How Russia tried, and failed to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier: Though the good ol’ US of A wasn’t the first nation to build a supercarrier, she was the nation to build one that didn’t get sunk during its sea trials, that being the USS Forrestal (named for the late great SECNAV), commissioned in 1955. America was also the first to produce a nuclear-powered supercarrier, that being the USS Enterprise (Star Trek fans, are y’all paying attention now?), launched on 24 September 1960 and commissioned during the following year.
Naturally, during the heady days of the Cold War, when the Americans and Soviets were playing a constant tit-for-tat oneupmanship game of keeping up with the Joneses — or would that be keeping up with the Joneskiys(?) — in terms of weapons technologies, Moscow wanting to be able to claim its own bragging rights to a nuke carrier.
The Kremlin’s sense of urgency for such a warship increased exponentially in the 1980s when then-POTUS Ronald Reagan upped the ante with his containment policy toward the USSR. Alas for the “Evil Empire” (as Mr. Reagan called it), the finished product didn’t quite live up to its ambitions.
Not Quite Full Speed Ahead
Amateur military historian Robin J. Lee gives us some detailed insights on the seemingly endless problems that have afflicted Soviet — and post-Soviet Russian — aircraft carrier development:
“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…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.”
When the “rehabilitation”-minded Khrushchev was ousted in 1964 and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Navy’s plans for an aircraft career finally began to (brace yourselves for the bad pun, dear readers) take off again…sort of. In 1967, the conventionally-powered Moskva was commissioned, followed by her sister ship the Leningrad the following year.
However, to quote Mr. Lee again, “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.” (That particular Moskva is obviously not to be confused with the cruiser, i.e. Black Sea flagship that so ignominiously sunk by Ukrainian Neptune missiles this past April)
Finally Ungrounded…Er, Not Quite
In 1985, the USSR finally launched a bona fide aircraft carrier capable of carrying conventional fixed take-off and landing aircraft. That much-anticipated warship was the Admiral Kuznetsov, which was named for Nikolai Kuznetsov, Admiral Flota (Fleet Admiral) of the USSR during WWII (or as the Russians still prefer to call it, the Velikaya Otechestvennaya voyna, i.e. “Great Patriotic War.” However, the intervening political turmoil delayed her formal commissioning until 1991 — the same year that the Soviet Union would end up collapsing —and she did not become fully operational until 1995.
What about a nuke carrier? Well, the rough Russian translation of “Coulda, shoulda, woulda” equates to “Mogla by dolzhna byla by / могла бы должна была бы,” which brings us to the subject of the stillborn Ulyanovsk. I’ll quote Mr. Lee once more:
“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 [sic] 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.”
In other words, to cite an American shorthand military phrase, Overcome By Events (O.B.E.).
Neverending Nightmares for Russian Naval Ambitions
As things presently stand, 11 out of 12 nuclear carriers belong to the U.S, with the lone exception being the French Navy’s Charles De Gaulle, launched in May 1994, commissioned in September 2000, and displacing 38,000 tons. This continues to be a major source of embarrassment for Vladimir Putin and his admirals…as if the Russian Navy’s multiple setbacks in their quagmire of a “special military operation” in Ukraine haven’t been humiliating enough.
Bonus: The Ford-Class Carrier (Russia Wishes It Had This)
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).