How Russia tried and failed to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier: Although the good old US of A was not the first nation to build a supercarriershe was the nation to build one that was not sunk during her sea trials, that is, the USS Forestal (named after the late great SECNAV), commissioned in 1955. America was also the first to produce a nuclear-powered supercarrieri.e. the USS Company (star trek fans, are you all paying attention now?), launched on September 24, 1960 and commissioned the following year.
Of course, during the heady days of the Cold War, when Americans and Soviets played a constant game of tit-for-tat one-upmanship of follow the jones – or would that be on par with the Joneskiys (?) – in terms of weapons technologies, with Moscow wanting to be able to claim its own bragging rights to a nuclear carrier.
The Kremlin’s sense of urgency for such a warship grew exponentially in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan, then POTUS, upped the ante with his containment policy to the USSR. Alas for “The Evil Empire” (as Mr. Reagan called it), the finished product was not quite up to his ambitions.
Not quite full speed
Amateur military historian Robin J. Lee gives us some detailed insights on the seemingly endless problems that have plagued the development of Soviet – and post-Soviet Russian aircraft carriers:
“The Soviet aircraft carrier program got off to a late start; this slow start, like so many important things in history, can be attributed to a unique mix of historical and political circumstances. The first real opportunity for the start of an aircraft carrier program was in the late 1930s, when world naval aviation was just beginning to take off… These plans never materialized. With Stalin’s death in 1953 and Khrushchev’s subsequent ascension amid much internal controversy over defense spending, aircraft carriers were put on permanent hold. Khrushchev’s negative attitude toward maintaining large conventional forces made aircraft carriers – the epitome of the large, expensive conventional weapon eclipsed by nuclear weapons – a good target for cancellation.”
When the Khrushchev, concerned about “rehabilitation” was ousted in 1964 and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Navy’s plans for a career in aviation finally began to (prepare for the bad pun, dear readers) take off again… in somehow. In 1967, the Conventionally powered Moskva was commissioned, followed by her sister ship the Leningrad the next year.
However, to quote Mr. Lee again, “The Moscowthe s were not true “aircraft carriers” in the sense that they carried no fixed-wing aircraft; the air wing consisted entirely of helicopters. They were designed primarily as anti-submarine ships. (This particular Moscow is obviously not to be confused with the cruiser, i.e. the flagship of the Black Sea which was so ignominiously sunk by the Ukrainian Neptune missiles last April)
Finally unfounded… uh, not quite
In 1985, the USSR finally launched a real aircraft carrier capable of carrying conventional aircraft with fixed take-off and landing. This long-awaited warship was the Admiral Kuznetsovwhich bears the name of Nikolai Kuznetsov, Admiral Flota (Fleet Admiral) of the USSR during World War II (or, as the Russians still prefer to call it, the Velikaya Otechestvennaya voynathat’s to say “the Great Patriotic War.” However, subsequent political unrest delayed its official commissioning until 1991 – the same year the Soviet Union would eventually collapse – and it did not become fully operational until 1995.
What about a nuclear carrier? Well, the approximate Russian translation of “Coulda, shoulda, woulda” is equivalent to “Mogla by dolzhna byla by / могла бы должна была бы”, which brings us to the subject of the stillborn Ulyanovsk. I will quote Mr. Lee one more time:
“It was to be the continuation of 75,000 tons of the Kuznetsov class, with steam-powered catapults to launch his plane (eliminating the ski jump arc). Ul’yanovsk [sic] would have been Russia’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Its air wing would likely have been an extended version of the one found aboard Kuznetsov. The first unit of the class was laid down in Nikolayev South at the end of 1988. However, work stopped on the ship after the August coup, in November 1991, and never resumed. At the beginning of February of the following year, it is scrapped.”
In other words, to quote US military shorthand, Overcome by events (OBE).
Endless nightmares for Russian naval ambitions
As it stands, 11 out of 12 nuclear aircraft carriers are owned by the United States, with the sole exception of French navy ships. Charles de Gaulle, launched in May 1994, commissioned in September 2000, and displacing 38,000 tons. This continues to be a major source of embarrassment for Vladimir Putin and his admirals…as if the Russian Navy’s multiple setbacks in their “special military operation” quagmire in Ukraine hadn’t been humiliating enough.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments in Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany and the Pentagon). Chris holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an MA in Intelligence Studies (Terrorism Studies Concentration) from the American Military University (AMU). It was also published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cybersecurity. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of United States Naval Order (WE).