Russian Navy

Why Russia lacks aircraft carriers

Source:, author: RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov

Soviet military policies never called for building full-fledged aircraft carriers operating multi-role warplanes. Nor did Russia draft any clear carrier construction program at the turn of the century.

On July 4, Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, former chief of the Russian Navy's Main Headquarters, said the country had to build a carrier fleet in the near future. This call is a reaction to reports of two aircraft carriers being built for the British Royal Navy. As before, Russia is reacting slowly to Western naval successes.

In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union could have built a real prototype aircraft carrier. The Project 1160 carrier design would have balanced the Soviet-U.S. naval strengths. The United States had more surface warships and long experience of carrier operations.

Under Project 1160, the U.S.S.R. was to have built three nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with catapult-launched Sukhoi Su-27K Flanker warplanes. The projected carrier force was supposed to operate in conjunction with naval strategic bombers and attack submarines for the purpose of hindering the deployment of enemy carrier task forces.

However, Project 1160 was opposed by an alternative program for building heavy air-capable cruisers (Russian acronym TAVKR), supported by Dmitry Ustinov, secretary of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee in 1965-1976 with oversight of the armed forces, the defense industry and security agencies.

TAVKR was an unviable hybrid warship combining the specifications of a heavy cruiser and an aircraft carrier. The government decision to build TAVKRs also heralded the beginning of a program to develop VTOL/STOVL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing/Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing) aircraft.

This was an ambitious task. Such aircraft are notoriously difficult to develop, and the British Aerospace Sea Harrier remains the only effective VTOL/STOVL aircraft to date.

The Soviet VTOL/STOVL aircraft program was a complete failure. In the fall of 1991, a Yakovlev Yak-141 Freestyle plane turned into a fireball after crashing on the deck of the air-capable cruiser Admiral Gorshkov. Fortunately, the program was cancelled in 1992.

In the mid-1970s, the government discarded project 1160, focusing on the TAVKR program instead and impeding the development of VTOL/STOVL aircraft. However, conventional fighters cannot be converted into carrier-borne aircraft because the latter experience 100-200% greater loads during landing. Consequently, such planes must be designed from scratch.

Nevertheless, Ustinov carried on with the TAVKR program and supervised construction of the Admiral Gorshkov, the fourth warship in the series. She is now being refitted as the Vikramaditya for the Indian Navy, highlighting the fiasco of the TAVKR concept, because nobody in the world is willing to pay for such hybrid warships.

Russia's only aircraft carrier currently in service was laid down in Nikolayev, Ukraine, in 1982. Originally called the Riga, the carrier was subsequently renamed as the Leonid Brezhnev, the Tbilisi, and the Fleet Admiral Kuznetsov.

However, the Admiral Kuznetsov features a steam-turbine power-plant with turbo-generators and diesel generators, while all modern carriers are nuclear powered. She has a limited range and endurance and lacks the steam catapult necessary for carrier fighters. The warship does have a ski-jump in her bow section, but numerous experiments have revealed that catapults are the only way to ensure safe take-off in any weather conditions, regardless of the plane's weight.

Moreover, the Russian carrier has just a few navalized aircraft and only about 20 experienced carrier pilots.

This year, the United States Navy will commission its tenth Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. There are plans to launch the new-generation carrier CVN-78 with electromagnetic catapults and about 100 aircraft, including unmanned aerial combat vehicles, by 2013.

"The state rearmament program until 2016 stipulates no allocations for carrier programs," Kravchenko said. In 2009, the government will approve a concept for expanding the Russian Navy until 2050. Hopefully, the document will call for building new aircraft carriers.

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