The Ulyanovsk Aircraft Carrier: A Nuclear Spectacle in Russian Naval History
The Ulyanovsk Aircraft Carrier

The Ulyanovsk, with all its promise and possibilities, became a symbol of an era of unrealized ambitions and wasted resources.

Soviet naval grave: The failure of the Ulyanovsk in 1991

Analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 often focuses on the inflation of its defense spending, a symptom of its desperate attempt to match the military capabilities of the United States. A prominent and telling example of this trend is Project 1143.7, the Ulyanovsk, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

This project, framed in a grandiose vision, sought to provide the Soviet Union with blue-water naval aviation capabilities, an unprecedented advance in its military history. However, Ulyanovsk is emblematic not only of ambition but also of strategic and economic failure.

The Ulyanovsk, conceived at the height of the arms race, turned out to be a doomed colossus from its gestation. Three years after its construction began, the Soviet Union dissolved, leaving the project unfinished and relegated to oblivion. This premature obsolescence not only reflects a miscalculation in military planning but also negligence in evaluating economic and political viability.

Ulyanovsk: Naval gap between Russia and the United States

In this light, American concern about Russian military capabilities seems exaggerated, if not irrational. Russia’s operational reality, evidenced by its inability to occupy regions such as eastern Ukraine effectively, belies the perception of a significant conventional military threat to the United States. This mismatch between perception and actual capability is even more palpable in the naval context.

The aircraft carrier, an unofficial but effective barometer of a nation’s military and economic power, demonstrates the disparity between the US and Russian fleets. While the United States operates 11 nuclear aircraft carriers, Russia lacks a single one.

Instead, the Russian Navy is forced to rely on an obsolete and problematic aircraft carrier fueled by Mazut, an outdated petrochemical fuel. This aircraft carrier, characterized by its inefficient operation and visible atmospheric pollution, symbolizes the outdated Russian naval reality.

Ulyanovsk vs. Kuznetsov: Contrasting visions in Russian naval strategy

Kuznetsov
Kuznetsov

Admiral Kuznetsov’s odyssey, mired in endless repairs and modernizations plagued by setbacks and disasters, contrasts drastically with the ambitious Ulyanovsk aircraft carrier project. This contrast between the Kuznetsov, a symbol of obsolescence and stagnation, and the Ulyanovsk, a promise of technological advancement, highlights the distance between vision and reality in Russian naval strategy.

The Ulyanovsk, launched on November 25, 1988, represented a qualitative leap in Soviet military capabilities. She was intended to be a game changer, with her two Mayak steam catapults that would have allowed launches of fully loaded aircraft. In contrast, the Kuznetsov is limited to launching less loaded aircraft due to its “ski jump” design. This difference is not trivial; It marks the border between what could have been an air-naval power and the reality of a fleet limited in its operational capabilities.

Ulyanovsk: Truncated naval ambition and its impact on Russian strategy

In addition, the Ulyanovsk would have featured four KN-3 nuclear reactors, offering virtually unlimited sea-keeping capability, an essential attribute for a global naval power. Its aircraft and helicopter configuration, with a combination of 44 Sukhoi Su-33, Su-27K, and Mikoyan MiG-29K fighter aircraft, along with six Yakovlev Yak-44 RLD early warning aircraft and a fleet of Kamov Ka- helicopters 27 and Ka-27PS, would have formed an imposing embarked air force.

But the story of the Ulyanovsk ends on a note of failure and waste. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the cancellation of the project due to a lack of funds when the ship was only 40% complete. This 1,054-foot, 65,000-ton giant was finally scrapped, a process that lasted until 2015.

The Ulyanovsk, with all its promise and possibilities, became a symbol of an era of unrealized ambitions and wasted resources. Meanwhile, the Kuznetsov, trapped in a cycle of fruitless repairs and modernizations, serves as a constant reminder of the gap between the Soviet aspiration for naval dominance and the dysfunctional reality of post-Soviet Russia.

The lesson here is clear: the strategic vision, no matter how grandiose, must be founded on a realistic assessment of available capabilities and resources. The history of the Ulyanovsk and the current state of the Kuznetsov not only reflect errors in calculation and planning but also a profound disconnect between military ambition and economic and political sustainability.

FAQs

What was the objective of Project 1143.7, Ulyanovsk?
Project 1143.7, known as Ulyanovsk, was an ambitious Soviet plan to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Its goal was to provide the Soviet Union with advanced blue-water naval aviation capabilities, representing an unprecedented advance in its military history.

Why does Ulyanovsk symbolize a strategic and economic failure?
The Ulyanovsk became a symbol of strategic and economic failure due to its premature obsolescence. Begun in the middle of the arms race, its construction was interrupted by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, evidencing an erroneous calculation in military planning and negligence in the evaluation of economic and political viability.

How does Russian naval reality contrast with American perception?
Russian naval reality, characterized by reliance on outdated technology and limited capabilities, contrasts sharply with the American perception of a significant conventional military threat. The current state of the Russian fleet, including the outdated Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, demonstrates this disparity.

What did Ulyanovsk represent in terms of Soviet military capabilities?
Ulyanovsk represented a qualitative leap in Soviet military capabilities. It was intended to be a game-changer, with its advanced steam catapults and nuclear reactors that would have offered almost unlimited sea-keeping capability, making a significant difference in naval air power.

What lessons can be drawn from the fate of the Ulyanovsk and the Kuznetsov?
The history of the Ulyanovsk and the current state of the Kuznetsov reflect errors in calculation and planning, as well as a disconnect between military ambition and economic and political sustainability. They teach that the strategic vision must be based on a realistic evaluation of available capabilities and resources.