Russia Planned to Build a Massive Aircraft Carrier. What Happened?
It would have been the first step in a "blue belt" defense of the Soviet motherland.
Here's What You Need To Remember: The decision to build the Ulyanovsk had as much to do with national pride as Soviet defense strategy.
Had she ever sailed, the Soviet supercarrier Ulyanovsk would have been a naval behemoth more than 1,000 feet long, with an 85,000-ton displacement and enough storage to carry an air group of up to 70 fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
With a nuclear-powered engine—and working in conjunction with other Soviet surface warfare vessels and submarines—the supercarrier would have steamed through the oceans with a purpose.
Namely, to keep the U.S. Navy away from the Motherland’s shores.
But the Ulyanovsk is a tantalizing “almost” of history. Moscow never finished the project, because it ran out of money. As the Cold War ended, Russia plunged into years of economic hardship that made building new ships impossible.
The Ulyanovsk died in the scrap yards in 1992. But now the Kremlin is spending billions of rubles modernizing its military—and wants a new supercarrier to rival the United States.
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Big Goals, Bad Timing:
Builders laid the keel for the Ulyanovsk in 1988, just as the Soviet empire began to break apart. The ship was such a large project that builders wouldn’t have finished her until the mid ’90s.
Construction took place at the Black Sea Shipyard in Ukraine—often called Nikolayev South Shipyard 444. It’s an old facility, dating back to the 18th century when Prince Grigory Potemkin signed orders in 1789 authorizing new docks to repair Russian naval vessels damaged during the Russo-Turkish War.
The famous Russian battleship Potemkin—scene of the famous 1905 naval mutiny and the subject of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film—launched from the same shipyard.
Early in the Soviet period, the shipyard constructed battleships. During the ’60s and ’70s, workers built Moskva-class helicopter carriers and Kiev-class carriers at South Shipyard 444.
But none of these ships came close to the Ulyanovsk.
Named after Vladimir Lenin’s hometown, everything about the supercarrier was huge, even by Russian standards.
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Her propulsion system would have comprised four KN-3 nuclear reactors, a model originally used to power enormous Kirov-class battlecruisers, such as the heavy guided-missile cruiser Frunze. Ulyanovsk could have easily reached 30 knots while under way.
The carrier would have carried at least 44 fighters on board—a combination of Su-33 and MiG-29 attack jets configured for carrier operations. Ulyanovsk’s two steam catapults, ski-jump and four sets of arresting cables would have created a bustling flight deck.
The ship’s designers planned three elevators—each capable of carrying 50 tons—to move aircraft to and from the cavernous hanger deck. Plus, the carrier would have had helicopters for search-and-rescue work and anti-submarine warfare missions.
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The Soviets planned a complement of 3,400 sailors—roughly half of the crew aboard an American Nimitz-class carrier, but sizable compared to other Soviet vessels.
Why Build It?:
That the Soviets even wanted a supercarrier was remarkable. The massive ships have never figured significantly in the Soviet or Russian naval inventory.
Currently, Russia has only one carrier—the significantly smaller Admiral Kuznetsov—launched in 1985. Multiple mechanical problems have plagued the ship ever since, and she doesn’t go anywhere without an accompanying tug vessel.
But there was a logic behind the Ulyanovsk. James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, explained that the Soviets wanted to create a defensive “blue belt” in their offshore waters.
The “blue belt” was a combination of land, sea and air power that would work together to thwart U.S. carrier and submarine forces. Russia could defend the homeland while providing safe patrol areas for ballistic-missile subs performing nuclear deterrent missions.
“Those ‘boomers’ need to disappear for weeks at a time into safe depths,” Holmes said. “Soviet supercarriers could have helped out with the air- and surface-warfare components of a blue-belt defense, chasing off U.S. Navy task forces that steamed into Eurasian waters.”
But pride and national honor also prompted the decision to build the Ulyanovsk.
“There’s also the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses aspect to carrier development,” Holmes continued. “If the U.S. is the world superpower and the U.S.S.R. wants to keep pace, then Soviet leaders want the same toys to demonstrate that they’re keeping pace. It sounds childish, but there are basic human motives at work here.”
“It’s not all about the roles and missions carriers execute,” he said. “It’s about national destiny and dignity.”
But by the mid ’90s, Russian naval vessels were rusting at their moorings, sailors served without pay and the United States stepped in to help deactivate Soviet-era nuclear submarines and provide security for the Russian nuclear arsenal.
“The Soviets weren’t dumb,” Holmes explained. “They wouldn’t spend themselves into oblivion to keep up with the Joneses, and as a great land power, they obviously had enormous claims on their resources to fund the army and air force. There was only so much to go around for ‘luxury fleet’ projects.”
“Bottom line, if you can’t afford to keep the existing fleet at sea, where are you going to get the money to complete your first nuclear-powered supercarrier, a vessel that will demand even more manpower that you can’t afford?”
(This first appeared in 2015.)
Moscow’s Military Rises Again…or Not?:
But Russia now seems willing to revive its supercarrier dream. “The navy will have an aircraft carrier,” Russian navy chief Adm. Viktor Chirkov recently said. “The research companies are working on it.”
Other Russian media reports indicate that designers are in the early phases of planning a new carrier class that would be slightly larger than the Nimitz class—and capable of holding an air wing of 100 planes.
But economic problems — including a looming recession — and the expense of maintaining and modernizing the rest of the nation’s aging fleet makes it doubtful whether Russia can build such an expensive ship.
Holmes estimates the cost of a new Russian carrier could be as much as $8.5 billion and take up to seven years to complete. But the professor also said the Russian quest for a carrier is serious.
Great nations have carriers, Russia considers itself a great nation, and therefore the ship would be a symbol of national revival and destiny. In other words, a new carrier would be one more reason to forget the bad old days when the Soviet Union disintegrated.
“We think of the Soviet Union as a dreary place, but Russians also remember that it wielded great power,” Holmes continued. “That’s a potent memory.”
For Moscow’s navy, the failure of the Ulyanovsk project is one of the biggest, baddest memories of them all.
This article first appeared in 2015. It is being republished due to reader interest.
Image: French Navy Rafale fighter jets are seen onboard the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, currently moored at the port of Limassol, Cyprus February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Stefanos Kouratzis