Russia’s only aircraft carrier is a relic from the Cold War. Aircraft carriers, which are modern marvels that are essentially floating cities, are a good sign of a country’s military strength and overall wealth. For example, the very wealthy United States has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with another three under construction.
China is expanding its navy in one of its most ambitious ways. It already has two aircraft carriers that can be used, and up to four more are on the way. The United Kingdom used to rule the seas and has two aircraft carriers in its fleet.
And Russia, with its one-dimensional economy and depleted military, has only one aircraft carrier, an aging and smoldering relic, currently in drydock awaiting repairs and modernization. It is even very likely that, with the war in Ukraine going badly for Moscow—and the sanctions hurting it—the old warship will never sail again.
The only Russian aircraft carrier—dubbed a “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser”—is Admiral Kuznetsov. The Soviet Union built the Kuznetsov in shipyards on the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine.
Although it was introduced in 1985, Kuznetsov did not enter full service until 1995, four years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Kuznetsov has a sister ship called the Varyag.
However, the Varyag was not completed at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the newly formed Ukraine sold the unfinished hull to China. Today One of China’s two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning, was formerly the Varyag.
The goals of the Russian design team for their aircraft carriers were lower than those of their American counterparts. The Kuznetsov’s purpose is more limited than that of US aircraft carriers, which are used to project air power overseas; instead, it is to protect and support the Russian fleet of submarines and surface ships.
The Kuznetsov is 1,000 feet long, can carry around 60,000 tons of cargo, and is manned by 1,690 sailors. Unlike nuclear-powered ships, the Kuznetsov can only stay at sea for 45 days thanks to its need for a thick, heavy petrochemical fuel called Mazut.
To put it into perspective, consider that a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier can remain at sea continuously for 20 years.
The most distinctive feature of the Kuznetsov is the “ski-jump” launch system. A “ski-jump,” as the name suggests, is a ramp that curves upwards at the ship’s bow. The ski jump allows planes to take off from runways that would otherwise be too short.
With a ski jump, an aircraft can generate the necessary lift to fly at a lower speed. Thus, planes can take off on short runways at low speeds with a ski jump. It’s a cheap trick.
Instead, US aircraft carriers use a sophisticated catapult system, which launches planes at the airspeed necessary to achieve lift despite a lack of runway space.
Will the only Russian aircraft carrier sail again?
As the Kuznetsov has been grounded for some time, its days of active duty may end. Once the Kuznetsov returned from its 2017 deployment off the coast of Syria, it underwent extensive maintenance and upgrades to extend its service life by another quarter century.
The retrofit, which was to update the ship’s electronics and power plant, has been fraught with complications.
Russia’s largest floating dry dock, PD-50, sank in October 2018. When the dry dock sunk, one of its 70-ton cranes slammed into Kuznetsov’s flight deck. The crane took two months to remove.
The Kuznetsov then caught fire in December 2019. Due to the fire and smoke inhalation, two workers were killed, and fourteen were injured. Losses from the fire were several million dollars.
According to the Russian government, Kuznetsov will return to duty in 2023, but experts are skeptical. The question of whether or not Kuznetsov will return to service is reasonable, given the ongoing difficulties with what should have been a simple retrofit, as well as the obvious deficiencies of Russian military equipment and supplies in Ukraine.