The Navy’s Greatest Fear? Russia Wanted to Build a Super Aircraft Carrier

    Paul Richard Huard


    The story of a dream denied. 

    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.

    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.

    (RecommendedIs it Time to Bring Back the Battleships?)

    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.

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