Why Did Russia Fail to Build a Robust Aircraft Carrier Fleet?
Why Did Russia Fail to Build a Robust Aircraft Carrier Fleet?: A Look at the Historical, political, and Technical Factors that Contributed to Russia’s Lack of a Robust Aircraft Carrier Fleet Despite its Military and Naval prowess during the Cold War Era.

Despite the outstanding military exploits and naval development of the former USSR during the Cold War era, the ambition to build a robust aircraft carrier fleet was never fully realized.

Despite its renowned historic maritime capabilities, the Russian Federation has failed to build a major aircraft carrier fleet, relegating its naval force projection to Admiral Kuznetsov, its lone and troubled aircraft carrier.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union, along with a series of financial and tactical mistakes, has hindered progress toward a powerful aircraft carrier grouping. The Kuznetsov, suffering from mechanical deficiencies and mishaps in its operation, does not fulfill its potential, thus evidencing the Russian waste in the evolution of embarked aviation.

This scenario contrasts markedly with the evolution of the United States Navy towards modern supercarriers, marking a significant strategic and technological distinction between both maritime nations.

As the US Navy moves toward the addition of its second Gerald R. Ford-class supercarrier, the Russian Federation persists in its dependence on the increasingly obsolete Admiral Kuznetsov for its naval power projection.

Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

Despite the outstanding military exploits and naval development of the former USSR during the Cold War era, the ambition to build a robust aircraft carrier fleet was never fully realized. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Soviet aspirations to dominate the seas through powerful naval aero platforms also faded.

The lack of proper planning and effective timing over the years has left Russia with a single aircraft carrier in its maritime arsenal, which, unfortunately, has proven to be a constant source of frustrations and limitations.

The Volatile Rise of the Russian Navy: From Peter the Great to the USSR

Since the disappearance of Peter the Great at the dawn of the 18th century, the fleet of the Imperial Russian Navy experienced a marked decline. Specifically, between 1726 and 1730, shipbuilding was limited to 54 vessels.

However, towards the second half of that century, Russia witnessed a naval renaissance driven by its hegemony in the Black Sea. As the 19th century arrived, Russian naval advances intensified, positioning its Navy as the second most formidable globally, surpassed only by that of the United Kingdom.

However, The Russian naval boom faced an abrupt halt with the Russo-Japanese War, culminating in a significant loss of its fleet. In an effort to reverse this setback, Tsar Nicholas II promoted an ambitious naval development program, ensuring Russia had a fleet superior to that of the Central Powers at the start of World War I.

Russian naval history would continue its erratic course in subsequent years. The Russian Civil War, a prelude to the birth of the Soviet Union, left its fleet in a state of operational weakness. Under the new Bolshevik regime, interest in strengthening the nation’s maritime capabilities was revitalized.

While the USSR worked to expand its arsenal of advanced battleships, destroyers, and cruisers during and after World War I, powers such as the United States, Japan, and Great Britain focused on adding aircraft carriers to their fleets.

In this context, the Soviet Union failed to adequately capitalize on this critical period to advance the naval race, especially in the development and strategy of shipborne aviation.

The Soviet Journey to Aircraft Carriers: From Project 71 to the Kuznetsov

Why Did Russia Fail to Build a Robust Aircraft Carrier Fleet?

The adoption of aircraft carriers in Soviet naval strategy would not gain importance until the late 1930s, under one of Stalin’s ambitious five-year plans. However, the outbreak of World War II put “Project 71” on hold.

Over the following decades, several aircraft carrier prototypes were conceptualized, but constant changes in Soviet political leadership prevented their realization. Finally, in the 1980s, efforts to build an indigenous aircraft carrier came to fruition.

The Admiral Fleet Sovetskoho Soyuza Kuznetsov, erected at the Chernomorskiy shipyard and launched in the middle of that decade, marked this achievement. Originally named Riga, the ship was renamed several times, passing through Leonid Brezhnev and Tiflis before receiving its final name, Kuznetsov.

Conceived as the flagship of the Admiral Kuznetsov class, its construction represented a milestone in Soviet naval engineering. However, the disintegration of the USSR left her sister ship, Varyag, incomplete, making Kuznetsov the only aircraft carrier of the emerging Russian Federation and the flagship of its navy.

Equipped to house helicopters, Sukhoi Su-33 and MiG-29 fighters, the Kuznetsov distinguishes its operational capacity with a P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missiles, designating itself as a “heavy aircraft carrier missile cruiser.” This weaponry positions it as a maritime power projection platform with significant offensive capabilities.

Kuznetsov’s capabilities and challenges: a giant in troubled waters

Why Did Russia Fail to Build a Robust Aircraft Carrier Fleet?

The Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, in terms of technical specifications, boasts a displacement of approximately 60,000 tons and reaches speeds exceeding 30 knots.

Additionally, this sea behemoth is equipped with advanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities. As reported in Naval Technology, “the ship is equipped with the Udav-1 anti-submarine system, which includes 60 rockets designed for anti-submarine combat.”

This system, developed by Moscow’s Splav Research and Production Association, safeguards ships from underwater attacks by deflecting and neutralizing enemy torpedoes, as well as protecting submarines and underwater sabotage threats.

The Udav-1 is equipped with ten launchers capable of firing 111SG depth charge projectiles, 111SZ minelaying projectiles and 111SO deflector projectiles, with an operational range of up to 3,000 meters and attack capacity at depths of up to 600 meters.

Despite these impressive capabilities, Kuznetsov’s operational history has been plagued by problems and setbacks. In fact, this unique Russian aircraft carrier has spent much of the last decade in repairs and maintenance.

Its first operational deployment, while supporting pro-government forces in the Syrian conflict in 2016, resulted in the loss of two aircraft – a Su-33 and a MiG-29K, attributed to arrester cable failures. These incidents evidenced critical deficiencies in their ability to launch and recover aircraft safely.

Additionally, the Kuznetsov has been the scene of several adverse incidents, including fires on board, crane falls, and structural damage to the deck. These events have significantly reduced its operability and have called into question its effectiveness as a tool for projecting naval power.

Despite expectations that the Kuznetsov will resume its role as the flagship of the Russian fleet, its operational limitations and series of mishaps put it at a disadvantage compared to its international counterparts, underscoring the challenges Russia faces in the field. of naval power projection via aircraft carriers.