Tuesday, 25 July 2017

On Russian Aircraft Carrier Development

The news is that the Imperialist States has just launched its latest supercarrier, the Gerald Ford (why would anyone name a carrier after Ford, anyway?), which cost some big bucks, and is not exactly the greatest thing since the discovery of fire.

I love this ship, just as I love the F35 fighter. I love them because they, and similar other white elephants, are driving Amerikastan towards bankruptcy, and a bankrupt and destitute Imperialist States is something the world needs more now than it ever did.

White elephant, did I say? Yes, that is what I said. The cost of one of the Ford’s unisex toilets is probably more than the cost of the Russian missile that could send the ship to the bottom.

However, this – and the Imperialist States’ Brutish vassal launching its own carrier, the Queen Something Or Other – has reinvigorated discussions on whether Russia should build more carriers to complement or replace its sole ship serving that role, the aging and decrepit Admiral Kuznetsov.

In this article I shall address my thoughts on that topic. All opinions are, of course, my own.


I have in the past reiterated my opposition to the idea of Russia building aircraft carriers. The reasons I’ve given, in brief, are these:

First: Russia has never built or operated an aircraft carrier.

Russia’s so called aircraft carriers, all of which were constructed during the Soviet era, have always been poorly designed and highly inadequate compromises between cruisers and aircraft carriers. There were two reasons for this.

The first of those reasons is the fact that all Soviet carriers were constructed at the Nikolayev Shipyard 444 in Ukraine, which is on the Black Sea. Owing to the Montreux Convention, aircraft carriers over 15000 tons in weight are not permitted to pass through the Black Sea’s only exit, the Dardanelles. Instead of doing the logical thing and moving its carrier construction elsewhere, the USSR decided to get past the restrictions by constructing cruisers which could also carry aircraft; so called aircraft carrying heavy cruisers.

The second reason is that, as I discussed in detail elsewhere, the Soviet idea of the wartime role of carriers has always been the by now long outmoded concept of air defence of the fleet in case of a naval battle. No naval battle between anything like comparable surface units has happened since World War II and is virtually certain never to happen again. By the time the first Soviet “aircraft carrier” was launched, therefore, it was already totally obsolete for the role in which it was meant to operate.

The only remaining Russian “aircraft carrier” is the closest it has ever come to building a real carrier. This is the Admiral Kuznetsov, which I have analysed in some detail in the link above; it is still not a carrier nor classified as one. Although it has dispensed with some of the immensely heavy missile armament of older Soviet “carriers”, it still wastes a lot of storage space on offensive missiles and launchers, limiting both the number of aeroplanes it can carry and fuel, ordnance and spare parts for them. And these planes are further crippled in range and war load by having to take off with a ski jump, not a catapult like a real carrier.

Here is a discussion on why catapults are so much better than ski jumps.

These shortcomings didn’t just get discovered yesterday; they were evident as far back as the early 1980s, and were so glaring that the Soviet Navy finally decided to build a real carrier. That ship, the Ulyanovsk, was only 20% complete at the time the USSR collapsed, and was quite criminally scrapped instead of being laid up until it could be completed. Not just that, all other Soviet “carriers” of the time were either scrapped or mothballed and eventually sold off; the Admiral Kuznetsov, never meant to be anything but a transition on the way to a real carrier, was left to sail on alone.

Here is a recapitulation of the Soviet aircraft carrier programme. The article is over twenty years old, but is still completely valid because in the time since it was written Russia has not built a single carrier of any description, or made any real attempt to do so.

Never having built a carrier, the idea that Russia can build a supercarrier (as we’ll discuss) out of nowhere is absurd. Even China, which is already far more proficient than Russia in carrier technology, first refurbished an old Soviet carrier, then built another of the same class, and only now is planning a real full scale American style aircraft carrier. It’s called learning to walk before one tries to run.

Second: Russia cannot afford an aircraft carrier.

In this, Russia is not alone. Aircraft carriers are incredibly expensive things. Not only are they, in themselves, staggeringly costly, but each ship requires a crew of several thousand (anything from three to six or seven thousand), support and repair facilities, fuel and maintenance. On top of that, since carriers can’t protect themselves, they need a fleet of ships and submarines as escorts and protection. Going by American Navy practice, each carrier needs an escort group of fifteen or so ships, each of which, of course, need their own crews, maintenance and repair facilities, and so on.

Nor will one carrier do. Like anything else, carriers need to be repaired and upgraded. For a ship of this size repairs and upgrades take literally years. The Admiral Kuznetsov, for instance, is due to undergo a repair (just repair, no modernisation; modernisation would pretty much require the ship to be stripped down to the bare hull and rebuilt with new engines, additional lifts, removal of useless missiles, and installation of catapults to replace the ski jump). This repair will take at least two to three years, depending on what is to be done, during which, of course, the ship will be unavailable for anything at all.

So you can’t just have one carrier; you need at least three to four of them. And you need even more if you intend to use them in different parts of the world, because you don’t know how many of them might be needed at any one given moment.

And that is even before we go to the air groups to be carried, and the cost of the planes, the cost of training their pilots, the maintenance crew for the aircraft, the fuel their engines consume, and the like. In fact, the cost of carriers is so high that even the decrepit and ceremonial Indian Navy has shelved, and probably cancelled, its plans to acquire a third carrier in the foreseeable future.

For the cost of a single carrier, literally tens of smaller ships can be constructed...or thousands of missiles, each of which can sink said carrier.

Which brings us to the third reason:

Aircraft carriers are obsolete.

This is the era of the missile. Cheap and effective, they can neutralise carrier groups utterly and completely. Except when used against countries which have been essentially disarmed and cannot shoot back, any carrier group can be swamped by swarms of cheap missiles. Even if 99% of the missiles could be avoided or shot down, that would still not be enough, because one lucky hit would be all it takes to send the entire multi-trillion-currency-unit vessel to the bottom of the sea.

What this basically means is that a nation does not even have to be actually able to destroy aircraft carriers; it merely needs to have a demonstrable possibility of being able to do so. No naval staff, unless in a situation of an existential threat, will send a carrier into a battle where there is a good chance that it will be sunk. Therefore, the possession of an arsenal of anti-ship missiles of, say, a thousand kilometres range will force the other side’s carriers to stay at least that far away from one’s shores. Essentially, the other side might as well have no carriers at all.

Russia’s Soviet era doctrine was to have a defensive “blue belt” along its coast where enemy carriers couldn’t operate, where its own missile submarines (the heart of its seaborne nuclear deterrence) could hide safely; and the security of this "blue belt" was to be enforced by a fleet of its aircraft carrying cruisers. Well, these days the same thing can be done much more easily and cheaply with its missiles, which have ranges of about 1500 kilometres. That means no enemy carrier group can approach to 1500 kilometres of its coast without running an unacceptably high risk of destruction. And Russian missile submarines can hide within that 1500 kilometre safe zone.

So why would it need carriers?

Fourth: What else can it use carriers for?

Russia isn’t in the regime change business; it does not, despite the usual western propaganda, go around looking for innocent nations to invade and subjugate on the other side of the planet. The Admiral Kuznetsov, which as I said is not a carrier, was deployed as one off Syria, launching air strikes against terrorist targets. This was done primarily because Russia decided to get some actual combat experience on using carriers (and didn’t do very well; the Kuznetsov, with its limited air group taking off using its limiting and less than ideal ski jump, was marginal at best). Unless Russia wants to invest in genuine carriers capable of launching American style strikes, it is pointless having carriers at all; as already stated, carriers have no role other than that in today’s world. 

This is apart from amphibious assault ships, which are much smaller, much cheaper, and have a different role altogether; and those, too, Russia does not really need, though the Chinese probably do.

I shall come back to this point soon.

Now, there has been a lot of commentary, on and off, fuelled by often contradictory statements by Russian naval officials, that Russia is planning to acquire a giant aircraft carrier. This beast is supposed to be called the 23000E Shtorm, weigh upwards of 100000 tons, be nuclear powered, and carry 100 aircraft (which, ludicrously, would be launched by both catapults and ski jumps). The internet is highly dubious that it will ever be built, for a lot of reasons, not least that Russia has no idea how to build a carrier, or even a nuclear powered destroyer (the Lider Class destroyers were supposed to be built with nuclear propulsion, but none has even been budgeted for yet), or even facilities where to do so.

I would say that it would be a tragedy if it were to be built. Learn to walk before you run, I said before, and will say again. Or get the Chinese to build the ship for you.

So, given all this, there are just two reasons I can think of why Russia should want a carrier at all.

First, and this is a really big point, prestige. Although today a 650 tonne missile carrying corvette is infinitely cheaper, more useful, more deadly and more logical as an investment than a 65000 tonne carrier, it’s the latter that is the prestige platform. Like battleships a hundred years ago (when they were already fast being rendered obsolete by aircraft and submarines), carriers are prestigious flag waving projects. No self-respecting major navy can be seen without them, and few admirals would be willing to admit that they are obsolete.

It took battleships being sunk with little effort by submarines and aeroplanes in WWII before the navies of the world finally gave up on them; if there is to be a war where carriers are sunk, maybe they might finally give up on them as well. But the chances of such a war not moving on to a nuclear exchange are small, so the point is probably moot anyway.

The second reason is much, much, more interesting.

Russia has always had an enormous geographical problem. Its naval capabilities have always been clustered in its far west and far east; the very long northern coast has always both been virtually undefended and, being locked in ice, impassable. Any Russian ship merely wishing to travel from St Petersburg or Murmansk to Vladivostok, for instance, has to first head south through the Atlantic, cross the equator, then go east around the Cape Of Good Hope or west around Cape Horn, and then move back north through the Pacific until it reached its destination. It’s a difficult enough proposition in peacetime, and far more so when at war – and one’s ship can be spied on or sabotaged, if not actually attacked, by hostile nations along the way.

But suppose the north was not locked in ice. Suppose the Arctic was not frozen solid. Suppose, in a few years’ time, global warming would melt the Arctic and make it accessible to shipping. Then what?

Two things. The first thing that would happen is that an additional, and much shorter, pathway would open up between the country’s two coasts. This path would also be far more difficult to spy on or sabotage; the only danger, in fact, would be from long range attack by ships or aircraft from further to the north, that is, from across the Arctic itself.

Those ships and planes, in fact, would be a much greater threat to Russia than any approaching the east or west, because the northern coast is very long and undefended. There can be no blue belt zone there created by land based anti ship missiles. Carriers, moving through the molten Arctic, would be the only real flexible and relatively economical possibility of granting such cover.

The second thing that would happen from the melt is that undersea deposits of natural gas and minerals would become exploitable. This, frankly, will be something nations will go to war for, in the way they wouldn’t fight for other things. Nations bordering the Arctic, mainly Russia, Canada, and Norway, are already scrambling to carve out exploitation zones in the Arctic...and the ice hasn’t even melted yet.

And all these other countries are enemies of Russia, part of the evil alliance called NATO.

Russia, accordingly, will not be able to depend on good faith and signatures on agreements to defend its economic zone from poaching and exploitation. It will need aircraft to survey and defend the area, round the clock, throughout the year.

These two factors combined would argue for a Russian carrier force to serve in the Arctic, and in the Arctic alone.

 For this, obviously, the best solution would be a Russian carrier fleet comprising vessels specifically designed for Arctic conditions, capable of being used there only.

In the rest of this article I shall put forward my idea of what such a vessel should be like.


The Arctic is the smallest of the oceans, and in fact is little more than a large lake. Also, there is little chance that there will be any time in the relatively near future when it will be totally free of ice, all the year round. Therefore, the actual area of operations that any Russian carrier will have to cover will be even more restricted than the map suggests. And, as a logical corollary, mobility will not be something that will be extremely important.

Therefore, think of an aircraft carrier that is, literally, an aircraft carrier and nothing else; a huge floating airfield. It would resemble a gigantic metal box, with the minimum streamlining necessary to move through the water, thus maximising available internal space.

It would not, by itself, be mobile. Therefore it would not need huge, space-consuming, manpower-hungry, expensive engines, nuclear powered or otherwise. It would be towed into position by ocean-going heavy tugs, possibly with icebreakers clearing the way. Russia, with its icebreaker experience and familiarity with Arctic conditions, surely would have no problems with handling that.

Not being mobile, it would not need anything like as large a crew as a full scale aircraft carrier. It would not need anything like as many maintenance facilities in port or be anything like as expensive. Therefore, for the same amount as a 23000E Shtorm would cost, several of this type could be built. And they would require much less maintenance and refit time, meaning more of them could be available for service when necessary.

Not being mobile, it would also have fewer constraints on size. It could be much larger than a carrier which needs to move around under its own power at a reasonable speed. Therefore it can hold more planes, more missiles – including the anti-ship missiles Russian “aircraft carrier” designers seem to love so much – without sacrificing on space. And it could be much more heavily armoured, too; the only constraints on size and armour would be the ability of tugs to drag it into position.

And it is much, much easier to build a heavy tug than a giant warship.

Not being mobile, it would also not require a constantly dynamic escort group. Once in place, it could be protected underwater by a defensive belt of mines and anti-submarine torpedoes, while its own very large air group could protect it from attack from the sea or air. And if necessary, warships could be dispatched from ports like Murmansk, which would be far closer to the area of operations than St Petersburg or Vladivostok.

Furthermore: not being mobile, this ship would have no engines for propulsion, but of course it would need engines. It would need turbines to provide power for the living quarters and for shipboard operations, including the many sensors and radars any modern warship can’t live without. These turbines would also of necessity include power for the catapults, whether steam or electromagnetic, to launch aircraft.

What? Yes, this ship would need catapults. Catapults, in any case, are the only efficient way of launching aeroplanes from aircraft carriers, but apart from that this carrier could not possibly operate without catapults. Not being mobile, it could not provide lift to planes it is launching by its own speed. Aircraft carriers fitted with ski jumps can’t launch aircraft if they’re stationary (one of their many, many, many disadvantages). So, it would need catapults, not just in order to operate effectively (including launching surveillance aircraft, essential for the kind of role it is meant to fulfil), but to operate at all.

Therefore what we would be looking at is a very large, heavily armoured, floating airfield, with multiple planes of various kinds, protected by mines and missiles, which could be moved to a new position as and when necessary. It would be expensive, but nowhere near as costly as a supercarrier, and would actually be usable for something that makes sense.

Here, then, is what I envision such a carrier looking like:

1. Box like, heavily armoured hull with no screws, though a rudder may be necessary
2. Defensive belt of mines and smart anti-submarine torpedoes
3. Missile tubes
4. Sensor suites
5. Flight deck with catapults
6. Heavy surveillance plane (of the kind that can’t be launched without catapults)
7. Heavy shipborne fighter
8. Anchorage

This is the kind of carrier one can envisage for protection of the Arctic coast. When we get to protection of resources like natural gas fields, we can start thinking in bigger terms.

After all, natural gas fields don’t move around. Their positions are known, the areas to be protected predictable. Carriers that are placed to protect them don’t even have to be mobile; they can be converted into artificial islands, if necessary by modular construction right at the spot by tugs pulling sections from the shipbuilders. Once in place, that kind of carrier could protect the resources as well as an army could protect a mine on land.

I’m not saying that this is the way future Russian carrier construction will go. I am just saying it could.

As to whether it should, that’s something else altogether.

1 comment:

  1. Bill,
    I agree with you 100% about this USS Ford and that damn fool money pit the F-35. As far as driving 'Merikkka to bankruptcy, well, why waste the fuel when it is a very short walk to the curb?
    We have a national debt that is greater than the entire gross income of the entire global economy. Last best estimate I saw it is in the multiple of Trillions of useless/worthless dollars. Fire up the presses at the Fed, we ned more colored paper........LOL.
    Your Arctic aircraft carrier for the Russians seems to be workable. Hey, are they paying you for your ideas? If not, they should be. Maybe write up a proposal and send it off to Mr. Putin. I doubt he'd laugh at it and may even offer you a new job. Just imagine all the new stories you could post then Bill.


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