The Buzz

Russia's Supercarrier Is a Pipe Dream

Russia has confirmed that it plans on building a new super aircraft carrier despite cuts in the defense budget.

“Yes, the Navy will build an aircraft carrier, for sure,” Vice Adm. Viktor Bursuk, the deputy commander-in-chief of Russia’s navy, said last month, according to Russian state media. “Different bureaus are hammering out an image of this ship,” he added.

The new aircraft carrier Bursuk was referring to is the so-called Project 23000E Shtorm. The proposed carrier will be powered by two RITM-200 nuclear engines and displace one hundred thousand tons. This is nearly twice the weight of Russia’s only existing aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which is steam powered and currently being refitted and modernized. The Project 23000E Shtorm ship will also reportedly be able to carry ninety aircraft. Moscow’s current carrier only has about thirty planes on board.

Beyond displacing one hundred thousand tons, the Shtorm will also stretch 330 meters in length and forty meters wide. A crew of four thousand sailors will man the vessel, which is expected to feature MiG-29K fighter jets, a naval version of the T-50 and a slew of different helicopters. According to Global Security, the plan is for the ship to have “two ramps and two electromagnetic catapults to launch aircraft from its deck. To defend itself from aerial attacks, the aircraft carrier has air-defense missile and anti-torpedo defense systems.”

Although Russian officials claim that a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier has been under consideration since 2007, Russia’s Krylov State Research Center first announced Project 23000E Shtorm in 2015. The first reports indicated it would be a conventionally powered vessel. The price tag for the Shtorm carriers has been placed at about $9 billion, although other estimates are much higher. Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov has said that the contract for the ship will be signed around 2025 and the first vessel completed by 2030.

There are good reasons to doubt that Russia will actually build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the foreseeable future. For one thing, it is far from clear that Russia’s shipbuilding industry is up to the challenge. As IHS Jane’s noted shortly after the Shtorm carrier was announced in 2015, the new vessels “would be a quantum leap in capability and size over the Russian Navy’s single existing carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov.”

Complicating the problems for Moscow is the fact that the Soviet Union’s aircraft carriers were all produced in Ukraine. This fact already doomed an eighty-five-thousand-ton carrier called Ulyanovsk, which was being built at the time the Soviet Union collapsed. The other carrier under construction at that time was sold to China and later commissioned by the People’s Liberation Army Navy under the name Liaoning.

The new carrier would also feature new capabilities that even the Soviet Union never mastered when it had the Ukrainian shipbuilding yards under its control. Most notably, Soviet carriers never featured nuclear-powered propulsion systems. Russian defense-industry sources have told state media that they would gain expertise for this future carrier system by first building a nuclear-powered destroyer. “At first, the nuclear power unit for the future national aircraft carrier will be worked out on the Lider destroyer,” an unnamed shipbuilding-industry source told TASS in 2015. But the Lider destroyer program has encountered numerous delays and the first vessel is not slated to be completed until 2025 at the earliest, six years after it was initially expected. Construction on the destroyers is not scheduled to begin until 2019. The two electromagnetic catapults would also be a huge leap from the ski-ramp configurations used on previous Soviet and Russian carriers.

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