Ulyanovsk: what happened to this Soviet nuclear-powered supercarrier ?

The world of naval construction is no stranger to grand aspirations and audacious dreams. One such dream, the Soviet nuclear-powered supercarrier’ Ulyanovsk,’ left an indelible mark on history. This article delves into the fascinating story of the Ulyanovsk-class aircraft carrier, from its conception to its untimely demise. We’ll explore how it influenced China’s Type 003 aircraft carrier and whether it could have outperformed it. So, strap on your sailor hats, and let’s sail through the turbulent waters of naval history!

Soviet Naval Ambitions: From Anti-Ship to Aircraft Carriers

The Soviet Navy, during the Soviet era, had a primary focus on anti-ship and nuclear submarines rather than aircraft carriers. They dabbled with designs like the Moscow-class helicopter carrier and the Kiev-class aircraft cruiser, which were heavy aircraft-carrying aviation cruisers but not true aircraft carriers. It wasn’t until later that they ventured into building a real Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier.

The Kuznetsov-class Aircraft Carrier: A Medium-Sized Marvel

Though medium-sized by modern standards, the Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier was a remarkable feat during the Cold War. Boasting a full-load displacement of approximately 60,000 tons, it packed almost all the characteristics of an aircraft carrier. 

Interestingly, we have two Kuznetsov-class carriers—the Russian Kuznetsov and China’s Liaoning, converted from the Varyag. Some even consider China’s Shandong ship as a Kuznetsov-class carrier. Quite a family reunion!

Enter the Ulyanovsk class: The Soviet Leap for Supremacy.


The Soviets, inspired by the Kuznetsov class, yearned for an even mightier aircraft carrier to rival the US Navy. Behold the 1143.7 aircraft carrier, officially known as the Ulyanovsk-class. This ambitious vessel measured an impressive 321.2 meters in length, with a jaw-dropping deck width of 83.9 meters and a full-load displacement of around 75,000 tons.

Powering the Behemoth: Nuclear Prowess

To harness the colossal power required, the Ulyanovsk class had four nuclear reactors, aptly code-named KN3. The combined might of these reactors generated a staggering 280,000 horsepower, matching the famed American Kitty Hawk-class carrier. This nuclear-powered giant also featured a steam catapult alongside a small ski-jump deck, showcasing a unique blend of technologies.


The Quest for Air Dominance: Carrier-Based Aircraft

Aircraft carriers are nothing without their aerial arsenal, and the Ulyanovsk class was no exception. The Soviets planned to accommodate 68 aircraft on this behemoth. The star of the show was the Sukhoi Su-33 “Sea Flanker,” a versatile multi-purpose fighter capable of air superiority and ground attack. Complementing it were six Yak-44 early warning aircraft and 18 KA-27 helicopters for anti-submarine operations.

Mighty Arsenal: Weapons of War

Armed to the teeth, the Ulyanovsk class featured 12 P-700 anti-ship missile launchers on its bow runway. While unconventional by today’s standards, the Soviet Union believed these missiles would sustain the carrier’s combat capabilities even after the loss of carrier-based aircraft. The vessel also sported short-range air defense missiles and 8 AK-630 cannons for terminal defense.

The Rise and Fall of Ulyanovsk

Alas, even grand ambitions can falter in the face of unforeseen circumstances. Construction of the Ulyanovsk class commenced in 1988, with the Soviet Navy envisioning a small-step fast-running plan akin to China’s naval strategy. However, the winds of change swept through the Soviet Union, and in 1991, the project was temporarily halted. By 1992, the dream of a Soviet supercarrier was dismantled, and the Ulyanovsk class never saw the light of day.

From Dreams to Realities: The Influence on China’s Type 003

Though the Ulyanovsk class never materialized, its vision cast a lasting impact on naval development. Some believe that China, pursuing the Type 003 aircraft carrier, drew inspiration from the Soviet project. While the Type 003 is conventionally powered, hints of the Ulyanovsk class can be seen in its design and knowledge transfer. China’s launch of the Type 003 is indeed a remarkable feat, marking a breakthrough in naval construction.

A Lesson in Naval History

The tale of the Soviet nuclear-powered supercarrier ‘Ulyanovsk’ serves as a reminder that dreams can be both captivating and elusive. Though it never graced the seas, its legacy lives on in the pages of history. As we witness the rise of China’s Type 003 and other modern carriers, let us remember the audacity of the past and the ambition that continues to shape the future of naval warfare.