Key Point: There is more to war than having aircraft carriers.
Imposing, flexible, able to sail fast and launch devastating air strikes at long range, aircraft carriers are the ultimate expression of national power. And many of the world’s best-armed countries are acquiring them. China, Russia, India, Brazil, the U.K., France, America.
But just getting your hands on a flattop is hardly enough. For every example of a country that succeeds in deploying a functional carrier and matching air wing, there’s a counter-example: a flattop hobbled by mechanical problems, stricken by age, sidelined by bad design or stuck with warplanes that simply don’t work.
What follows are not the success stories. They are the case studies in flattop failure … and object lessons for all the countries building aircraft carriers today.
Mother Russia’s tugboat bait
The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, was launched in 1985 and joined the fleet in 1991. Since then the 55,000-ton, fossil-fuel-powered flattop has managed just four frontline deployments—all of them to the Mediterranean, and all of them just a few months in duration.
By contrast, American flattops typically deploy for at least six months every two years. The nuclear-powered USS Enterprise, commissioned in 1962, completed 25 deployments before leaving service in 2012.
One of Admiral Kuznetsov’s major problems is her powerplant. The vessel is powered by steam turbines and turbo-pressurized boilers that Defense Industry Daily generously described as “defective.” Anticipating breakdowns, large ocean-going tugs accompany Admiral Kuznetsov whenever she deploys.
Poor maintenance makes life difficult and dangerous for Admiral Kuznetsov’s 1,900 sailors. A short circuit started a fire off Turkey in 2009 that killed one seaman.