Russia’s four Kiev-class aircraft carriers had one very straightforward goal: attack US Navy aircraft carrier battlegroups – At the tail end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union produced a number of unique aircraft carriers. Known as the Kiev class, the carriers were the Soviets’ initial foray into the world of fixed-wing naval aviation, and the only Soviet carriers to become fully operational. The story of the Kiev carriers is also the story of a land power forging a path to become a naval power, seeking to realize a fleet that could challenge the mighty U.S. Navy.
The Kiev-class aircraft carriers had their origins in the tenure of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov. Appointed by Nikita Khrushchev to the position of Commander in Chief of the Soviet Navy in 1956, Gorshkov served in that position for a remarkable twenty-nine years. He oversaw the expansion of the Soviet Navy from a strategically insignificant force in the years after World War II to a well-balanced one that could project power into the Third World, a problem that became obvious during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviet Navy had no long-range striking forces it could send to meet the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba.
The Kiev-class carriers were the result.
While Gorshkov devoted a huge amount of the Soviet Navy’s construction budget into submarines, particularly ballistic missile submarines, he wanted a balanced force capable of projecting power overseas. Faced with the imminent deployment of longer range submarine-launched Trident C-3 missiles, the Soviet Navy would have to operate even farther from the Eurasian continent in order to counter them. This would pitch the Soviet Navy directly against the carrier task forces of the U.S. Navy.
At the same time, more countries were falling into the Soviet orbit, providing the USSR with port facilities. Cuba in the Western Hemisphere, Vietnam in Asia, Angola in Africa, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Libya in the Middle East, and Ethiopia and Somalia in the Horn of Africa all provided anchorages for the Soviet Navy to visit and demonstrate fraternal socialism. If the Soviet Union wanted to keep and even expand a network of overseas allies, it would need a naval force, complete with capital ships, capable of visiting such allies and engaging in visible shows of support.
The four Kiev-class carriers were part of a major shipbuilding effort designed to fulfill both sets of tasks.
In 1975, Kiev appeared, followed by her sister ships Minsk (1978), Novorossiysk (1982), and Baku (1987). All four were built at the Nikolayev South Shipyards in Ukraine, the Soviet Union’s only constructor of large surface warships. Like the Moskva class before them, the vessels were a mix of ship types, with the front half resembling a guided missile cruiser and the remainder of the ship resembling an aircraft carrier. At 899 feet, the ships were approximately 85 percent as long as the U.S. Navy’s new Nimitz-class carriers.
The forward half of the ship had a considerable amount of firepower, with eight SS-N-12 “Sandbox” anti-ship missiles. Each SS-N-12, known 4K80 in the Soviet Union, carried a 2,000 pound high explosive warhead or a 350 kiloton nuclear warhead. The Sandbox had a range of 341 miles, with targeting data provided by shore-based Tu-95 maritime patrol aircraft or helicopters from the Kiev’s air wing. The nuclear warhead option would have been particularly effective against U.S. carrier battle groups, with only a single missile needing to penetrate U.S. defenses to ensure the carrier’s destruction.
A capital ship designed to go head-to-head with an American carrier needed formidable air defenses, and the Kiev class did not disappoint. The first three ships featured a pair of twin rail SA-N-3 (NATO reporting name: “Goblet”) surface to air missile launchers with seventy-two missiles below decks while the fourth ship, Baku, received a weapons upgrade with 192 9K330 Tor anti-air missiles replacing the SA-N-3s. The ships also carried forty 9K33 Osa missiles, the sea-based version of the land-based, short-range SA-8 “Gecko” missile. Finally, for close-in defense against incoming missiles, each Kiev had eight AK-630 30-millimeter radar-directed Gatling guns. Other standard armament included two sets of 76-millimeter dual-purpose guns, one facing forward and one facing rear, two RBU-6000 anti-submarine multiple rocket launchers, and ten anti-submarine torpedoes.
The real innovation found in the Kiev class, however, was the ship’s aviation capabilities. The ships featured a six-degree angled flight deck that started parallel to the bridge and ran all the way to the stern; in that way, the carrier flight deck could be two-thirds the overall length of the ship while half of the ship retained traditional cruiser characteristics. The carriers were designed to operate up to twenty-two Yak-38 “Forger” fighters, which used two downward facing engines and a vector-thrust engine in the rear to take off and land vertically. At sea, however, the ships typically carried up to thirteen Forgers and a dozen Ka-25 “Hormone” helicopters acting in the anti-submarine, over-the-horizon missile targeting for SS-N-12 missiles, and search and rescue roles.
The breakup of the Soviet Union left the ships in the hands of the Russian Federation, which could not afford to maintain them. Worse, the Nikolayev South shipyards and spare parts were now in a separate country, Ukraine. All of the Kiev class were retired and a fifth unnamed ship was never built. Kiev was sold to China where it became a hotel, while Minsk will reportedly be part of a theme park. Novorossiysk was broken up at Pohang, South Korea in the 1990s.
Of all four mighty ships only one, Baku, remains. The most advanced ship in the best condition of all four, Baku was retained, renamed Admiral Gorshkov, and then sold to the Indian government to be converted into a full aircraft carrier. Converted by Russia’s Sevmash shipyards in the 2000s and 2010s, today it is known as the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and is the flagship of the Indian fleet.
The Kiev-class carriers were an ambitious attempt to give Russia a powerful ship capable of taking on American aircraft carriers while at the same time hunting down submarines that posed a threat to the Soviet homeland. Because responsibilities were split between two vastly different, their ability to do either was severely curtailed. Ships that are half one type of ship and half another, like Japan’s World War II Ise–class aircraft carrier/battleships, are usually a failure at being both. The Kiev class was no exception.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.