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Russia’s Biggest Military Blunder: Building Aircraft Carriers?

Aircraft Carrier
In November of 2018, Admiral Kuznetsov was damaged when a 70-ton floating crane fell on the flight deck.

Is Russia Giving Up Its Only Aircraft Carrier? You may have heard of Russia’s only aircraft carrier – the cursed Admiral Kuznetsov – that will likely never hit the ocean waves again. This thing can’t even move on its own power and has caught fire more than once.

It has been rotting away in drydock for years and may sink if towed. Now the Russians are going to finally throw in the towel on the Kuznetsov and try to buy a carrier from the Chinese, according to a plan introduced by a Russian politician.

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This gambit is sure to raise some eyebrows as China likely is not inclined to sell one of its carriers back to Russia. The whole effort is a waste of time.

How the Soviet Aircraft Carrier Became Property of China

Moscow has its eye on China’s first carrier – the Liaoning. The Liaoning has Soviet roots dating back to the Cold War. It was the sister ship of the Kuznetsov and was transferred to Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Called the Varyag at the time, the Ukrainians later sold it to a Chinese businessman for $20 million who wanted to make the vessel into a floating casino. The Varyag was towed back to China slowly in a harrowing journey that almost saw the carrier sink.

China wanted its first functioning carrier instead, and the Varyag was finally converted into the Liaoning.

Can Russia Buy It Back?

Russia legislator Sergey Karginov is the politician who hatched the idea to buy the Liaoning. Karginov is right about one thing, the Kuznetsov is a bucket of bolts that the Russians need to abandon. He is wrong about his main thesis – that the Chinese would sell the Liaoning.

This is no more than wishful thinking at this point. Building its own carrier from scratch is a bridge too far and Russia may be stuck with the corroding Kuznetsov hull with nothing to show for it.

It Is Time to Move on from the Carrier Dream

But does Russia even need its own carrier? The country has long focused on its army to protect its borders and now needs every soldier it can muster for the war in Ukraine. The Russian navy does have a capable fleet of submarines that carry nuclear weapons.

There are an estimated 58 subs and 11 of those are nuclear-powered ballistic missile carriers. These can prowl outside Russia’s neighborhood, but the surface fleet has been an afterthought during the last 20 years.

Russia Has Mixed Record During Syria Operation

The Kuznetsov had one major deployment in between periods of bad luck. This mission happened during Russia’s deployment to Syria. The Kuznetsov had to sail to the theater of operations with tugboats in case it broke down, but it finally made it to the war zone.

The “Admiral K” had a mixed record with hundreds of sorties launched, but it has also suffered another indignity – two aircraft were lost due to flight deck mishaps. The rest of the aircraft were transferred to a ground base which defeated the purpose of having an aircraft carrier.

No Support Mechanisms for the Russian Navy

The Russian navy does not have the global network of overseas installations that can support a surface fleet to project power around the world in what is known as a “blue water” navy. It instead has a “green water” navy that is more in tune with protecting its own region – what the Russians call their Near Abroad zone of influence that comprises the waters around the former Soviet states.

Russian Navy Has Seen Limited Success During Current War

The Russian navy has also been suspect during the war in Ukraine. After its loss of the Black Sea flagship the Moskva to Ukrainian missiles last April, the Russian maritime branch has been an afterthought – only firing standoff missiles at civilian targets on land.

While some suspected the Russian might try an amphibious landing to take Odessa, this didn’t happen and its showed the high military command that the Russian navy is far limited in the scope of operations it can carry out.  

The latest idea to re-purchase the Liaoning is a pipe dream. China has no plans to sell it. But this is a noteworthy development that shows that some Russia lawmakers have concluded it is time to move on from the Kuznetsov and find alternate ways to bring naval aircraft into a fight.

Russia may not even need a carrier due to the limited ability of the Russian navy to become a full-fledged blue water force. Time, money, and resources would be better spent on new tanks, armored personnel carriers, and precision-guided missiles, not to mention a new missile destroyer or cruiser to replace the Moskva.

Author Expertise and Experience: Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.