Isn’t it strange that Russia only has one “Dumpster Fire” aircraft carrier?
The Russian Navy, until the war in Ukraine, appeared as a powerful maritime service. Armed with hypersonic missiles and a modernized submarine force, it looked like Putin was building a strong navy out of the ashes of what was left of the Soviet Union. But where Moscow has a big problem is aircraft carriers, or rather the lack of aircraft carriers: Given Russia’s stature as a close competitor to the United States with interests in areas as far from Moscow as Latin America and Africa, one would expect the Russian Navy to have sea power tools similar to those of the United States to project power in support of these interests. While China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy just launched its aircraft carrier on June 17, the Russian shipbuilding queue lacks concrete plans to build more aircraft carriers, even though the he idea was periodically mooted.
The Russian Navy is unlikely to acquire new aircraft carriers in the foreseeable future due to financial pressures, Moscow’s prioritization of other projects and Russia’s long history as a land power.
Soviet plans for a large navy
Despite Moscow’s plans to build a large fleet of aircraft carriers during the twilight years of the Soviet Union, this never came to fruition. The Soviet Union’s first foray into maritime aviation was the Moskva-class helicopter carriers, two examples of which were eventually completed in 1967 and 1969, respectively. However, only when the “heavy aviation cruisers” of the kyiv and Kuznetsov classes (because they were classified by the Soviet Navy facilitate their transfer out of the Black Sea as the Montreux Convention) were developed that the Soviet Union would really try to create a fleet of aircraft carriers capable of carrying fixed-wing aircraft.
The Soviet Union built four kyiv-class carriers between 1972 and 1987. These ships attempted to take on two contradictory roles at once – that of a carrier and that of a cruiser. All Soviet Union kyiv-class aircraft carrier cruiser mergers were inherited by Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but were sold one by one to foreign buyers or wreckers because they were too expensive to maintain for the struggling Russian government and were also cut off from the shipyard that built them in what is now the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv.
Only two examples of Kuznetsov aircraft carriers were supplemented by the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of which – the Admiral Kuznetsov itself – is the only aircraft carrier in Russian service today, while the other was sold to China in poor condition in the early post-Soviet era.
The Soviets also attempted to build their own class of massive nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to match those of the United States. However, this would not be the case, as the Ulyanovskthe first and only ship of the class to be built before the collapse of the Soviet Union, was scrapped in 1992.
The Admiral Kuznetsov in today’s Russian Navy
Given the state of the only remaining Russian aircraft carrier, it is hard to believe that the Russian state could (or would) afford the costs of building and maintaining just one more aircraft carrier. The failures of its power plant cause frequent breakdowns as well as major accidents in 2018 and 2019occurred while the Admiral Kuznetsov was in drydock and left the ship badly damaged both extended the ship’s refit schedule and potentially added billions of dollars to the price of the project.
However, all recent signals from Moscow indicate that Russia continues to consider the possibility of building a new aircraft carrier. In a interview with Interfax, Andrei Elchaninov, the first vice-president of the Collegium of Russia Military-Industrial Commission said the commission was analyzing whether there was a need for a new carrier as well as the potential technical elements of such a project.
However, systemic issues such as Corruption and substantial financial and technological sanctions imposed on the Russian shipbuilding industry after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 would certainly slow down or hinder any attempt to build a new carrier. It is unclear how much funding has been allocated to the project (if any), raising further questions about its feasibility.
The Russian Navy struggles to maintain itself
Russia’s unlikelihood of building an aircraft carrier is a detail in the Russian Navy’s broader struggle to get the resources it wants in competition with other branches of the Russian armed forces. While the Russian Navy is far more capable than it was twenty years ago and can draw on high-quality shipbuilding skills within the shipbuilding industry conglomerate, the United Shipbuilding Corporation, the current number of ships in the Russian Navy is likely to remain stagnant in the near term, barring possible limited expansion by the end of the decade.
In the years between the capture of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, the navy has increasingly struggle to fight competition from Russian ground forces and proponents of modernizing Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and has steadily lost funding as a result. This is in line with the long arc of Russian military history, where naval power has always been a secondary element of the Russian military, whether in Tsarist, Soviet or modern Russian times.
Even if the Soviet Union had followed through on all of its plans to build a larger aircraft carrier fleet, the significant cost to the Russian Navy after the collapse would likely be more than it could afford, resulting in downsizing similar to what happened in reality. As long as Russia is a significant land power, it will struggle to follow through on aircraft carriers and other projects that have their uses in high seas navies.
Wesley Culp is a researcher at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He writes regularly on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as the Diplomatic Courier. It can be found on Twitter @Wesley J Culp.
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