramics. Which, as we see, didn't work so well. Especially on a ship that Russia put up for sale in 1994, after a boiler room explosion." Our emphasis.

More repairs. More delays. More money. "The problems revealed during sea trials last year have been fixed," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin vowed in late 2013, by which point Vikramaditya was expected to enter active service in India in the spring of 2014.

"Active service" being a relative term. If Russia's own experience with its crappy carriers is any indication, the Indian ship will spend most of her time in port being repaired between brief forays into near waters. New Delhi is building a new carrier from scratch that should eventually complement the Russian hand-me-down.

Sao Paulo. Wikimedia Commons photo

The floating museum

Not all shitty aircraft carriers are Russian. The U.K. and France have both sold to poorer navies decommissioned flattops that probably should have been permanently retired. In 2000 the Brazilian navy acquired the former Foch from Paris for $12 million.

Commissioned into French service in 1963, the 33,000-ton, non-nuclear Foch carried 40 fighters and helicopters. Unlike Russian flattops, Foch had a steam catapult, allowing her to boost heavily-laden planes off her deck.

The Brazilians renamed her Sao Paulo and, for the first four years, busily sailed the second-hand vessel in a series of regional exercises-practicing with her upgraded A-4 fighters, sailing with the American carrier USS Ronald Reagan and even qualifying Argentinian planes for deck operations. Sao Paulo was, and remains, Latin America's only aircraft carrier.

But her age began to show, despite Brazil spending an additional $100 million on upkeep. On-board fires in 2005 and 2012 killed two sailors and left the flattop "barely functioning beyond flag-flying and light duties," according to Warships International Fleet Review. "The Brazilian defense ministry admitted the ship's effectiveness is extremely limited." Today the A-4s rarely fly.

Sao Paulo's replacement is still in the planning stages: a brand-new carrier to enter service some time in the 2020s, around the same time that Russia, China and India all hope to have new and better-that is to say, safe and functional-flattops of their own.

First published on's War Is Boring collection.

Wikimedia Commons

The Complex

@NatSecWonk Was Poised for a Leading Pentagon Job

The anonymous, acerbic tweeter who went by the handle @NatSecWonk was a White House staffer on the verge of being named to a leading Pentagon position before he was fired last week for his nasty, sneering online identity. Now, onetime National Security Council (NSC) staffer Jofi Joseph is under investigation by the Justice Department for his alleged social media activities -- both as @NatSecWonk and also possibly as @DCHobbyist, a Twitter account devoted largely to the exploits of North American escorts.

Joseph possessed the kind of résumé that had put him on a Washington fast track. But he was abruptly dismissed last week after administration officials confronted him with evidence that he was the man behind @NatSecWonk. That Twitter handle, well-known to people in Washington's national security circles, relished sniping at government officials, politicians, reporters, and anyone else in his field of digital fire. But FP has also learned that Joseph is suspected of being the man behind a different Twitter handle, @DCHobbyist, which spouts spicy talk about sex and prostitutes peppered among tweets on the Washington Nationals and bike commuting. On Oct. 7, @DCHobbyist tweeted about Toronto's "tsunami of gorgeous and sensual escorts." Three days later, he tweeted at @MsBellaAngeline, the Twitter account associated with Isabella Angeline, who advertises herself online as a "luxury companion and escort."

He wrote, "I hope you know that I reminisce fondly about our date. Do let me know if you ever find your way back to DC."

Naturally, the tweets themselves are not illegal. But when administration officials realized Joseph was also behind them, they raised questions about Joseph, who is married to a respected Senate staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Carolyn Leddy. Openly interacting with escorts can be a security risk; for a married and well-placed official, it can easily lead to blackmail and worse. The fact that @DCHobbyist appeared to be so brazenly engaged in such activities raised red flags about Joseph's state of mind. One individual briefed on the matter told FP that based on the two Twitter handles, Joseph's case was referred to the Department of Justice to determine whether any of the information leaked by @NatSecWonk or the "behavior" of @DCHobbyist amounted to criminal acts that would put in jeopardy Joseph's security clearance. Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee officials are trying to determine if anything Joseph posted had represented classified information provided to him by Leddy.

Joseph did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But he provided a statement to Politico's Glenn Thrush late Tuesday:

"It has been a privilege to serve in this Administration and I deeply regret violating the trust and confidence placed in me," Joseph told Politico in an email. "What started out as an intended parody account of DC culture developed over time into a series of inappropriate and mean-spirited comments. I bear complete responsibility for this affair and I sincerely apologize to everyone I insulted." But Joseph did not reply to a query from Politico about whether he was also the man behind @DCHobbyist.


As FP reported Tuesday, Joseph kept the national security community in Washington intrigued with who he was. Clearly, @NatSecWonk was an individual with information about the workings of the government that only someone on the inside could have. Clearly, he could be awful online; some of his jabs could be construed as homophobic or racist. Others were just plain nasty. It all caught the attention of administration officials for the last two years.

"Mitt Romney now putting on his 'I am talking to a black person' voice," he tweeted on Oct. 16 of last year. In another tweet, Joseph wrote, "Guessing Mitt Romney couldn't locate Mali on a map to save his life." In a third tweet, dated Jan. 7, Joseph wrote about Sen. Lindsey Graham, "I'm willing to hear out Lindsay [sic] Graham's criticisms of Chuck Hagel if he can produce a single woman he's dated in his life."

During the confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- the man who runs the department that Joseph was hoping to work at -- he was brutal. "If only Chuck Hagel put as much time into his hearing prep as he is in leaking names of people coming to his swearing in ceremony today," he wrote in one tweet. In another: "I liked how Women's Wear Daily suggested new SecDef Hagel get something for his puffy eyes. The man looks like fucking sadsack Aeyore [sic]!"

Late last week, the Twitter handle @NatSecWonk disappeared, prompting questions by FP and others as to what happened. In the days afterward, it became clear that the anonymous tweeter was not only gone, but had been a reasonably high-level official within the administration who was now facing the potential of disciplinary action.

Joseph, who had helped conduct high-level White House discussions on Iran and belonged to the nonproliferation section of the NSC, was in the final stages of vetting for a senior-level position at the Pentagon. He was to work as a top advisor to Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, a key job at a time when the Pentagon is going through a fundamental budgetary transition. Joseph was expected to be announced for that position in the next week or two. That job, of course, is now no longer a possibility. Instead, Joseph faces scrutiny from the Department of Justice, Situation Report is told, for his tweets as @NatSecWonk and as @DCHobbyist.

The story began to unfold rapidly Tuesday evening. Sources familiar with Joseph's online actions had confirmed to FP that he was in fact @NatSecWonk. But FP was also told that Joseph was also masquerading under a second Twitter handle, @DCHobbyist. Administration officials discovered Joseph's online activities last week. When he was confronted with the @NatSecWonk handle, Joseph confessed to the tweets, and he was abruptly terminated.

Former administration officials were flummoxed by the news. Joseph was described by various individuals who had had contact with him as smart but unremarkable. One former administration official who knew Joseph indicated that he was surprised by the revelations. Describing what he made of them, the official said simply, "Still waters run deep."

Tweets of @natsecwonk by Marc Ambinder