Kiev-class: Russia’s Aircraft Carrier-Cruiser Hybrid – The Soviet Union’s experimentation with fixed-wing aircraft carriers was anything but standard. As the second carrier-class built by the Soviet Union, the Project 1143 Krechyet class was a mashup of features characteristic of aircraft carriers and cruisers, which ensured that the class was ultimately deficient in both categories.
Nonetheless, the Kiev-class, as it was referred to in the West based on the first example of the class to be built, was the first step into fleet-based fixed-wing aviation in the Soviet navy that would persist until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Development of the Project 1143 Krechyet
The Soviet’s Project 1143 Krechyet was born out of an arms race with the United States and other Western countries centered around sea-based nuclear delivery systems, and the development of weapons to stop them.
Preceded by the Project 1123 Kondor class of helicopter carriers (which were otherwise known as the Moskva-class), Soviet Kiev-class ships were intended to build upon the anti-submarine mission of the Moskva class. Before making the decision to design the Krechyets, Soviet leaders were worried that the arrival of American submarines capable of operating in areas far from their targets would make the Kondor obsolete.
Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, the head of the Soviet Navy, would spearhead the creation of the project 1143s which would be able to hunt these submarines and to act as tools of power protection around the world in an era where Soviet client states were no longer just located on its borders.
What is the Project 1143 Krechyet Capable of?
While the Kiev class was equipped with a wide variety of weapon systems and aircraft, it was not particularly adept in either its role as a cruiser or as an aircraft carrier. The Krechyet’s offensive armament included 8 SS-N-12 Sandbox missiles, a powerful and massive ground-to-ground weapon, as well as 2 SA-N-3 Goblet surface-to-air missile systems, several close-up defense systems, and anti-submarine rocket launchers. Although the class was designed to carry a maximum of 20 Yak-38 “Forger” vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fighters, it instead usually carried a mixture of Yak-38s and Ka-25 anti-submarine “Hormone” helicopters.
The Kievs’ capacity to carry missiles and aircraft were mutually reduced by one another, which would have hamstrung the class in the event of conflict with the United States. The Project 1143s’ flight decks all featured bow ramps to aid in the launch of its aircraft contingent, further adding to the ship’s distinctive look. Perhaps aided by its hybrid appearance, the Kiev class ships were designated as “heavy aviation cruisers” in order to ensure that they could transit out of the Black Sea from their shipyard in what is now Mikolayiv, Ukraine through the Bosphorus under the terms of the Montreux Convention.
What Happened to the Soviet Union’s Kiev Class Ships?
A total of four Project 1143s were commissioned into the Soviet Navy. These were the Kiev (the first ship of its class which gave its name to the class in Western parlance), the Minsk, the Novorossiysk, and the Baku. Commissioned over the course of more than ten years between 1972 and 1987, the Kiev class was intended to be part of a growing cohort of Soviet carriers, joined by the Moskva-class and the Kuznetsov-class.
Soviet leaders also hoped to build a large, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier designated as Project 1143.7, but it was never launched. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cash- and resource-strapped Russian Navy chose to decommission most of its aircraft carriers, including all the Kiev class ships.
Only the Baku remains in service today, although under a different flag and name: the ship was finally sold to India in 2004 and renamed the INS Vikramaditya. While Novorossiysk was quickly scrapped after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Minsk and Kiev ended up being purchased by Chinese investors to repurpose as tourist attractions.
The ignominious end of most of the ships of the Soviet Union’s Kiev-class was characteristic of many other weapons systems at the end of the Cold War. As a result, they will likely go down in history as the Soviet Union’s strange attempt to break into the world of carrier aviation.
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.