History Proves Russia Is Really Bad At Building Aircraft Carriers

Russia's Minsk Kiev-Class Aircraft Carrier
March 26, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaSoviet UnionMilitaryDefenseCold WarAircraft CarriersNavy

History Proves Russia Is Really Bad At Building Aircraft Carriers

Russia has had an awful time over the years developing and maintaining aircraft carriers. The U.S. Navy should read this history quite closely. 

 

Summary: The article contrasts the Soviet Navy's Cold War maritime strategy with that of the U.S. Navy, emphasizing the Soviets' preference for submarines and cruisers over the American focus on aircraft carriers. It highlights the Moskva-class helicopter carrier as a unique Soviet attempt at expanding their naval capabilities, mainly for anti-submarine warfare, diverging from the U.S. model of power projection. The piece also notes the technological and logistical challenges faced by the Moskva-class, reflecting broader issues within the Soviet defense industry. It concludes by drawing parallels with current challenges in the U.S. defense sector, suggesting the need for procurement reforms to avoid similar pitfalls.

The Soviet Navy Had a Problem 

The Soviet Navy had very different methods and capabilities for projecting power than did their great nemesis, the United States Navy, throughout the Cold War. Whereas the Americans developed a truly robust methodology for power projection, with the aircraft carrier as the centerpiece of those offensive capabilities, the Soviets did not even bother to counter the Americans in the domain of carrier operations. 

 

The Soviets favored the heavy cruiser and other, smaller forms of surface warships. They also relied heavily upon their submarine fleet to continue projecting power in the face of the apparently overwhelming American carrier capabilities. 

A Helicopter Carrier to Protect Subs

One interesting divergence from this, though, was the Moskva-class helicopter carrier. It was the equivalent of the Soviets dipping their toes in the vast ocean of complex maritime operations. Much smaller than aircraft carriers, the Soviets did contemplate using the Moskva-class helicopter carrier from which to deploy fixed-wing aircraft. 

We see this dual-use capability in play even today, with far more advanced warships, such as Japan’s helicopter carrier, the Izumo-class destroyer which can readily deploy a contingent of VTOL-capable F-35 Lightning II warplanes from her deck.

In the case of the old Soviet Moskva-class helicopter carrier, it was initially designed only to deploy helicopters. The warships were designed not to project power as US flat tops are meant to do. Instead, they were geared primarily toward anti-submarine warfare. Back in those days, the concern were NATO’s Polaris-class subs. Interestingly, the Soviet concept for their light carriers was the exact opposite of how the Americans viewed their carriers. 

For the Americans, their flat tops were the center of the US Navy’s operations. 

Other warships were designed to operate in a defensive flotilla around the carrier known as the carrier battle group. The Russian version of the aircraft carrier, however, was meant to defend Russian submarines which Moscow believed was far more important.

Onboard these warships was the anti-submarine SUW-N-1 launcher that was capable of launching a 450 mm torpedo—or even a five kiloton nuclear warhead. She also carried upwards 48 surface-to-air missiles. There were also two 57 mm/80 mm guns. 

Moskva

Of course, the Moskva was not without its problems.

Engine Trouble for Aircraft Carrier 

The biggest complication for the Moskva was the engines. The Soviets, as was the case with so many systems they crafted, cut corners. The ship designers initially wanted gas turbine-powered engines, but it was determined that steam-powered engines would be better. 

Unfortunately, the steam-powered engines had to be rebuilt. The Soviets had great difficulty maintaining these ships. What’s more, the Moskva-class was dangerously slow. 

Three of these warships were laid down, with the first two going to serve in the Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol. The third was canceled. The entire class was retired by 1991, because they had never lived up to their potential. 

US Defense Industry Broken Like the Soviet Industry Was Broken 

The Soviet defense industry had chronically been unable to meet increased demands placed upon it to better compete with the West. The designers knew the threat posed to them. Yet, the Soviet defense industrial base, particularly by the second half of the Cold War, could not meet the increased demands placed upon it. 

Today, the US Defense Department’s industrial base is strained. Many programs that the Defense Department initiates are unable to be completed. And, when they are completed, very often these programs run over budget and under-deliver. The US Department of Defense must take care to fundamentally reorganize the way that it acquires news weapons platforms in order to avoid falling into the Soviet trap of defense acquisition.

About the Author 

Brandon J. Weichert, a National Interest national security analyst, is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at American Greatness and the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life, and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy. Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.