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Don’t Tell Putin: Russia Doesn’t Need Aircraft Carriers Anymore

Russia Admiral Kuznetsov. Image Credit: Image Creative Commons.

Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, has been a clown show affected by break-downs, deadly accidents, and mishaps. It is currently in dry dock and may not return to action for some time – if at all.

The Kuznetsov, even when things are working, still belches out thick black smoke from its antiquated use of a tarlike substance called mazut for fuel power. The Kuznetsov has been an embarrassment.

With all of these difficulties, maybe Russia does not even need an aircraft carrier.

Focus on the Nuclear Triad Instead

Russia does have an effective nuclear triad. The Navy boasts several capable nuclear-powered “boomer” submarines that can fire nuclear missiles. From Moscow’s point of view, it would be nice to have a carrier that could launch airplanes to deliver nuclear bombs but that is not a showstopper. Russia’s existing nuclear triad is adequate. 

Ukraine Has Made the Russian Navy Irrelevant

Also, the current war against Ukraine has been primarily a ground conflict. The Russian Navy in the Black Sea has been rendered impotent after the sinking of the advanced missile cruiser and flagship Moskva at the hands of the Ukrainians in April. 

A functioning carrier would have given Russia more military options and bombing capability, had the Kuznetsov been deployed to the Black Sea when fighting broke out. But Russian aviation has struggled over Ukraine and the carrier-based fighters may not have made a difference due to effective Ukrainian anti-aircraft fire.

Russia Loses Prestige Without Functioning Carrier

Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to tout Russian weapons for propaganda effects such as new hypersonic missiles and ICBMs that the leader calls the best in the world. A functioning aircraft carrier would help national morale and prestige plus give the Russian Navy more reason to ask for additional resources to populate a carrier strike group. 

Navy Can Only Protect Its Borders

But Russia has a regional Navy and not a Blue Water Navy. Efforts to expand the scope of the Russian Navy are considered a “pipe dream.” This must annoy Putin but he has more to worry about with the struggles of the army. The money spent on the war in Ukraine is going to take resources away from the Navy. Even if the Kremlin wanted to build another carrier it would likely not have the funds to do so.

One Carrier Is Not Enough Anyway

But let’s say the Russian Navy had at least one functioning carrier and began work on a new one. This would still not allow it to project forces beyond its neighborhood. One carrier strike group is not enough. To be sure, the Kuznetsov did make an appearance in Syria in 2016 for two months. The battle group only numbered a handful of ships, including a tug boat if the Kuznetsov needed to be towed home as it did in 2012 and 2015. There were just 15 airplanes on board and two were lost due to accidents. It was more for propaganda effect than military gain. The use of the carrier was also seen as a sales and marketing tactic for Russia’s defense industry

Playing Defense; Not Offense

The Kuznetsov was always meant for more of a defensive capability than offensive deployment. The worry had been U.S. and NATO submarines sneaking close to shore to enable more accurate and deadly missile fire from conventional and nuclear weapons. So, the tactical need for the Russian Navy was anti-submarine warfare with a carrier present to counter enemy subs.

Navy Pilots Are Out of Practice

Another problem with the Russian Navy is the sad state of carrier aviation. Aviators must fly to maintain their edge. With the Kuznetsov in dry dock, pilots are not getting critical take-off and landing experience – especially during poor weather and nighttime operations. The longer the carrier sits, the worse off naval aviation will be. The Kuznetsov may be out of service until 2024.

Laughingly, then-President Dmitri Medvedev once boasted that Russia would have six aircraft carriers by 2025. No way is that going to happen. There are musings about a modern Project 23000E Shtorm carrier, but with the war in Ukraine going so badly, it is difficult to foresee a scenario where this ship could be built. The Russian Navy will continue to be a defensive maritime force to protect its coastline and focus on restoring its reputation as a land power, which will be hard to achieve after losing so many tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantry. A new aircraft carrier is not possible and maybe Russia does not need one in the first place.

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Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’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.

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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.