Russia Failed to Build a Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier

Admiral Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier Russia

Russia Failed to Build a Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier

Ulyanovsk was supposed to have been a nuclear-powered supercarrier at 1,000 feet long and 85,000-ton displacement with a ski-jump deck. Russia never finished the aircraft carrier project. 


Summary: The Ulyanovsk, a Soviet nuclear-powered supercarrier planned in the 1970s, was intended to be a formidable naval asset with around 70 aircraft, steam catapults, and advanced armaments.

-At 1,000 feet long and displacing 85,000 tons, it was to boost Soviet naval capabilities and morale.


-However, high costs, delays, and the Soviet Union's collapse led to its cancellation in 1992.

-Russia's ongoing struggles with aircraft carrier construction are attributed to prioritizing missile technology, budget issues, and maintenance challenges.

Ulyanovsk: The Russian Supercarrier That Never Sailed

The Russians have bad luck with aircraft carriers of all types for decades now, clearly a good thing for the United States and NATO. Its only carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is cursed with all kinds of problems and deadly mishaps.

But Russia could have perhaps changed all that had they implemented plans for a nuclear carrier in the 1970s. Dubbed the Ulyanovsk, it would have sported around 70 airplanes such as MiG-33s and Su-29s that would have launched from two steam catapults. It would have provided an ample boost to naval morale and grist for the Soviet propaganda mill.

But she never set sail. Here is her story.

Nuclear Super Carrier Would Have Been a Jewel in the Crown

Ulyanovsk was supposed to have been a nuclear-powered supercarrier at 1,000 feet long and 85,000-ton displacement with a ski-jump deck.

The ship would have been armed with 24 launch tubes for cruise missiles with 3,400 sailors serving aboard.

It would have had three elevators planned to serve at least 44-fighters and several early-warning aircraft including helicopters.

The Soviets wanted the Ulyanovsk to have four nuclear reactors. This would have given the carrier true “blue water” capabilities to allow it to steam at 30-knots in many areas of operations to compete with the U.S. Navy.

Able to Form Soviet Carrier Strike Groups

The Ulyanovsk could have formed strike groups with guided-missile frigates that would have formed a formidable offensive asset. Nuclear weapon-equipped submarines could have patrolled with the strike group as well. Early warning aircraft would fly out front.

Carriers Have Political Value As Well

The supercarrier would have had provided Soviet Navy and society a substantial morale boost. Huge ships capture the imagination of propaganda organs, and the Soviets would have made some hay politically when testing, completing sea trials and eventually entering it into full-time service.

Russian Aircraft Carrier

Could Moscow Have Kept Her Sailing?

It’s not easy keeping a supercarrier afloat and the Russians have a horrible track record when it comes to these big warships aircraft.

The Soviet Navy and even today’s Russian navy would have had difficulty maintaining such a large ship. To include just a few unlucky examples: Admiral Kuznetsov has seen a crane collapse, a hole in its flight deck, plus a fire in the engine room that killed two workers.

So, the Ulyanovsk died in 1992 on the chopping block with high costs and delays. Also, the Cold War was ending and the Soviet Union disintegrated–making it difficult to keep building such a large ship.

Russian Aircraft Carrier

Russian Aircraft Carriers: What’s the Problem?

The failure of this program begs the question – why do the Russians have such difficulty building and maintaining large ships?

Most likely the cream of the Russian defense engineering and physics crop goes to work on rockets and ballistic missiles, especially hypersonics. The Russian navy has very competent guided-missile frigates, including a new ship-based hypersonic cruise missile. But large shipbuilding may not attract the expert human capital that is needed for success.

The Russians also seem to have a problem with long-range budgeting and financing programs over a number of years. They may not have agreed-upon contracting, acquisition and procurement, and regulatory policies that both the government and defense contractors practice. Schedule slip is a big problem for Russian shipbuilders, but they are doing better with submarines like the Borei-class, these are obviously much smaller than aircraft carriers.

Aircraft Carrier

The United States and NATO can only hope the Russians don’t ever get it together and that they stay out of the blue water carrier business. We will have to see what plans Putin has for the aircraft carrier program. 

About the Author

 Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

All images are Creative Commons.