Russia’s navy is quite powerful, as well as its overall military, even considering the current situation in Ukraine. So why didn’t Moscow go all-in on aircraft carriers? 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.