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A Brief Look at Russian Aircraft Carrier Development

A Brief Look at Russian Aircraft Carrier Development


First draft: 9 Jan 1996.








The debate over conventional, large-deck aircraft carriers should be familiar to even the most casual Western observer of defense matters. Its advocates claim that it is a priceless tool of power projection, offering matchless flexibility which cannot be achieved by any other means. Its critics argue that it is a pricey anachronism, a relic of outdated World War II thinking which offers little, if any, substantive advantage over lower-cost alternatives. These issues have time and time again been raised in the United States and in other Western countries, particularly in times of shrinking defense outlays.


What is not as clear to the casual observer is to what extent that very same debate took place within the Soviet Navy. The closed society that characterized the Soviet Union through most of its existence generally served to hide much of this discussion, which for the most part was limited to subtly worded sniping among high-level officers in the professional literature. Furthermore, the extremely high priority placed upon defense spending (the most recent, post-collapse estimates are truly astounding) seemed to run counter to the notion that budgetary debate would play any significant role in determining force structure. Yet, with the new transparency of Russian society, it is becoming increasingly clear that the debate over aircraft carriers is not unique to the West at all; indeed, it never has been.


The somewhat ironic conclusion is that despite the high-profile public controversy in the United States, this debate has had far less substantive impact on the USN's aircraft carrier program than the equivalent, silent clash of views has had on the Russian Navy's program. The USN got its fleet of supercarriers; the Soviet (and now the Russian) Navy was forced to accept a series of design compromises consistently falling short of Navy goals. Although there were the expected dissenters in Navy uniform, the final objective of the Russian Navy's carrier program was never meant to be the little Kievs. Today, even the vaunted Admiral Kuznetsov, though it does represent a monumental leap forward in Russian carrier aviation, is a rather anemic vessel when compared to the original design - which was drafted over twenty years ago.


This short paper will trace the history of postwar Soviet and Russian "aircraft carriers", from the early Moskva-class helicopter carriers to the cancelled Ul'yanovsk nuclear-powered supercarrier. In light of the recent December 1995 deployment of the sole remaining Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean, a familiarity with the history of the program may help to dispel some of the rumors and misconceptions about Russian seagoing aviation.


A word on terminology: throughout this paper, the term "aircraft carrier" is used as a generic term. This reflects my personal preference for USN terms; in Russian usage, the correct form is "aviation cruiser", or "aircraft-carrying cruiser". The choice of wording is more than a semantic issue. According to the 1936 Montreaux Convention, passage of "aircraft carriers" through the Dardanelles is prohibited. This poses a rather serious problem for Soviet/Russian aircraft carriers, which traditionally have been constructed on the Black Sea -- and having all one's aircraft carriers bottled up in the Black Sea is of very marginal utility indeed. The choice of designation, therefore, had important diplomatic consequences.


There may also be another, more subtle reason for this choice of terminology. According to Soviet doctrine, aviation cruisers were intended not to serve as the centerpiece of naval strike capability (as the USN regards its own carriers), but as a supporting element for other naval operations. These included the concept of "pro-submarine warfare", in which surface task groups would seek to disrupt enemy ASW activity. This supporting role would seem to make a separate, "special" designation of "aircraft carrier" vaguely inappropriate.




The Soviet aircraft carrier program got off to a late start; this slow beginning, like so many important things in history, may be attributed to a unique mixture of historical and political circumstances. The first real opportunity for the beginning of an aircraft carrier program was in the late 1930s, when world naval aviation was just beginning to take off. Any earlier beginning would have been impossible for a Soviet Union just industrializing under the first Five-Year Plans. At least one authoritative source claims that Stalin wasted no time in seizing the opportunity, however, and that "planning for two aircraft carriers had already begun in the 1930s."1 In any case, the war intervened, and the new program had to be aborted in favor of more pressing defense needs, ending any hope of the Soviets' getting an early start.


In the immediate post-war years, an evaluation of the USN's carrier experience in the Pacific may have prompted plans for an aircraft carrier fleet, but the costs of recovering from the war's devastation probably delayed any large-scale carrier design and building program. The maintenance of the Red Army's land power in Eastern Europe no doubt took precedence over any revolutionary new steps the Navy might wish to take. Nevertheless, with the Soviet Union's relatively rapid recovery from the war, plans were drafted for the construction of a new class of aircraft carriers, to begin before 1950.2


These plans never came to fruition. With Stalin's death in 1953, and Khrushchev's subsequent ascension amidst much internal controversy over defense spending, aircraft carriers were put on permanent hold. Khrushchev's negative attitude toward the maintenance of large conventional forces made aircraft carriers - the epitome of the large, expensive conventional weapon eclipsed by nuclear weapons - a good target for cancellation. At a time when Khrushchev was announcing his drastic 1959 cut in conventional forces (putting 1.2 million officers and men out of uniform), extravagant spending on aircraft carriers seemed unlikely. This remained true even after the announcement was retracted and the buildup of 1960 began; Khrushchev remained adamantly opposed to carrier development.


First Steps: The Moskvas


Moskva - class CHG1967: Moskva-class CHG

Names: Moskva, Leningrad
Displacement: 17,500 tons
Overall length: 626.6 ft.
Speed: 31 knots

Crew complement: 840

With Khrushchev's ouster and the military buildup that came with Brezhnev's assumption of power, the first Soviet aircraft carriers were laid down at Nikolayev South (Shipyard No.444). The lead vessel was launched in 1965 and named Moskva; she entered commission two years later. Moskva was followed by Leningrad, which was commissioned in late 1968; there were no further vessels built. Both were conventionally-powered.


The Moskvas were not true "aircraft carriers" in that they did not carry any fixed-wing aircraft; the air wing was composed entirely of helicopters. They were designed primarily as antisubmarine vessels, and her weapons and sensor suite was optimized against the nuclear submarine threat. Shipboard ASW armament included a twin SUW-N-1 launcher capable of delivering a FRAS-1 projectile carrying a 450mm torpedo (or a 5 kiloton nuclear warhead); a pair of RBU-6000 ASW mortars; and a set of torpedo tubes. For self-defense, the Moskvas had two twin SA-N-3 SAM launchers with reloads for a total of 48 surface-to-air missiles, along with two twin 57mm/80 guns. A "Mare Tail" variable depth sonar worked in conjunction with heliborne sensors to hunt submarines.


The New Vision: Project OREL


The New Vision: Project OREL1973: OREL CVN

Names: None
Displacement: 80,000 tons
Overall length: -
Speed: -
Crew complement: -

While the Moskvas were revolutionary in the sense that they were the first ships dedicated to carrying an air wing, it was clear that they were insufficient to fulfill the full role of aircraft carriers in fleet operations. The key problem was that they could not effectively provide the fleet with organic fighter cover. The Russian Navy then took the next step, assembling a specification for a new type of ship to carry not only helicopters, but fixed-wing fighter aircraft.


This resulted in the most ambitious design specification for any Russian aircraft carrier to date. Named Project OREL, this nuclear-powered ship would have displaced 80,000 tons and carried seventy conventional (that is, non-vertical takeoff/landing) aircraft. These aircraft would serve in an American-style multipurpose air wing, capable of fulfilling the fighter, attack, and airborne early-warning roles. There were some differences between the OREL vessel and an American supercarrier, primarily in OREL's own battery of dedicated antiship missiles (which continued to appear on Russian carrier designs). However, the philosophies underlying both designs were very similar, a point underscored by an order reportedly from Defense Minister Grechko himself: "Why are you splitting hairs here? Make an aircraft carrier like the Americans have, with that kind of aircraft fleet."3


The OREL design never made it to production. Marshal Grechko died and the Defense Ministry was taken over by Marshal Ustinov, who did not share Grechko's enthusiasm for large-deck aircraft carriers. Elements within the Defense Ministry and the Navy itself, who viewed smaller designs which carried vertical takeoff/landing (VTOL) aircraft as superior in terms of cost-effectiveness, intervened to halt the progress of OREL. Instead of a new large carrier design, compromise work was done with the Kiev class of VTOL carriers, which were already beginning to enter service.


Compromise: The Kievs


Kiev - class CVHG1975: Kiev-class CVHG

Names: Kiev, Minsk, Novorossiysk, Admiral Gorshkov
Displacement: 40,500 tons
Overall length: 899 ft.
Speed: 32 knots.
Crew complement: 1,200

While the struggle over the future of Russian carrier aviation (in the form of OREL) was taking place, an interim carrier design aimed at providing an "evolutionary" seagoing fixed-wing capability was undergoing development. This was a 40,000-ton conventionally-powered ship that carried both helicopters and vertical take-off and landing aircraft. The air wing was small, consisting of a dozen Yak-38 "Forger" VTOL fighters and perhaps twenty more helicopters. The performance of the Forgers was reported to be rather disappointing, and their small numbers were insufficient to provide round-the-clock combat air patrols; nevertheless, the Kievs for the first time provided the Soviet Fleet with organic fighter cover. This class of carriers also carried significant missile capability forward of the superstructure. This took the form of SS-N-12 antiship missiles, SA-N-3 surface-to-air missiles, and SA-N-4/SA-N-9 (depending on the specific vessel) SAMs. For antisubmarine work, there was an SUW-N-1 FRAS launcher, along with a pair of RBU-6000 ASW mortars.


The first unit, Kiev, was launched in late 1972 and commissioned in mid 1975. She was followed by Minsk (launched 1975, commissioned 1978) and Novorossiysk (launched 1978, commissioned 1982). The second and third units were assigned to the Pacific Fleet, which raised concerns about Soviet naval expansion in the early 1980s.


The fourth and last unit, Baku, was launched in 1982; she was used as a development platform for a variety of command-and-control technologies, and this work delayed her final commissioning a full five years until 1987. Central to the Baku's new command-and-control suite was the "Sky Watch" 3D planar array radar system, which eventually was to go into the Kuznetsov. Unfortunately, Sky Watch was unable to overcome its considerable technical problems and never achieved its full potential (which included a highly integrated air-battle management system). Later in her career, Baku was renamed Admiral Gorshkov for political reasons, and served as the test platform for the next-generation Yak-141 "Freestyle" supersonic VTOL fighter.



Ski-Jump Carrier: The Kuznetsov


Kuznetsov - class CV1991: Kuznetsov-class CV

Names: Admiral Kuznetsov, Varyag
Displacement: 67,500 tons
Overall length: 999 ft.
Speed: 30 knots.
Crew complement: 1,700 (200 officers)

The Kievs were always meant to be a transitional design, filling the gap until more capable carriers came online. However, the political struggle over Project OREL and the growing power of the large-carrier detractors effectively derailed the "Kiev-follow on" for some years. A fifth ship, based on the Kiev but equipped with catapults to launch conventional aircraft, was approved in 1979 but delayed once again by carrier critics.


In 1981, Defense Minister Ustinov observed the West-81 exercises aboard the Kiev, and this firsthand look at her shortcomings finally persuaded him to support a follow-on design. At this point, the design bureaus were swimming in design studies of all sorts, from the shelved OREL specifications to Kiev modifications to a mid-sized ski-jump carrier. It was this last design which was approved after the '81 exercises.


In the West, rumors flew about as to the name of this new ship, which was observed by satellite at Nikolayev South. Over the next few years, it was variously referred to as Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union, and the Kremlin-class. In fact, the new carriers were named after major cities of the Union, in accordance with previous convention. The first and second vessels were named Tbilisi and Riga, respectively. However, following anti-Soviet demonstrations in those cities in the late 1980s, those names were changed to Admiral Kuznetsov and Varyag, further contributing to the confusion.


Regardless of name, however, the Kuznetsov class of conventionally-powered aircraft carriers displaced roughly 65,000 tons and for the first time carried conventional take-off and landing aircraft. These included navalized versions of fourth-generation fighters, such as the Su-27K (later 'Su-33') and the MiG-29K, along with a converted Su-25 and several planned new designs. The bow of the Kuznetsov sloped upward in a twelve-degree "ski jump", which would permit short-take-offs from her relatively small deck. In addition to the air wing, Kuznetsov carried a dozen launchers for SS-N-19 antiship missiles, SA-N-9 and CADS-N-1 air defense complexes, and a pair of RBU-12000 ASW mortars. Like the Admiral Gorshkov, Admiral Kuznetsov was equipped with the Sky Watch 3D radar; however, this system did not appear in the Varyag -- as was previously mentioned, the problems with Sky Watch eventually caused its abandonment.


Admiral Kuznetsov was launched in 1985; the intervening political turmoil delayed her formal commissioning until 1991, and she did not become fully operational until 1995. Varyag was launched in 1988, but was never completed. Currently she remains at the Nikolayev South shipyard in Ukraine. Exactly who owns Varyag is a question of some contention, and her future is equally unclear. However, recent statements from high Navy officials appear to make it clear that due to her material condition, she will never put to sea.


Unfulfilled Dream: The Ul'yanovsk


Ul'yanovsk CVN199?: Ul'yanovsk CVN

Names: Ul'yanovsk (cancelled)
Displacement: 75,000 tons
Overall length: 1050 ft.
Speed: -
Crew complement: -

In a sense, the Ul'yanovsk was the OREL design, revisited. She was to be a 75,000-ton follow-on to the Kuznetsov class, with steam catapults to launch her aircraft (eliminating the ski-jump bow). Ul'yanovsk would have been the first Russian nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Her air wing would likely have been an expanded version of that found aboard Kuznetsov.


The first unit of the class was laid down at Nikolayev South in late 1988. However, work stopped on the vessel after the August coup, in November 1991, and never resumed. In early February of the following year, she was scrapped.


The Future


The Russian active carrier fleet now consists of only Admiral Kuznetsov. In 1992, Ul'yanovsk, Minsk, and Leningrad were scrapped; Novorossiysk followed in 1993, and Kiev finally went in 1994. Moskva remained as the nominal flagship of the Black Sea Fleet until late 1995, when she was towed to the scrappers, as well. This leaves only two vessels. The first, Varyag, in all likelihood will never be completed (the rather interesting idea of converting her into a "floating hotel" has been voiced). The second is Admiral Gorshkov; her status and fate is the subject of much amusing speculation among observers, with new rumors emerging almost weekly. In particular, there have been recurring reports over the last year that the Indian Navy has been interested in either leasing or purchasing her; these have so far come to nothing.


Nevertheless, the Russian Navy remains formally committed to aircraft carrier development on the American model. Indeed, the CinC of the Russian Navy has been quoted as viewing an American Nimitz-class CVN as "ideal", but impractical given today's economic realities. There is no shortage of carrier critics, either, and the hushed debate of the Soviet era has spilled over into today's Russian press. The spread of sophisticated antiship missiles has been widely claimed to make the aircraft carrier an expensive target, which would find itself at the bottom of the ocean at the outset of any serious conflict. The costs of an aircraft carrier also serve as a point of criticism; in an echo of claims made by critics in the United States, Russian critics have argued that one must not only pay for the carrier, but the accompanying task group to protect it. This may not be a wholly accurate claim to begin with; at the very least, it is less applicable to Russian designs than to American ones, since Russian carriers are equipped with a complete SSM/SAM suite. Nevertheless, cost criticisms are persuasive, particularly given living conditions in today's Russian military. It is difficult to argue for buying a new class of capital ship when there are not enough boots to go around.


Future purchases aside, the maintenance of Kuznetsov herself is already proving to be problematic. Assembling a trained crew in itself has provided major challenges, and the lack of a carrier facility on Russian territory provides further impediments. Finally, one must not forget the aircraft, which form the heart of a carrier's striking power. The stop-and-go nature of carrier aircraft development is exacerbated by the uncertain status of the central naval aviation center -- it is located in the Crimea, and negotiations between Ukraine and Russia over naval facilities there continue. Both of these factors make it unlikely that the originally envisioned air wing will go to sea even if the ship does.


For all these reasons, the future of Russian aircraft carriers, at least in the near-term, looks rather bleak. The temptation to focus on submarine development, an area in which the Russian Navy has considerably more experience, must be great. But the mission of the aircraft carrier has changed; no longer does it fulfill the Soviet mission of fleet support, but rather is intended to provide "'political presence' in forward areas."4 This reflects a deeper desire to operate these vessels as carriers not of aircraft, but of the Russian flag. Certainly the association of aircraft carriers with national power is not a new one; one commentator of the Gorbachev era challenged his readers to consider the question, "how can a superpower not have such a type of ocean-going ship?"5 A deep-seated desire to maintain Russian political presence no doubt played a great role in the quick deployment of Admiral Kuznetsov to take part in the Bosnian settlement. In the end, similar sentiments may provide just enough momentum to carry the Russian aircraft carrier over all of the obstacles in its path, and into the next century.


In writing this short paper, I relied heavily on three recently published articles by Norman Cigar, George Kraus, and Norman Polmar; they are referenced in the notes below. The statistics for each class of vessel are based on published figures in Jane's Fighting Ships, and are not necessarily authoritative. This paper was initially written on 9 Jan 96, exclusively for presentation on this web site, and is a work in progress. It reflects the opinions of the author only.

1 Norman Cigar, "Soviet Aircraft Carriers: Unfortunate Timing for a Long-Held Dream", Naval War College Review, Spring 1994. 24.
2 Ibid.
3 George F. Kraus, "Appearances Were Deceiving", Proceedings, December 1992. 120.
4 Norman Polmar, "Carrier Conundrum Continues", Proceedings, November 1992. 120.
5 Cigar, 28

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