It’s Time for Russian Carrier Ambitions to Sail Into the Sunset

If carriers are obsolete that goes double for Russia

Is there a future for Russian aircraft carriers?

Those following the news from Russia have probably heard that Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov (official name: Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov), was put into dry dock for major repairs and retrofits. Things did not go well. First, the dry dock sank (it was Russia’s biggest) and then a huge crane came crashing down on the deck. And just to make it even worse, a fire broke out on the ship killing 2 and injuring more. With each setback, many observers questioned the wisdom of pouring huge sums of money into additional repairs when just the scheduled ones would cost a lot of money and take a lot of time.

Actually, the damage from the fire was not as bad as expected. The damage from the crane was, well, manageable. But the loss of the only huge floating dry dock is a real issue: the Kuznetsov cannot be repaired elsewhere and these docks cost a fortune.

But that is not the real problem.

The real problem is that there are major doubts amongst Russian specialists as to whether Russia needs ANY aircraft carriers at all.

How did we get here?

A quick look into the past

During the Soviet era, US aircraft carriers were (correctly) seen as an instrument of imperial aggression. Since the USSR was supposed to be peaceful (which, compared to the US she was, compared to Lichtenstein, maybe less so) why would she need aircraft carriers?

Furthermore, it is illegal to transit from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean through the Bosphorus with an aircraft carrier and yet the only shipyard in the USSR which could build such a huge ship was in Nikolaev, on the Black Sea.

Finally, the Soviets were acutely aware of how vulnerable US aircraft carriers are to missile attacks, so why build such an expensive target, especially considering that the Soviet Union had no AWACS (only comparatively slow, small and much less capable early warning helicopters) and no equivalents to the F-14/F-18 (only the frankly disappointing and short range Yak-38s which would be very easy prey for US aircraft).

Eventually, the Soviets did solve these issues, somewhat. First, they created a new class of warship, the “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser”: under the flight deck, these Soviet aircraft carriers also held powerful anti-ship missiles (however, this was done at the cost of capacity under the deck: a smaller wing and smaller stores). Now, they could legally exit the Black Sea.

Next, they designed a very different main mission for their “heavy aircraft carrying cruiser”: to extend the range of Russian air defenses, especially around so called “bastion” areas where Russian SSBNs used to patrol (near the Russian shores, say the Sea of Okhotsk or the northern Seas). So while the Soviet heavy aircraft carrying cruiser were protecting Russian subs, they themselves were protected by shore based naval aviation assets.

Finally, they created special naval variants for their formidable MiG-29s and Su-27s. As for the AWACS problem, they did nothing about it at all (besides some plans on paper). The collapse of the USSR only made things worse.

The Soviets also had plans for a bigger, nuclear, aircraft carriers, and on paper they looked credible, but they never made it into production. These supposed “super carriers” would also come with a truly “super” price… [The 70,000-ton Ulyanovsk was scrapped after 1991 at 40% complete.]

So how good was/is the Kuznetsov?

Well, we will probably never find out. What is certain, however, is that she is no match for the powerful U.S. carriers, even their old ones, and that the US has always been so far ahead of the USSR or Russia in terms of carriers and carrier aviation that catching up was never a viable option, especially not when so many truly urgent programs needed major funding.

Did the Kuznetsov extend the range of Russian air defenses? Yes, but this begs the question of identity of the “likely adversary”. Not the US: attacking Russian SSBNs would mean total war, and the U.S. would be obliterated in a few short hours (as would Russia). I don’t see any scenario in which US ASuW/ASW assets would be looking for Russian SSBNs anywhere near the Russian coasts anyway, this would be suicidal.

What about smaller countries? This is were the rationalizations become really silly. One Russian (pretend) specialist even suggested the following scenario: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt takes power, thousands of Russian tourists are arrested and the Islamists demand that Russia give full sovereignty over to all Muslim regions of Russia, if not: then hundreds of Russians will get their throats slit on Egyptian TV. Can you guess how an aircraft carrier would help in this situation?

Well, according to this nutcase, the Russian carrier would position itself off the Egyptian coast, then the Russians would send their (pretty small!) air-wing to “suppress Egyptian air defenses” and then the entire Pskov Airborne Division would be somehow (how?!?!?!) be airlifted to Egypt to deal with the Ikhwan and free the Russian hostages.

It makes me wonder what this specialist was smoking!

Not only does it appear that the Egyptians are currently in negotiations with Moscow to acquire 24+ brand new Su-35s (which can eat the Russian carrier aircraft for breakfast and remain hungry for more), but even without these advanced multi-role & air superiority fighters the rest of the Egyptian air defenses would be a formidable threat for the relatively old and small (approx.: 18x Su-33; 6x MiG-29K; 4x Ka-31; 2x Ka-27) Russian airwing. As for airlifting the entire 76th Guards Air Assault Division – Russia simply does not have the kind of transport capabilities to allow it to do that (not to mention that Airborne/Air Assault divisions are NOT trained to wage a major counterinsurgency war by themselves, in a large and distant country). Theories like these smack more of some Russian version of a Hollywood film than of the plans of the General Staff of Russia.

Back to the real world now

Frankly, the Kuznetsov was a pretty decent ship, especially considering its rather controversial design and the appalling lack of maintenance. She did play an important role in Syria, not thanks to her airwing, but to her powerful radars. But now, I think that it is time to let the Kuznetsov sail into history: pouring more money in this clearly antiquated ship makes no sense whatsoever.

What about new, modern, aircraft carriers?

The short answer is: how can I declare that the USN has no rational use left for its aircraft carriers and also say that the Russian case is different and that Russia does need one or perhaps several such carriers? The USN is still several decades ahead of modern Russia in carrier operations, and (relatively) poor and (comparatively) backward Russia (in naval terms) is going to do better? I don’t think so.

Then, there is one argument which, in my opinion, is completely overlooked: while it is probably true that a future naval version of the Su-57s (Su-57K?) would be more than a match for any US aircraft, including the flying brick also knows as F-35, Russia STILL has nothing close to the aging but still very effective carrier-capable USN Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye. Yes, Russians have excellent radars and excellent airframes, but it is one thing to have the basic capabilities and quite another to effectively integrate them. As always, for Russia, there is the issue of cost. Would it make sense to finance an entire line of extremely costly aircraft for one (or even a few) aircraft carriers?

We need to keep in mind that while Russia leads the world in missile technology (including anti-shipping missiles!), there are many countries nowadays who have rather powerful anti-ship missiles too, and not all are so friendly to Russia (some may be at present, but might change their stance in the future).

Unless Russia makes a major move to dramatically beef-up her current capabilities to protect a high-value and very vulnerable target like a hypothetical future aircraft carrier, she will face the exact same risks as all other countries with aircraft carriers currently do.

A quick look into the future

Hypersonic and long range missiles have changed the face of naval warfare forever and they have made aircraft carriers pretty much obsolete: if even during the Cold War the top of the line U.S. carriers were “sitting ducks”, imagine what any carrier is today? The old saying, “shooting fish in a barrel” comes to mind.

Furthermore, what Russia needs most today are, in my opinion, more multi-role cruise missile and attack submarines SSN/SSGN (like the Yasen), more diesel-electric attack submarines SSK (like the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky), more advanced patrol boats/frigates (like the Admiral Kasatonov), more small missile ships/corvettes (like the Karakurt), more large assault ships (like the Petr Morgunov) and many, many, more.

As for aircraft carriers, they are not needed any more to extend the (already formidable) Russian air defenses and in the power-projection role (operations far from Russia), the Russian Navy does not have the capabilities to protect any carrier far away from home shores.

Which leaves only three possible roles:

1) “Showing the flag”, i.e. make port calls to show that Russia is as “strong” and “advanced” as the US Navy. Two problems with that: i) the USN is decades ahead of Russia in carrier operations and 2) there are MUCH cheaper way to show your muscle (the Tu-160 does a great job of that).

2) “Retaining the carrier know-how”. But for what purpose? What naval strategy? What mission? Russia is the nation that made aircraft carriers obsolete – why should she ignore her own force planning triumphs?

3) Prestige and $$$ allocation to select individuals and organizations within and next to the Russian Navy. Since Russia does not have a money-printing-press or criminally bloated budgets, she simply cannot afford the capital outlay either for the Russian Navy, or for the nation of Russia, just to fill the pockets of some interested parties.


If I have missed something, please correct me. I don’t see any role for carriers in the future Russian Navy. That is not to say that I am sure that they won’t be built (there are constant rumors about future Russian “super” carriers, no less!), but if they are built, I believe that it will be for all the wrong reasons.

The plight of the Kuznetsov might be blessing for Russia. She was a good ship (all in all), but now she should be viewed as an object lesson to (hopefully) kill any plans to build more carriers for the Russian Navy.

Source: The Unz Review

  1. Ricky Miller says

    Russia should not build new aircraft carriers, I agree. They are a waste of money unless Russia wants to emulate the United States and roll around our world attacking small states for nefarious reasons. But the Admiral Kuznetsov should and will be repaired. The reasons? Well, for one most of the work is done already. Really, the refit was limited from it’s original goals anyway and 2) Used along the Northern Sea Route the ship can provide the Northern command with launch and attack vectors that complement the growing number of Russian airfields there. 3) Ferrying working aircraft. Look at Russia’s Syria situation, geographically. Iraqi airspace was open to Russia, and then it wasn’t. Turkish airspace has been opened for Russia but now there is pressure inside Turkey to limit it because of the growing success of the Idlib campaign. If airspace were to be completely closed Russia would have to box aircraft, sans wings and reassemble them in Syria. Ferrying air groups to Syria or wherever faces American intervention in the future, say Algeria is a mighty useful mission statement for the Admiral Kuznetsov. The cost and trouble of finishing the repair and refit is mildly problematic, with the cost factor being minor. The payment was already rendered and damages from the crane incident and the fire are to be bourne by the yard. The cost of not being able to move 15-18 ready to fight aircraft to an operating theatre and going back to Russia for more might prove way more than troublesome. Keep her.

  2. LS says

    Give the thing to China.

  3. rightiswrong rightiswrong says

    If WW3 starts, then carriers won’t last more than the flight time of a missile.

    What about the time between world wars?
    Russia needs a carrier, 4 would do well. Syria has shown that Russia needs to be able to provide all types of military assets to far away allies, and air cover cannot be provided by transport ships carrying boxed aircraft. Also, Russian pilots have more training, experience, and fly advanced aircraft which Syria or other nations allied with Russia do not.
    The US use their carriers for attacking under developed nations, very successfully. Russia does not need to copy US naval policy, but needs to realise the value that a carrier can bring during non world wars, which happen rarely. Venezuela does not need to be attacked by US forces, when the US has proxies to do that for them in Brazil, Colombia and the other SA states who are under the US heel.
    Venezuela would be delighted to have a Russian carrier off their coast, if they were to come under attack from US proxies by land.

    The US otherwise, will destroy Russian allies at will, unless Russia can show she will defend her allies as soon as US assets start appearing in numbers like in Syria.

  4. CHUCKMAN says

    I didn’t know there were any “Russian carrier ambitions.”

    The Kuznetsov [a Soviet era carrier, Russia’s only remaining one] does appear to have been effectively sidelined already.

    Since it had been sitting around, Russia was going to upgrade it so long as the job wasn’t too costly.

    But it is hard to see the cautious and pragmatic Putin spending on the costly new dry dock now required, owing to the sinking of the old one, to work on a dated ship.

    That is not his style. It might well be useful for other ships, but its size is determined by the old carrier.

    Anyway, America and China have very different purposes for their carriers.

    America uses them all over the world as tools of intimidation. And they do make impressive sights in distant lands.

    And it thinks it must have platforms to work in places like the South China Sea. It of course always has Israel on its mind, too. And Iran is an obsession.

    It should be noted that during the last big flare-up Trump generated against Iran, an American aircraft carrier was kept a few hundred miles from Iran’s coast, which is lined with that country’s own anti-ship missile. I don’t think the effectiveness of that missile is known, but Iran has demonstrated the accuracy and effectiveness of a couple of its other missiles.

    The latest, most sophisticated anti-ship missiles – those of Russia and China, certainly – do make that American use of carriers a risky business now, although not all weapons systems reach the international arms market.

    I do believe there is an element in Pentagon and American Naval thinking a little resembling that of the Polish Army of 1939, not wanting to give up on its splendid-looking cavalry.

    America likes to use the term “power projection,” although there is something almost 19th century British imperial in the term. Well, what do you know, American indeed has a global empire?

    China likely thinks in terms of perhaps eventually having to use force on Taiwan. At any rate, it will be prepared, and Taiwan’s just knowing that encourages caution in its behavior.

    China’s artificial island bases in the South China Sea, complete with runways and defensive missiles, actually somewhat resemble a permanently at-sea carrier fleet.

    Nobody knows better than China the vulnerabilities of such capital ships today. They do have one of the most destructive missiles for use against them, a missile with which they’ve lined a good part of their coast.

    Yet they still see enough useful purpose in carriers to build new ones. I believe they’re planning a total of about half a dozen. The next one, their third, is to have an electromagnetic catapult for the planes rather than the European-style ski ramp.

    Since Russia is far, far more reluctant about being in the power-projection business than America, I’m not sure there is a good role for these immensely costly ships. Just their crews are on the order of 3 to 5,000 trained men who must be fed and housed and doctored at sea, and they require escort ships.

    Putin wants a good decade or so for Russia to grow economically in peace, and he believes he has assured that with the new hypersonic and other hi-tech weapons. He even cut the military’s budget, something America’s press and politicians seem reluctant to mention while they’re busy hyping the Russian threat.

    The role of these ships, whoever uses them, is likely to change with new sophisticated drones. Stealthy drones will be used both against carriers, as spotters for certain kinds of missiles, and be used by them. You can haul more drones than fighter planes, and you don’t need quite the same crews.

    1. Ricky Miller says

      The floating dock, if constructed would be used for more than just this ship. And, word from the region is that plans to refloat the sunken one are still on. But, the repair of the Kuznetsov would most likely involve towing the ship to Russia’s far east where a suitable floating dock awaits. The push back is the risk of embarrassment. The ship has no propellers, who have to be reattached in the dry dock. I say go for it. Wait until August and avoid the whole Cape and Indian Ocean route by placing an icebreaker in front of the group and make for the Kara Gates and beyond. Just like Alina Zagitova and the Russian ice hockey team winning gold in South Korea turned the tables on the ridiculous WADA and IOC ban in 2018 the safe arrival of the Kuznetsov to Vladivostok and her completed repair would be a worthy come from behind triumph for Russia against her Western tormentors.

      1. Canosin says

        for the sake of saving money and face…… I would not consider to put any more efforts into the Admiral K.
        instead….. focus on hypersonic long range missile…. air defence…. land based multirole aircraft ect…. Russia does not need to sail for “freedom of navigation”…..

        1. Ricky Miller says

          Russia is focusing on the things you suggest. And while I understand your opinion about the Admiral Kuznetsov, I do not share it. There is too much capability left in the ship to give it up because of some refit setbacks. In the end, it doesn’t matter what I think, or anyone else outside the Russian Ministry of Defense and their ultimate supervisor in the Kremlin. The State Duma has allocated the money and repairs are proceeding with the intent to return the ship to duty. This fire happened because of welding work to repair the damage from the crane collapse. That alone shows the ongoing determination to bring the ship and her capabilities back, as well as sending SU-33 and Mig-29 naval aviation squadrons to Crimea last month to practice carrier landings at a base where a runway simulates the Kuznetsov’s deck parameters.

          1. Canosin says

            I meant to say…… Russia has a far better judgemental and decision making procedures than I have in military experience… for sure….
            my personal view is irrelevant

    2. LS says

      Congratulations on your longest belch of the year!

  5. michael houston says

    using it as a small city/work platform in the arctic could be useful….a nuclear power plant….airport….hospital… areas…..etc.

  6. Jesus says

    The reason US carrier battle groups are vulnerable to Russian and Chinese naval forces is because they stagnated technologically and their offensive capabilities are reliant on solely aircraft. Their antiship capabilities consist of Harpoon, LRASM and modified Tomahawks all subsonic and reliant on old airframes. Their Aegis system is old and unproven against supersonic cruise missiles, and totally helpless against hypersonic weapons.

    Russia acquiring aircraft and helicopter carriers would enhance the combined arms coordination, projecting power and influence around the world. The carrier and its escorts would operate as an IADS capable of engaging enemy forces at ranges that are beyond their reach.

    Russia’s technological advantage in surface to air defenses and antiship capabilities enhanced by hypersonic missiles, would keep their carriers safe and deadly.

  7. Gary Sellars says

    The current lack of a dry dock is not an issue as they are combining a pair of dry docks at the 35th ship repair plant (SRZ) in Murmansk (where she is being repaired) to create a single large dock that can accommodate the Kuznetsov (and other large naval vessels). It should be ready in time for her 2021 completion date so the final work below the water-line (eg replacement of her props) can be completed.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.