The Kremlin is preparing blueprints for a huge new aircraft carrier, Russian media reported in early February, to replace its navy’s current flattop, the relatively small and aged “Admiral Kuznetsov.”
Moscow’s new carrier, however, is likely to remain a paper concept. A quarter century after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia lacks the money, expertise and industrial capacity to build aircraft carriers.
A new flattop could boost Moscow’s military power by providing air cover to warships sailing far from Russian shores and giving the Kremlin another option for launching air strikes on distant enemies.
Both are now particular concerns for the West because President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has become far more aggressive along its borders.
But the Kremlin has failed to maintain its expensive shipyard facilities and perishable worker skills. So it can’t actually complete the new vessel any time soon.
The Krylov State Research Center in St. Petersburg, which brainstorms most of Moscow’s warships, is doing the design work for the carrier, according to Russia’s TV Zvezda. The TV network featured a scale model of the new flattop earlier this month.
The model is revealing, however. It underscores the Kremlin’s narrow chance of ever building the warship. Based on the model planes on the scale ship’s deck, the proposed flattop appears to be huge – at least as big as the U.S. Navy’s nuclear powered super carriers, which can exceed 1,000 feet in length.
The United States operates 10 such nuclear carriers, each with an air wing of 60 or more planes, plus 10 smaller, non-nuclear amphibious assault ships that can launch small numbers of vertical-landing Harrier attack planes.
Russia’s “Kuznetsov” is bigger than the U.S. assault ships but smaller than the nuclear flattops. When jets take off from the deck of “Kuznetsov,” which isn’t often, they rarely number more than a dozen. The new carrier that Krylov is reportedly developing would represent a significant upgrade. That’s why Moscow probably can’t build this new ship.
When the Soviet Union launched “Kuznetsov” in 1985, it was a major technical accomplishment for the then superpower. Moscow began assembling “Varyag,” a sister ship of “Kuznetsov,” around the same time. It also started work on a true full-size carrier, as big as anything the United States builds.
But the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 abruptly halted the carrier program. One emerging problem was logistics. The Krylov design agency is in Russia, but the Soviet Union’s main carrier-building shipyard was on the Black Sea in Ukraine, which became an independent country that year. (It has not been subjected to the recent fighting.)
Ukraine scrapped the big carrier then under construction and, in 1998, sold the half-completed “Varyag” to China. Beijing spent 13 years finishing and upgrading “Varyag” to turn it into China’s first-ever flattop. The rechristened “Lianoning” now conducts sea trials to help the Chinese navy prepare for future homebuilt carriers and to train a cadre of naval aviators.
Russia was left with “Kuznetsov” as its sole flattop and, deprived of funds and Ukraine’s assistance, has struggled to keep the vessel in working condition. Since the ship was commissioned into frontline service in the early 1990s, “Kuznetsov” has deployed just five times. Each deployment, lasting between three and six months, saw the flattop sail from its home port in northern Russia around Europe and into the Mediterranean as a show of force and to demonstrate support for Russia’s allies in the region, including Syria.
By contrast, the U.S. Navy deploys its carriers once every two years for cruises lasting between six and nine months. At any given time, the United States has two or three big carriers and an equal number of small carriers on station in the world’s hot spots.
Russia, however, is lucky if its flattop is available for combat for a few months every few years.
U.S. aircraft carriers have engaged in almost all America’s conflicts since World War Two. “Kuznetsov” hasn’t launched a single combat sortie.
The carrier is clearly inadequate as a reliable instrument of Russian foreign policy. This says as much about the poor state of Russia’s arms industry, military planning and overall economy as it does about the ship itself. Eager to improve its ability to build reliable flattops, in recent years Moscow undertook two parallel initiatives. Neither worked out as the Kremlin had hoped it would.
First, in 2004, Russia and India struck a deal whereby Moscow would pull a small, Soviet-era carrier – the “Admiral Gorshkov” out of mothballs, rebuild it to enhance its ability to support jet fighters and sell it to India to replace one of New Delhi’s aged British-built carriers or flattops.
The roughly $1-billion deal was supposed to be a win-win. India would get a reasonably up to date carrier for a fraction of the cost of building a new one. (Today, a new large U.S. carrier costs as much as $14 billion.) Meanwhile, Russia’s defense industry would gain fresh experience in carrier construction that should prove useful when it came time to replace “Kuznetsov.”
But the carrier sale quickly turned into a disaster for both countries. Moscow had underestimated the deficiencies of its main Sevmash shipyard on the White Sea. Costs more than doubled when workers fell behind schedule. Sevmash finally finished the refurbished flattop in late 2013 – five years late.
Then on its maiden voyage from Russia to India, the carrier’s engines broke down, an unsurprising development considering “Kuznetsov’s” tarnished record. The Indian deal was supposed to reinvigorate Russian shipbuilding. Instead it only underscored the industry’s weakness.
Russia inked a similar deal with France in 2010 to acquire two French-made assault ships for $2 billion. Russian companies would contribute to the vessels’ construction and, at some later date, might build a few more of the ships on their own.
The Mistral class vessels can carry only helicopters, not fixed wing planes. Still, Russian officials hoped that co-producing the ships with France would do what the Indian deal was supposed to help restore Russia’s ability to construct big warships.
“The purchase of Mistral shipbuilding technology will help Russia to grasp large capacity shipbuilding,” Russian Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said. “It is important for construction of ships like the future ocean going class destroyer and later an aircraft carrier.”
But the French program failed in even more dramatic fashion than the Indian effort. Paris suspended the Mistral deal after Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in early 2014. Notably, when Russia annexed Crimea, it failed to seize Kiev’s main shipyards just north of the peninsula the same yards that had assembled the Soviet carriers, including Kuznetsov.
For at least 11 years, Moscow has been trying to restore its ability to build aircraft carriers but has made little progress. And with the Russian economy in free fall, owing in large part to sanctions that other countries have imposed over the war in eastern Ukraine, even that modest progress could grind to a halt.
Major General Igor Kozhin, the Russian navy’s chief of naval aviation, said a carrier could be ready before 2025. But one expert doubts if even that is possible. “The earliest that Russia could build a new aircraft carrier is 2027,” estimated Dmitry Gorenburg, a research scientist who is an associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
So any concept for a new Russian flattop will, for now, remain just that a concept.