The Soviet Union is long gone, but its aircraft carriers live on

·6 min read
Russia's conventionally-powered Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier
Russian conventionally powered aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. AP
  • The Soviet navy was never known for its aircraft carriers, and the few it operated weren't meant for the same kind of operations as their US counterparts.

  • While those carriers didn't do much for the Soviets, a few of them have lived on and are now important naval assets for two of the world's biggest military powers.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

After World War II, there was no question that aircraft carriers were the dominant naval asset.

American, British, and Japanese carriers were decisive in the largest naval battles of the war, and the US's dominance in carrier development during the Cold War solidified their importance.

Soviet carriers, on the other hand, have received much less attention.

In all, seven carriers from three different classes served in the Soviet Navy between 1967 and 1991. Unlike their Western counterparts, Soviet carriers were not designed to support long-range offensive operations. Rather, they were meant to be defensive surface combatants and relied on their massive missile inventory more than their aircraft.

The classes

Russia Soviet aircraft carrier Leningrad
Soviet aircraft carrier Leningrad in 1988. US Defense Department

Soviet naval officials had long wanted a carrier in their inventory, but Soviet leaders chose to prioritize the army and air force instead.

At least five different carrier projects were proposed or canceled between 1927 and the completion of the first carrier in 1965. That carrier, commissioned in 1967, was one of two Moskva-class helicopter carriers.

The vessels were intended to hunt nuclear submarines and did not have long flight decks for fixed-wing aircraft. Instead, their air wings were made up of 14 helicopters, primarily Kamov Ka-25s or Ka-27s.

The Moskvas were followed eight years later by the first real carriers - the Kiev-class. The Kievs featured an angled flight deck and an air wing of 12 helicopters and 12 Yak-38 vertical take-off and landing fighters. Four Kiev-class carriers were built, the last commissioned in 1987.

The Kuznetsov-class was the last class, and only one was completed before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Admiral Kuznetsov featured a ski-jump and an angled flight deck. Its air wing comprised 18 Su-33 fighters and 12 helicopters.

Armed to the teeth - with missiles

Russia Soviet aircraft carrier Leningrad
Soviet aircraft carrier Leningrad, April 1, 1990. US Defense Department

Soviet carriers had much smaller air wings than their NATO counterparts, This was by design, as their primary armament was their massive missile arsenals.

As they were intended for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and submarine-support, both Moskva-class carriers had one RPK-1 Vikhr system capable of launching two FRAS-1 nuclear anti-submarine missiles, each of which had a yield up to 10 kilotons and could detonate some 650 feet below the surface. They were stored in a rotating magazine that held eight missiles.

Moskva-class carriers were also armed with two RBU-6000 anti-submarine rocket launchers and 48 anti-air missiles that could be launched from two twin M-11 Shtorm launchers.

The first three Kiev-class carriers had an RPK-1 Vikhr system with 16 FRAS-1 missiles. They were also armed with eight P-500 Bazalt supersonic cruise missiles in four twin launchers. With a range of over 300 miles, these missiles could be armed with a 2,000-pound conventional warhead or a 350-kiloton nuclear one. Over 100 anti-aircraft missiles made up their air defense.

Russia Soviet Minsk aircraft carrier
Soviet Kiev-class aircraft carrier Minsk, February 9, 1983. US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Glenn Lindsey

The last Kiev-class ship, Baku (later renamed Admiral Gorshkov), carried 12 P-500s, almost 200 anti-air missiles, two RBU-6000 launchers, and two 100 mm guns.

The final carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, was armed with 12 radar-guided P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missiles in vertical launchers just in front of the ski-jump on its bow. With a range of almost 400 miles, Granit missiles could carry a 1,600-pound warhead or a 350-kiloton nuclear one. The carrier also had 190 anti-aircraft missiles and one UDAV-1 anti-submarine rocket launcher.

The weaponry fit squarely within Soviet Navy defensive doctrine, which was to destroy US surface ships - especially carriers - in engagements in Soviet home waters. The missiles also allowed the Soviet Union to send its carriers on operations abroad.

All Soviet carriers were built in what is now Ukraine and had to pass through the Turkish Straits to go anywhere. The 1936 Montreux Convention prevented carriers from passing, but the Soviet designation of "heavy aircraft carrying cruiser" was an acceptable loophole for Turkey.

Post-Soviet life

INS Vikramaditya
INS Vikramaditya. Reuters

Soviet carriers made a number of overseas trips and participated in a few exercises but never saw action. Admiral Kuznetsov was plagued with problems - so much so that it was always accompanied by a cargo ship with extra pipes for repairs, as well as a special tugboat in case of breakdowns.

All carriers except Admiral Kuznetsov were decommissioned between 1991 and 1996. Two Kiev-class carriers (Kiev and Minsk) were eventually sold to Chinese companies and became a hotel and museum respectively.

Admiral Gorshkov was sold to India in 2004. After a painfully long major refit that included adding a ski-jump and proper flight deck, it was commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Vikramaditya in 2013. The Vikramaditya's air wing is made up of 26 Russian-made MiG-29K fighters.

Liaoning Aircraft Carrier
Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning departs Hong Kong, China, July 11, 2017. Reuters

In 1998, Admiral Kuznetsov's unfinished sister ship, Varyag, was sold to China in a shady deal to supposedly turn the carrier into a casino. After a massive refit that involved removing its missile launchers, it was commissioned into the Chinese Navy as the Liaoning in 2012, becoming China's first aircraft carrier.

Now considered an entirely new class (dubbed the Type 001), Liaoning's air wing is made up of 24 J-15 fighters - Chinese copies of the Russian Su-33 - and 16 helicopters.

Seven years later, China commissioned a slightly larger second carrier in a spinoff class (dubbed the Type 002) called the Shandong. Its larger size means it can fit more aircraft.

Unlike their Soviet predecessors, the Chinese carriers are intended to operate more like their American counterparts, focusing on offensive operations with their air wings.

A problem child

admiral Kuznetsov
Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in international waters off the coast of northern Norway, October 17, 2016. Reuters

Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia's only aircraft carrier

, continues to be a problem for the Russian Navy.

During its only combat deployment in 2016 to Syria, Kuznetsov's aircraft conducted 420 sorties, but two aircraft were lost because of issues with the carrier's arresting cables, which forced the entire air wing to be transferred to one of Russia's air bases inland in order to continue conducting airstrikes.

The carrier has been going through a refit since 2017 that is intended to extend its life for at least another two decades. The refit is expected to remove its missile silos, give the ship a new suite of electronics and anti-aircraft systems, and enable it to carry 50 aircraft.

But the refit has also had problems. In 2018, the floating dry dock holding the ships sank, and a 70-ton crane crashed into the flight deck. A year later, a major fire broke out aboard, killing two workers and injuring at least 11 more.

The refit continues, however, and Russian sources say the carrier will undergo sea trials in 2022.

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