We Now Know Why Russia Never Had an Aircraft Carrier Fleet

We Now Know Why Russia Never Had an Aircraft Carrier Fleet

Kyle Mizokami

History, Europe


Not enough money or capacity.

Key point: As a predominately land power, and one that was low on cash and ship-building capacity, Moscow was never able to field multiple true carriers. Russia did try, and continues to make plans, but it is unlikely it will build more carriers anytime soon.

The Soviet Union was one of the largest, most industrial proficient countries the world has ever seen. Yet for all of its engineering talent and manufacturing capacity, during the seventy-four years the USSR existed it never fielded a true real aircraft carrier. The country had several plans to build them, however, and and was working on a true carrier, the Ulyanovsk, at the end of the Cold War.

After the Communists’ victory in 1917, science and engineering were pushed to the forefront in an attempt to modernize Russia and the other Soviet republics. The military was no exception, and poured resources into then-advanced technologies such as tanks, airborne forces, and ground and aerial rockets. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was linked to several carrier projects, including the first effort, Izmail.

In 1927, the Soviet leadership approved plans to build a carrier by converting the unfinished Imperial Russian Navy battlecruiser Izmail, under construction since 1913, to a full-length aircraft carrier. Completed as a battlecruiser, Izmail was to displace thirty-five thousand tons, making it similar in displacement to (and of the same decade as) the U.S. Navy’s Lexington-class interwar carriers that carried up to seventy-eight aircraft.

Unfortunately for the new Soviet Navy, Izmail’s conversion was never completed and the ship was eventually scrapped. While the idea of a Soviet carrier did have its supporters, others, including the brilliant young Marshal Tukhachevsky, pointed out that as large as it was, the Soviet Union could not afford to build both an army and a navy to match its most powerful neighbors. Tukhachevsky had a point, and the Navy took a backseat to Red Army (and Air Force) ambitions. This was a strategic dilemma that the Soviets had inherited from the tsars and that persisted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989—one that still affects the Russian government today.

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