Coming Soon: A New Aircraft Carrier for Russia's Navy?

July 9, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaMilitaryTechnologyWorldAircraft Carrier

Coming Soon: A New Aircraft Carrier for Russia's Navy?

Putin's new weapon? 

As the fate of Russia’s geriatric Admiral Kuznetsov continues to hang in the balance on the heels of a crippling drydock crane accident, the Russian defense establishment is reviewing a proposal for a new, non-nuclear aircraft carrier.

At this year’s ARMY 2019 defense expo, Krylov State Scientific Center unveiled a “fundamentally new” concept for a carrier: "This year, we will demonstrate a full-fledged aircraft carrier from our viewpoint with a displacement of about 60,000 tonnes and with a very substantial and balanced pool of aircraft,” the center’s Scientific Head Valery Polovinkin told TASS news.

Polovinkin chose Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth, the lead carrier of the Queen Elizabeth class that was commissioned in late 2017, as a comparative point of departure: "An aircraft carrier with a conventional propulsion unit is the distinctive feature of the version offered to the Navy. It features a gas turbine power unit. To a certain extent, it can be compared to the UK’s aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth. They are about equal by their displacement but the conceptual project of the Krylov Center has an advantage by the number of aircraft, sea endurance and, most importantly, by the number of take-off places." The latter, Polovinkin explains, comes as a result of an innovative hull design that allows for “parallel take-off positions.”

Little else is known about the carrier’s specifications, which are likely to undergo significant changes pending interest from the Russian Defense Ministry.

Polovinkin promptly turned to the elephant in the room: why, in 2019, should the Kremlin invest in a gas turbine-powered carrier? Russia’s US competitor has used nuclear-powered carriers since the 1960’s Enterprise line, while the Chinese navy is planning to build four nuclear-powered carriers by 2035.

The argument for a conventional propulsion system boils to cost; specifically, the massive potential savings from the “standardized range of gas turbines” that has been created “thanks to the successes of Saturn [a Russian defense manufacturer] and our gas turbine producers.”

"Such an aircraft carrier,” Polovinkin asserts, “will be four-six times cheaper than its nuclear-powered version.” 

Krylov State Scientific Center is proposing this conventionally-powered carrier as an alternative to the Russian shipbuilding industry’s current plan of starting R&D work on a nuclear-powered carrier in 2023, to be delivered to the Russian navy by 2030. That carrier, dubbed project 23000E or “Shtorm,” bears an estimated cost of up to 5.6 billion dollars. 5.6 billion dollars, while a large sum in the context of Russia’s reported 61.4 billion dollar defense budget, is fairly competitive by international standards; the aforementioned non-nuclear HMS Elizabeth is only one billion dollars cheaper, while the US Navy’s nuclear-powered USS Gerald R. Ford carrier is a whopping 7.2 billion dollars more expensive at 12.8 billion.

For Krylov Research Center’s proposed carrier to be significantly cheaper than its already modestly-priced Shtorm counterpart, some corners will inevitably have to be cut; as Polovinkin put it, "This is a full-fledged aircraft carrier but with certain restrictions."  For one, Krylov is proposing a light carrier that will displace at 60,000 tons, as opposed to the 100,000 tons of its project 23000E counterpart. While both carriers can house approximately the same number of aircraft, Shtorm is likely to feature a more robust weapons suite.

Nevertheless, the critical assumption underlying the choice between a conventional and nuclear-powered carrier is that Russia needs an aircraft carrier to begin with; as frequently observed by The National Interest, this is not a premise that can be taken for granted at a time when Russia’s naval budget is being stretched thin by two flagship submarine projects.

Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University.