The Soviet Union is long gone, but its aircraft carriers live on
Russian conventionally powered aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. AP
The Soviet Navy was never known for its aircraft carriers, and the few that they operated were not intended for the same operations as their US counterparts.
While these porters didn't do much for the Soviets, some of them lived on and are now vital naval assets for two of the largest military powers in the world.
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After World War II, there was no question that aircraft carriers were the dominant ship cargo.
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American, British, and Japanese air carriers were instrumental in the greatest naval battles of the war, and US dominance in the development of air carriers during the Cold War cemented their importance.
Soviet carriers, on the other hand, received much less attention.
A total of 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 should be defensive surface fighters, relying more on their massive missile inventory than on their aircraft.
Soviet aircraft carrier Leningrad in 1988. US Department of Defense
Soviet naval officials had long wanted a porter in their inventory, but Soviet leaders chose instead to prioritize the army and air force.
Between 1927 and the completion of the first aviation company in 1965, at least five different carrier projects were proposed or canceled. This aviation company, commissioned in 1967, was one of two Moskva-class helicopter aircraft.
The ships were supposed to chase nuclear submarines and did not have long flight decks for fixed-wing aircraft. Instead, their air wings consisted of 14 helicopters, mostly Kamov Ka-25 or Ka-27.
The Moskvas were followed eight years later by the first real porters - the Kiev class. The Kievans had an angled flight deck and an air wing with 12 helicopters and 12 vertical Yak-38 take-off and landing fighters. Four Kiev-class carriers were built, the last one being put into operation in 1987.
The Kuznetsov class was the last class, and only one was completed before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Admiral Kuznetsov had a jump and an angled flight deck. Its air wing consisted of 18 Su-33 fighters and 12 helicopters.
Armed to the teeth - with missiles
Soviet aircraft carrier Leningrad, April 1, 1990. US Department of Defense
Soviet aviation companies had much smaller air wings than their NATO counterparts. This was by design as their main armament was their massive missile arsenals.
Since they were intended for anti-submarine combat (ASW) and submarine support, both Moskva-class carriers had an RPK-1 Vikhr system capable of carrying two nuclear-type anti-submarine missiles FRAS-1 could be fired, each of which had a yield of up to 10 kilotons and could detonate approximately 650 feet below the surface. They were kept in a rotating magazine that contained eight missiles.
Moskva-class carriers were also armed with two RBU-6000 anti-submarine missile launchers and 48 anti-aircraft missiles that could be fired by two M-11 double 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 conventional warhead of 2,000 pounds or a nuclear warhead of 350 kilotons. Over 100 anti-aircraft missiles formed their air defenses.
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, nearly 200 anti-aircraft missiles, two RBU-6000 launchers, and two 100mm cannons.
The last carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, was armed with 12 radar-controlled P-700 granite anti-ship cruise missiles in vertical launchers right in front of the ski jump at the bow. With a range of nearly 400 miles, granite missiles could carry a 1,600-pound warhead or a 350-kiloton nuclear warhead. The carrier also had 190 anti-aircraft missiles and a UDAV-1 anti-submarine missile launcher.
The weapons fit perfectly into the Soviet Navy's defense doctrine, which consisted of destroying US surface ships - especially carriers - when deployed in Soviet home waters. The missiles also allowed the Soviet Union to send its launchers abroad for operations.
All Soviet porters were built in what is now Ukraine and had to pass through the Turkish road to get anywhere. The 1936 Montreux Convention prevented the overtaking of airlines, but the Soviet designation "heavy aircraft with cruiser" was an acceptable loophole for Turkey.
INS Vikramaditya. Reuters
Soviet airlines made a number of trips abroad and participated in some exercises, but never saw action. Admiral Kuznetsov was plagued by problems - so much so that he was always accompanied by a cargo ship with additional pipelines for repairs and a special tug in case of breakdowns.
All airlines except Admiral Kuznetsov were decommissioned between 1991 and 1996. Two Kiev-class airlines (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 conversion, which included the addition of a jump and a suitable flight deck, it was accepted into the Indian Navy as INS Vikramaditya in 2013. The air wing of the Vikramaditya consists of 26 Russian-made MiG-29K fighters.
The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning leaves Hong Kong, China on July 11, 2017. Reuters
In 1998, Admiral Kuznetsov's unfinished sister ship Varyag was sold in a seedy deal to China, supposedly to turn the airline into a casino. After a massive overhaul that removed the rocket launchers, it was inducted into the Chinese Navy as Liaoning in 2012, making it China's first aircraft carrier.
The Liaoning air wing is considered a completely new class (called Type 001) and consists of 24 J-15 fighters - Chinese copies of the Russian Su-33s - and 16 helicopters.
Seven years later, China hired a slightly larger second carrier in a spin-off class (called Type 002) called Shandong. Because of its size, it can hold more aircraft.
In contrast to their Soviet predecessors, Chinese aviation companies are said to operate more like their American counterparts, focusing on offensive operations with their air wings.
A problem child
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
remains a problem for the Russian Navy.
During the only combat mission in Syria in 2016, Kuznetsov's aircraft made 420 sorties. However, two planes were lost due to problems with the carrier's arrest cables, which required the entire air wing to be relocated to one of Russia's inland air bases to continue air strikes.
The freight forwarder has been upgrading since 2017 to extend its service life by at least two more decades. The conversion is expected to remove its missile silos, give the ship a new suite of electronics and air defense systems, and carry 50 aircraft.
The overhaul also had problems. In 2018, the floating dry dock sank with the ships, and a 70-ton crane crashed against the flight deck. A year later, a major fire broke out on board, killing two workers and injuring at least eleven others.
However, the upgrade continues, and Russian sources say the airline will be subjected to sea tests in 2022.
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