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We Think We Know Why Russia Never Built a Fleet of Aircraft Carriers

Aircraft Carrier
American Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman is pictured during flying operations in the company of HMS Somerset in the Mediterranean. HMS Somerset was perforing anti-submarine duties for the immense vessel at the the time.

Russia is seen mostly as a land power. This goes a long way to explaining why Moscow never went aircraft carrier crazy: The Soviet Union was one of the largest, most industrial proficient countries the world has ever seen. Yet for all of its engineering talent and manufacturing capacity, during the seventy-four years, the USSR existed it never fielded a true real aircraft carrier. The country had several plans to build them, however, and was working on a true carrier, the Ulyanovsk, at the end of the Cold War.

After the Communists’ victory in 1917, science and engineering were pushed to the forefront in an attempt to modernize Russia and the other Soviet republics. The military was no exception and poured resources into then-advanced technologies such as tanks, airborne forces, and ground and aerial rockets. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was linked to several carrier projects, including the first effort, Izmail.

In 1927, the Soviet leadership approved plans to build a carrier by converting the unfinished Imperial Russian Navy battlecruiser Izmail, under construction since 1913, to a full-length aircraft carrier. Completed as a battlecruiser, Izmail was to displace thirty-five thousand tons, making it similar in displacement to (and of the same decade as) the U.S. Navy’s Lexington-class interwar carriers that carried up to seventy-eight aircraft.

Unfortunately for the new Soviet Navy, Izmail’s conversion was never completed and the ship was eventually scrapped. While the idea of a Soviet carrier did have its supporters, others, including the brilliant young Marshal Tukhachevsky, pointed out that as large as it was, the Soviet Union could not afford to build both an army and a navy to match its most powerful neighbors. Tukhachevsky had a point, and the Navy took a backseat to Red Army (and Air Force) ambitions. This was a strategic dilemma that the Soviets had inherited from the tsars and that persisted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989—one that still affects the Russian government today.

The Soviet Union under Stalin came to measure economic and agricultural output in five-year plans, and in 1938, as part of the third five-year plan, laid the groundwork for a pair of aircraft carriers. The so-called “Project 71” class would be based on the Chapaev-class cruisers, displacing thirteen thousand tons and with a 630-foot flight deck. The carriers would each carry fifteen fighters and thirty torpedo bombers, with one allocated to the Baltic Fleet and one allocated to the Pacific Fleet. The carriers were approved in 1939 but never completed, their construction interrupted by World War II. A second project for a heavier twenty-two-thousand-ton carrier was proposed but never even began construction.

In the mid-1940s, with the Soviet Union locked in a mortal struggle with Nazi Germany, yet another carrier concept was proposed. “Project 72” was described as similar to the previous carrier project but, at thirty thousand tons, more than twice as large. Another, similar design was Project Kostromitinov, which weighed in at forty thousand tons and would have been equipped with sixty-six fighters, forty torpedo bombers and, unusually, sixteen 152-millimeter guns. This suggests that the carrier might have been used to support amphibious landings in Scandinavia or the Baltics had it ever been built. While the Soviet Union was always a land power for which land warfare should take precedent over sea warfare, the wartime situation in 1943 made it crystal clear that resources could not be taken away from the Red Army to build an aircraft carrier of questionable usefulness.

In the aftermath of the war, with the Red Army the dominant land power in Eurasia, the Soviet Navy again pushed for more carriers. The naval staff wanted a force of fifteen carriers, nine large and six small, split between the Pacific and Northern fleets, with six of the large carriers allocated to the Pacific and the rest allocated to the Northern fleet. Stalin, however, did not want aircraft carriers, preferring to put his faith in battleships and cruisers. Soviet industry gave Stalin cover, explaining they did not yet have the capacity to build new kinds of ships.

Stalin was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev in 1953, but despite Khrushchev’s new ideas in the age of missile warfare the best the Soviet Navy could get out of him was a single light carrier. The carrier, Project 85, would displace just twenty-eight thousand tons and carry forty navalized MiG-19 fighters. This project, too, was canceled even before construction began.

In 1962, the USSR began construction of two aircraft carriers at the Nikolayev shipyards in the Ukraine. The two carriers, Moskva and Leningrad, were compromise ships, with the front half looking like a conventional guided-missile cruiser and the rear half consisting of a flight deck, a hangar and an elevator that transported aircraft between the two. The Moskva class was likely designed to hunt American  and British Polaris missile submarines operating near Soviet waters.

Each Moskva ship carried up to a dozen antisubmarine warfare helicopters, but otherwise lacked offensive armament.

The Moskva class was followed up in the 1970s and 1980s with the Kiev class, which had a similar mission, but the United States was on the verge of fielding the even longer-range Trident missile. This meant that the Soviet Navy would have to operate even farther from its home waters and potentially face off with U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. As a result, the Kievs had an offensive armament in the form of SS-N-12 “Sandbox” antiship missiles, each of which could carry a 350-kiloton nuclear warhead. Four Kievs were built, with a fifth authorized but never completed.

The mid-1980s were a period of major expansion for the Soviet Navy, including aircraft carriers. The USSR began construction on two carriers in the fifty-thousand-ton class and one nuclear-powered supercarrier, Ulyanovsk, that was nearly on par with American Nimitz-class carriers. Of the three super vessels, only one was completed before the end of the Cold War. The completed carrier was inherited by the Russian Navy, with which it still serves today as the Admiral Kuznetsov. The incomplete carrier was purchased by Chinese interests, which forwarded it on to the People’s Liberation Army Navy, where it was refitted and commissioned as the carrier Liaoning in 2012. Ulyanovsk was scrapped by Ukraine, which had inherited the unfinished hull after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

As a land power, the Soviet Union could never allocate enough of the country’s resources to build a real fleet of aircraft carriers. There was always some other perfectly reasonable—and eminently practical—way to spend the country’s rubles, whether it was on the Army or the Air Force, and later on nuclear weapons. Even today, the Russian Navy’s nonstrategic forces face stiff competition from land and air forces, and the future of Russian naval aviation is again cloudy at best.

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.

Written By

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Fransisco. His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Esquire, The National Interest, Car and Driver, Men's Health, and many others. He is the founder and editor for the blogs Japan Security Watch, Asia Security Watch and War Is Boring.

24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Robert OLeary

    March 20, 2022 at 4:52 pm

    Because they are a big fat target with 3000-5000 personnel, 100+ aircraft, and can be destroyed by one (1) missile. Russia knows the next major war will be nuclear.

  2. Paul G

    March 20, 2022 at 9:15 pm

    We all lose if its nuclear war

  3. Don Matson

    March 20, 2022 at 9:31 pm

    “We Think We Know Why Russia Never Built A Fleet Of Aircraft Carriers”?

    For god sake, Kyle Mizokami, Russia is a landlocked country! Landlocked countries don’t usually have navies! 😂😂

    Warring states

    For every aircraft carrier that’s won a battle at sea there was an aircraft carrier that lost. For every navy that won a battle at sea there was a navy that lost. In all the history of mankind there never was a navy that won a battle on land. In all the history of mankind there never was a navy that won a war! In all the history of mankind for every warring state that won a war there was a warring state that lost. In all the history of mankind there never was a military that won a war, that won the hearts and minds of those who lost.

  4. Cerebus

    March 21, 2022 at 6:20 am

    Why didnt Russia go carrier crazy ? One reason only. Money.

  5. Commie Killer

    March 21, 2022 at 8:04 am

    The Russian military is a joke. They can’t project power anywhere outside their own backyard and even there they are worthless. Nuclear ? Right . The world is against them. Die Russian troll.

  6. CosmoNOT

    March 21, 2022 at 11:40 am

    Ummm, how is Russia landlocked? Lol

  7. John

    March 21, 2022 at 12:41 pm

    Did someone really just say the country with the 2nd most ocean front property in the world was landlocked? That’s almost dumb as an article that never actually explains why they don’t have have a fleet of carriers(saying because they didn’t have the funding was a cheap out, explain to me why the funding wasn’t available and why the army/air force were given priority, duh). The single missile comment is also lame, most carriers have their own protection against those as well as an accompanying fleet whose job it is to keep that carrier safe. Not saying it can’t happen, but it’s not easy.

  8. John

    March 21, 2022 at 2:23 pm

    Stalin was a monster and frankly the picture of the USSR painted in this article glosses over the monster. The emphasis was not on science etc. It was on power and deadly socialist ideas, same as Adolf. As for Putin he is as big a monster as any and by the moment adds to his infamy.

  9. C-ton

    March 21, 2022 at 4:04 pm

    Yes, they would’ve all run out of fuel and need to be towed by Ukrainian tugboats.

  10. Ray Lowry

    March 21, 2022 at 4:24 pm

    Russia is certainly not “landlocked.” But they more icelocked (don’t think this is a real word but it describes the circumstances of my comment). The only year round Ocean Port Russia has is Vladivostok. All other ports are either iced in for a significant part of the year, or they have to run through heavily monitored sea passages. Any run into the Atlantic would be closely observed by the West. Same is true for the Mediterranean Sea- all routes in or out are choke points , which make any vessel utilizing these passages potentially problematic. Part of my military service was at an intelligence command that easily monitored vessels (both submarines and surface ships) while in the Pacific. Nothing has really changed since my years of service. Most of the thought where I worked was the event that taught Soviet Russia they needed an open ocean navy was the 1962 Cuban missile crises. Up until then they had a defensive style Navy and didn’t need anything else. However if a Country wants to project power on the high seas, they better have a fleet to back up that desire.

  11. alkh3myst

    March 21, 2022 at 5:02 pm

    The real reason? “Ice, ice, baby.” Russian harbors freeze solid every winter, sharply limiting the country’s ability to conduct naval operations when their fleets can’t get to open water. This is what has always blocked the USSR and Russia from becoming a true naval power. This is well known to the US Navy. We plan for this.

  12. Sal

    March 21, 2022 at 6:53 pm

    The Russian military budget is 45 billion dollars. USA is 700 billion. An aircraft carrier us 13 billion, 4 would be enough to spend their whole military budget. A paper tiger,just like iraq.

  13. ELSTX

    March 22, 2022 at 12:03 am

    Out of their $45 billion dollar budget, the Russians are able to field the largest nuclear force in the world, plus a decent sized air force and army. Nukes mean that NATO and China can’t beat Russia in a war. The best that either of Russia’s 2 greatest threats could do is to tie with Russia at a horrible cost. This is a pretty efficient way to spend a budget. The problems that Putin is having in Ukraine is that he built a defensive military that is suitable for defense of Russian territory, but he know wants to use it to engage in offensive operations outside of Russian territory while not even fully mobilizing his country. This is because of his domestic political situation. Calling up 2 million reservists to engage in a special military operation that isn’t supposed to be a war is politically difficult, especially when a chunk of the reservists don’t want to kill Ukrainians. Putin waited too late to start preparing his country politically for war with Ukraine. You shouldn’t underestimate the Russian military because it is fighting with one hand and a leg tied behind its back. Oh, and they also have nukes.

  14. Marco

    March 22, 2022 at 12:16 am

    Russia for all its technology does favor its Missiles, Rockets, and Submarine forces. Its airforce is something not to be taken lightly as well.

    Russia doesn’t need carriers. Its ships are specifically designed for hunting and sinking other ships, and in that aspect they were well designed.

  15. Richard torres

    March 22, 2022 at 1:02 am

    Such a beautiful country and culture, going to waste because of the foolishness of the despot murderer in charge of the Kremlin.

  16. Hyba Nieboli

    March 22, 2022 at 1:20 am

    No bucks, no buck Rogers.
    Navies are for projecting power not defense. Their huge land mass and bitter winters are enough of a defense.
    Historically they may possess the most corrupt, useless navy of all time led by admirals more at home with palace intrigue than on the high seas. Russo-Japanese war, for instance, or the fact that none other than John Paul Jones had to bail their sorry butts after they got bottled up in the Sea of Azov.

  17. Tom Collins

    March 22, 2022 at 3:24 am

    We have some real buffoons writing these “content” pieces now don’t we?

    1) Author conveniently bleeds “Soviet Union” into “Russia” and never even makes the distinction.

    2) Author may be correct, at least somewhat as to why the USSR never built any carriers, but that’s far from the point and nearly as far from the truth.

    3) Russia, as in “modern” Russia, knows that an aircraft carrier is easily susceptible to modern missiles like supersonic and hypersonic ones they’ve successfully developed. That took military foresight in more than one way.
    a) They know that the US aircraft carriers are built for bombing runs in defenseless 3rd world countries of the Global South.

    b) They know that it’s a massive, massive waste of money and they’re not rich. But more importantly they know that US and UK aircraft carriers are merely boondoggles perpetrated by military industrial contractors along with the obsolete $4Bn/piece planes that they carry – unless, again, the aim is to bomb third world countries “back to the stone age.” This alone proves Russia is not some wannabe imperial power like the US.

    4) Several readers here seem to also be confusing the “commies” with modern day Russia which includes the stupid belief that the Russians haven’t learned from dozens of decades of history and warfare, mainly waged against it.

    5) Russia obviously CAN project power where it’s needed and reasonable, aka, their frontiers, which is the rational thing for a semi-superpower to do. It’s also energy rich so no need to wage losing wars in the Middle East or do stupid stuff like US sanctions on Venezuela rather than just buying oil from their government.

    Tell y’all what: If Russia and the US were ever to face off in a direct hot Eurasian war, the US would be TOAST. Russia didn’t “run out of fuel” in its tank/APC convoys like the US media would have you believe. This was all planned and is being executed according to plan. The US has unmotivated soldiers (except the special forces and drone operators and pilots of whack-a-mole S400 targets) while Russia has very motivated ones. If the corporate MSM is telling you anything, other than public health info that affects them too, you know it’s the opposite of the truth.

    This isn’t an “article”; it’s “content. Paid by the word or character.

    Trying again due to excessive moderation. Apologies.

  18. Homie D clown

    March 22, 2022 at 6:21 am

    Russia is certainty the aggressor right now. Unfortunate that such a country would end up committing such a humanitarian crisis. Proving the character of Putin and the Oligarchs. I would think they raided the military funds to buy a few super Yachts to impress the GOP with.
    The writer uses the word unfortunate when talking about the fact that russia could not complete building an aircraft carrier. From where i sit it is a good thing. The writer must be a supporter of the communist system.
    As far as the ground an A-10 Thunderbolt with air support that old tank philosophy is also done. Putin attack is one of the weakest seen. Remember what A-10 Thunderbolt did to the Iraqi army. remember how the Iraqi army got out of their vehicles and walked home ? I think the Oligarchs raided any funding the ,Military had and took the donald Rumsfeld approach,” you go with the Army you have”. May The Donald Rumsfeld rest in hell also

  19. James Bond

    March 22, 2022 at 8:31 am

    Very simple..
    The Russia doesn’t bully third world countries or steal oil halfway around the world. So why would they need aircraft carriers?

  20. James Bond

    March 22, 2022 at 8:33 am

    Aircraft carriers are WW2 technology.

  21. Stephen Fullerton

    March 22, 2022 at 9:01 am

    For starters while the USSR and Russia has projected itself as a world power they have always concentrated their efforts on border countries. They don’t need wasteful spending in Navies to galavant around the world. Maybe that’s the real lesson

  22. Danny Gajic

    March 22, 2022 at 11:46 am

    what naive people cccr or now Russian federation they have never being invaders, like English took Malvinas or France Algeria ,remember Slavs never being wanderers they never have captains Cook ,not to talk about Yankees this fellows like to sniff in everyone else underwear BUT take my hat down to them, if they never use nuc…. Hiroshima …Nagasaki,many of us today will speak Japs language, worried me very much today that this guys call their self NATO ,would not push this guy,{{{call nim self PUTIN}}} he could use nuc….,do not like to made column of this post,so for now stay short

  23. Danny Gajic

    March 22, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    One more to answer fellow above comment ,he call him selL HOMMEE ,he said lets go remember thunderbolt Iraqi war ,if he mean Norman storm man ,,,,,OHHH YEAHHHH ,,,KUWAIT is small area with 1,2 mill population there was 50.000 Iraqi solders with no air defence at all ,so general Norman had easy ride ,we all remember pictures it was called highway to death then he said Donald Rumsfeld phrase he interpreted wrong on his on way ,,,,,Donald said ,and I like how he explain {{{{ quote }}}}}}}} I KNOW WHAT YOU DONT KNOW ,YOU DONT KNOW WHAT I KNOW

  24. Hopper

    March 26, 2022 at 6:40 pm

    It really has to do with access to the Black Sea. Sevastopol has always been a major naval base for Russia (and the USSR), even when it belonged to Ukraine for a time. However, one of the main stipulations of the Montreaux Convention was verbiage on classifications of certain vessels and their capabilities that essentially banned Aircraft Carriers from transiting Turkish controlled Straits. There are also limits on tonnage which modern day Carrriers easily exceed. Russia’s sole “Carrier” The Admiral Kuznetsov is not legally classified as a carrier. If it ever worked (currently has a giant hole from a dry dock accident), it could make the transit.

    Money is also an issue. Those things are cost prohibitive.

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