Russia’s dream: to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (and failure)

The Russian army, just like the Soviet army before it, is indeed powerful. So why not nuclear-powered aircraft carriers? If the Soviet Union’s nuclear aircraft carrier Ulyanovsk – named after the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin – had ever sailed, it could have caused problems for the Western powers of the world, namely the United States.

The carrier’s specifications were indeed impressive: a thousand feet long, with a displacement of eighty-five thousand tons, and enough storage to carry about seventy fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.

Defense writer Paul Richard Huard of War Is Boring noted that “with a nuclear-powered engine—and working in conjunction with other Soviet surface warfare ships and submarines—the super carrier would have traversed the oceans with a purpose.”

The Soviet Union, however, was never able to complete this ambitious project because the costs were too high. “At the end of the Cold War, Russia plunged into years of economic hardship that made it impossible to build new ships,” Huard wrote.

In 1992, Ulyanovsk and all its future military potential were buried in scrap yards.

Size never seen

If the aircraft carrier had been successfully built, it would have taken on a size never seen before in Russian military history.

“Her propulsion system would have featured four KN-3 nuclear reactors, a design originally used to power huge Kirov-class battlecruisers, such as the heavy missile cruiser Frunze,” Huard explained.

“Ulianovsk could easily have reached thirty knots en route. The carrier reportedly carried at least forty-four fighters on board – a combination of Su-33 and MiG-29 attack aircraft configured for carrier operations. Ulyanovsk’s two steam catapults, ski jump and four sets of arrester cables would have created a bustling cockpit,” he continued.

Not to be outdone, three lifts were planned, each capable of carrying up to fifty tons.

“In addition, the aircraft carrier would have had helicopters for search and rescue work and anti-submarine warfare missions,” Huard added. “The Soviets anticipated a complement of three thousand four hundred sailors – about half the crew aboard an American Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, but considerable compared to other Soviet ships.”

The motive for the construction of Ulyanovsk

One wondered, however, why the Soviets would even want to build such a massive aircraft carrier.

According to James Holmes, professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, there was surely a logic behind the effort to build Ulyanovsk, including the creation of a defensive “blue belt” in the country’s coastal waters.

It was “a combination of land, sea, and air forces that would work together to thwart U.S. naval air and submarine forces. Russia could defend the homeland while providing safe patrol areas for ballistic sub-missiles performing nuclear deterrent missions,” he explained, per War Is Boring.

“Soviet supercarriers could have helped with the air and surface warfare components of a blue belt defense, driving out US Navy task forces that entered Eurasian waters,” he concluded. .

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington State-based science and technology editor who has held positions at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow him or contact him on LinkedIn.

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