Editor’s Note : Please also see previous works by Robert Farley including Will the F-35 Dominate the Skies? , Five Best Bombers of All Time , Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All Time , Five Worst Fighter Aircraft of All Time , the Five Best Submarines of All Time and Five Revolutionary American Weapons of War that Never Happened .
For nearly seven decades, the defense-industrial complex of the Soviet Union went toe-to-toe with the best firms that the West had to offer. In some cases, it surprised the West with cheap, innovative, effective systems. In others, it could barely manage to put together aircraft that could remain in the air, and ships that could stay at sea.
No single weapon could have saved the Soviet Union, but several might have shifted the contours of its collapse. The relationship between technology and the “human” elements of war, including doctrine and organization, is complex. Decisions about isolated systems can have far reaching implications for how a nation defends itself.
As with last week’s list , weapons are often cancelled for good reason. Events intercede in ways that focus a nation’s attention on its true interests and needs, rather than on the pursuit of glory and prestige. In the Soviet case, many of the “wonder weapons” remained safely in the realm of imagination, both for the enemies of the USSR, and the USSR itself.
Sovetsky Soyuz class battleship
During the interwar period, the Soviet Union explored a variety of options for revitalizing its decrepit fleet. Until the first decade of the twentieth century, the czars had maintained a relatively modern, powerful navy. After the Russo-Japanese War, however, Russian shipbuilding fell steadily behind the West, and the Revolution disrupted both the industry and the Navy itself.
By the late 1930s, the Soviet economy had recovered to the point that Stalin could seriously consider a program of naval construction. The Sovetsky Soyuz class battleships spearheaded an ambitious acquisition plan, which also included battlecruisers and aircraft carriers. Based loosely on the Italian Littorio class, the Sovetsky Soyuzs would displace approximately 60,000 tons, carry 9 16” guns, and make 28 knots. This made them competitive in size with the most powerful battleships in the world, although inexperience and shoddy Soviet construction practice would likely have rendered them troublesome in battle.
The Soviet Union laid down four of the intended sixteen battleships between 1938 and 1940, parceling out construction between Leningrad, Nikolayev (on the Black Sea), and Molotovsk (on the White Sea). One was cancelled in 1940 because of poor workmanship. The other three were suspended on the arrival of war, although plans proceeded to complete one (in Leningrad) even after World War II ended. Wiser heads eventually prevailed, and the ships were broken up in place.
Construction of the ships required an enormous investment of Soviet state resources. Had construction begun earlier, the USSR would have wasted a fair chunk of national income on three ships that could not escape the Baltic and the Black Sea, respectively, and one that would have been limited to convoy escort in the Arctic. Literally any use of materials and industrial capacity would have served the USSR better in war than these four ships.
The Orel and Ulyanovsk class aircraft carriers
The Soviet Union began to study aircraft carrier construction shortly after the Revolution, but as with battleships the disordered economy, the backward state of Soviet industry, and the Second World War disrupted planning. After the war, and after a briefly ambitious effort under Stalin , Soviet authorities undertook more modest, sequential efforts at carrier construction. The Moskva class helicopter carriers entered service in the mid-1960s, followed by the Kiev class VSTOL carriers in the 1970s and 1980s.
The next step was complicated. Some favored another sequential step, while others argued for pushing forward to a full supercarrier (what would have been the Orel project ). The Soviet Navy took the gradual path, working out improvements to the Kiev class and initiating what would become the Kuznetsovs, conventionally powered medium-large ski-jump carriers.
The Soviet Navy expected the Ulyanovsk class to succeed the Kuznetsov. Displacing over 80000 tons, with a nuclear power plant, the Ulyanovsk were the first real Soviet competitors to the American supercarriers. Although Ulyanovsk would retain a ski-jump, it would have had sufficient catapult capacity to launch strike-laden fighters and early warning aircraft, make it more or less equal to its American contemporaries. For the first time, the Soviet Navy would have possessed a carrier capable of long-range offensive operations around the globe.
However, as with so many Soviet weapon systems, catastrophe intervened. The end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, made completing the Ulyanovsk a dicey proposition, and the only hulk was broken up. In hindsight, the gradual approach had much to say for itself, as it resulted in a force of sea control ships and a cadre of naval aviators. The decision to forego the full supercarrier, however, meant that the Soviet Navy could never offer friends (or enemies) the same kind of reassurance as the U.S. Navy. It meant adherence to a reactive naval strategy rather than a proactive effort to offer an alternative to the Western maritime system. But then the Soviets may not have had much to offer, in any case.