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Why Russia Can’t Build A Fleet Of Nuclear Aircraft Carriers

Admiral Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Admiral Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia has no nuclear-powered aircraft carriers: why? The Soviet Union was known for getting ahead of its skis while planning ambitious weapons procurement plans.

Although it aspired to have a fleet of nuclear-powered carriers, the Soviet navy failed to live up to its promises.

A nuclear supercarrier could have allowed the Kremlin to project power overseas beyond its region.

The Ulyanovsk flat-top was going to be the fulfillment of those dreams. It would have been a huge vessel – bigger and heavier with more room for aircraft than ever before.

Let’s examine why the Soviets never progressed with its nuclear-powered carrier (you can get a more interactive explanation from our new video above on this issue).

Russia’s Dream: Big Carrier With a Heavy Load of Weapons and Aircraft

Its keel was laid in 1988. Planned to be over 1,000 feet long, with a beam of 275 feet, and displacing 85,000 tons with room for 70 airplanes and helicopters, the Ulyanovsk would have challenged the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz-class of carriers.

Naval versions of Su-33s and MiG-29s could have flown from its ski-jump deck after launching from two steam catapults. Yak-44 airborne early warning airplanes would supply the intelligence for successful attacks. Helicopters would conduct anti-submarine and search and rescue duties. With this build the Soviet navy could have been transformed into something to fear.

Nuclear Reactors Would Have Been a Strong Point for Russia

The nuclear reactors were going to be impressive – enabling 280,000 horsepower and over 30 knots with four reactors and four steam turbines driving four shafts. The reactors had a lifetime of 20 years.

Twenty-four launch tubes for Granit sea to shore missiles and Buk surface-to-air missiles were planned. An early close-in weapon system plus revolving anti-aircraft cannons would protect it from airplanes that passed the initial defenses.

Ready for a Modern Navy

With this carrier, the Soviets could have formed carrier strike groups escorted by frigates, cruisers, and submarines. This would bring the Soviet navy into the era of modern naval warfare.

No Such Luck 

But it was not to be.

An aircraft carrier project this ambitious was going to take time and substantial money. Plus, it was toward the end of the Soviet Union. Priority lay in supplying the army and air force along with the strategic nuclear forces. The navy had to play second fiddle. The nuclear carrier, even with enough resources, would not have been ready until the late 1990s at the earliest. By then, Russia was focusing on its economy and the end of the Cold War meant that expensive defense projects were not in vogue.

For Russia No Carrier; No Global Power?

The Ulyanovsk was only 20 to 40 percent done when it was scrapped.

So aside from the cursed and accident-prone Admiral Kuznetsov that is in drydock until 2024, the Russians do not have an aircraft carrier. This keeps Moscow from becoming a global naval power.

Even the Chinese have produced three carriers with plans for a fourth, which must frustrate the Kremlin greatly.

Since Russia is such a big country it has four fleets based in four coasts. So, homeland defense is a main concern. Even the current Russo-Ukraine War is mainly being fought on land and in air. The Black Sea fleet has been rendered irrelevant since the sinking of the Moskva flagship cruiser in April of last year.

Could the Shtorm Carrier Be the Answer?

Russia without a functioning carrier is good news for the United States and NATO and frustrating for Moscow.

Vladimir Putin’s navy has a strong force of nuclear-powered attack and boomer submarines, but this lack of carriers keeps it from having global ambitions.

Russian leadership has not even seriously discussed a carrier since Dmitri Medvedev promised in 2009 there would be six by 2025. There is something in the works called the Project 23000E Shtorm that was in the news in 2017 and 2018, but this looks like another unfulfilled promise.

Moscow would have to invest $5.5 billion and ten years to make the Shtorm. Russia had claimed the new carrier would have the S-500 Prometheus surface-to-air missile system, but that seems to be all talk.

The Russian navy has been a disappointment recently and is having trouble keeping up with the United States and China. The lack of a functioning carrier puts the country’s navy in a predicament. It has big ambitions of modernization without the capability to be a Blue Water Navy that can project power beyond the near abroad of former Soviet states.

Moscow will have to try its luck with the Shtorm, which will be a long and expensive path to development. And, as you might know, Russia loves to talk about new weapons but never actually build them. 

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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.