Some old photos of Russia’s sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov reveal something seemingly strange. Twelve vertical launch tubes for powerful P-700 anti-ship missiles, nestled just underneath the forward deck of the 1,000-feet-long vessel.
Hinged hatches normally covered the launch tubes, allowing Kuznetsov’s aircraft to use the deck’s full length for takeoffs.
The Russian navy reportedly stopped loading the tubes back in the early 2000s. Today outside observers rarely see the hatches open. Nearly four decades after Kuznetsov launched, many people have forgotten the flattop ever carried anti-ship missiles.
But the carrier’s missiles are a tidy metaphor for the Soviet and Russian navies’ recent histories. They’re artifacts of Moscow’s approach to naval warfare.
In the 1920s and ‘30s when Western powers were developing their first aircraft carriers, the Soviet Union was busy purging its officer corps to remove anyone who premier Joseph Stalin considered disloyal. The Soviet fleet stagnated.
During World War II, the Soviet Union battled for survival along its own borders. Moscow heavily invested in a powerful land army and an equally powerful air force, but neglected the navy with its inherent, long-range offensive capabilities. The USSR didn’t have the luxury of projecting power across the sea.
So it should come as no surprise that many Western powers, in particular the United States and the United Kingdom, ended the war with modern aircraft carriers. But the Soviet Union did not.
As the Cold War settled on a nuclear-armed world, Soviet military doctrine remained focused on two things -- air and land battles along the Soviet periphery and nuclear deterrence. Neither demanded aircraft carriers.
The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 changed that. The crisis underscored the importance of long-range naval power, even in nuclear confrontation. Sergey Georgyevich Gorshkov, admiral of the fleet at the time, launched a major modernization effort that aimed, for the first time, to equip the Soviet fleet with carriers.
But the fleet couldn’t completely shake its defensive thinking. “In Western terms the Soviet navy aimed for sea control of the waters adjacent to the USSR and sea-denial in the areas more distant but still within striking range of Soviet targets,” the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency explained in an official history.
The result was two classes of aircraft carrier, including Kuznetsov, that possessed flight decks and air wings but also packed long-range anti-ship missiles. American and British carriers, by contrast, were designed strictly for power projection. They had big decks and well-rounded air wings but no organic anti-ship missiles.
Stated another way, Soviet carriers were defensive anti-ship platforms that could sail farther than other Soviet ships could do, while also launching fighters in order to protect themselves. Western carriers, on the other hand, were offensive land-attack platforms that could deploy anywhere in the world, each with a large escort force whose sole mission was to protect the carrier.
Here’s yet another way to think of it. A Soviet carrier was supposed to deploy far from home in order to intercept, and try to sink, an American carrier sailing toward the Soviet Union. Hence the anti-ship missiles under Kuznetsov’s deck.
When the Cold War ended and the U.S. carrier threat to Russia seemingly subsided, Moscow removed Kuznetsov’s P-700s. The deletion transformed Kuznetsov into a strict power-projection platform, albeit an unreliable one.
That was a decade ago. With tensions between the United States and Russia again on the rise, there have been reports that Moscow might install new anti-ship missiles under Kuznetsov’s deck as part of the aging ship’s off-again, on-again modernization program.