The Buzz

Is Russia Giving Up on Aircraft Carriers?

Russia created a splash two years ago when it announced plans for a hundred-thousand-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that would rival America’s giant new Ford-class carriers.

Western and Russian defense experts quickly pooh-poohed the idea as unrealistic, an expensive $17 billion fantasy for a navy that has trouble enough operating Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.

The experts appear to be right. Russia’s five-year defense plan for 2020–25 calls for completely upgrading the nuclear forces, developing new fighters and bombers, and procuring new warships.

But these won’t be big warships like carriers. “The 2025 program will again prioritize the construction of new nuclear submarines and small (no larger than frigate-type) surface combatants,” according to Defense News.

“What was most telling about Putin’s 2025 modernization planning session was what didn’t make the cut: specifically the construction of a new aircraft carrier and the development of a nuclear-powered destroyer,” Defense News noted. “Together, this signals the further postponement of Russia’s restored blue-water naval ambitions.”

This signal was amplified by an interview last month between Russia’s Vesti news organization and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the Russian defense industry. When asked about the delay in building aircraft carriers and destroyers, Rogozin replied:

If we talk, let’s say, about aircraft carriers, then technologically and technically today Russian defense industry is capable of developing a ship of such displacement. But it’s a question for the military whether such a ship is needed. After all, we have to remember that, unlike the United States, we are not a great maritime power, we are a great continental power, and we have several other priorities.

Hardly a ringing endorsement of the carrier concept by a senior Russian leader. Yet not a surprise, either. “Russia simply doesn’t have the shipyard capacity for large surface ships (most large Soviet ships were built in Ukraine) or the engineering know-how for reliable diesel-powered turbines (also built in Ukraine),” Defense News pointed out.

For navies that aspire to be queens of the world’s oceans, aircraft carriers are the crown jewels. But as Rogozin admitted, Russia is not a maritime power like the United States or the former British Empire. Despite occasional blue-water aspirations under a particular czar, or a Cold War admiral like Sergei Gorshkov, Russia—and before it the Soviet Union, and the Tsarist empire—were land powers. It was Russia’s army—not its navy—that defeated Napoleon and Hitler, just as it was the Royal Navy—not the army—that saved Britain.

Nonetheless, Russia does seem interested in mobility—but by air rather than sea. Rogozin promised a new medium military transport aircraft, to be deployed around 2023. A light transport aircraft will be flown by the end of this year. “For our army, which is compact, it’s important to have the possibility of being instantly redeployed to another theater of military operations where some threat is growing. In this way we’ll repulse any aggression by potential enemies not with great numbers, but with the great skill and mobility of our armed forces.”

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Wikimedia Commons/Mil.ru