What happened to the Soviet nuclear-powered supercarrier ‘Ulyanovsk’?

The recent news of the launch of Type 003 aircraft carrier is definitely the biggest news currently inside China. The launch of this conventionally powered supercarrier with a displacement of more than 80,000 tons means that china has made a excellent breakthrough in naval construction. However, many people have said that the 80,000-ton aircraft carrier can use nuclear power. The example they cited was the Ulyanovsk-class aircraft carrier developed in the Soviet era, and it is said that china has used some knowledge and technology of this soviet supercarrier in the development of the Type 003. So what is the strength of this soviet warship? Does the performance of this ship exceed China’s Type 003 aircraft carrier?

The development of the Soviet Navy in the Soviet period mainly revolved around the two core points of anti-ship and nuclear submarines, and they actually did not pay much attention to the development of aircraft carriers. The first Soviet warship designed with the purpose of an aircraft carrier was the Moscow-class helicopter carrier, and then the Kiev-class aircraft cruiser built later. Although these two ships classes can be called as an aircraft carrier in many ways, but in actual they are not pure aircraft carriers, they can be instead called as Heavy aircraft carrying aviation cruiser. Although the Soviet Union did not value the development of aircraft carriers, some senior officials of the Navy knew the power of aircraft carriers, so they built a real aircraft carrier after the Kiev Class, the Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier, although this class of aircraft carrier was called as an aircraft carrying cruiser in the Soviet Union.

‘Ulyanovsk’ under construction.
‘Ulyanovsk’ under construction.

The Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier was a medium or large sized aircraft carrier in the eyes of the western military powers at that time, during the Cold War, but now the tonnage of modern aircraft carriers has exceeded 100,000 tons, so the Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier with a full-load displacement of about 60,000 tons can only be counted in the category of medium sized aircraft carrier. Although there is still a big gap between the Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier and the US military’s super aircraft carrier, it has to be said that this aircraft carrier has almost all the characteristics of an aircraft carrier. There are currently only two Kuznetsov-class aircraft carriers, one is Russia’s Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, and the other is China’s Liaoning ship, modified from the previous Varyag. In fact, in a sense, China’s Shandong ship can also be counted as a Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier.

With the Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier, it was natural for the Soviet Union to build a more powerful aircraft carrier to catch up with the US military. Since the Soviet Union had planned to use the Sukhoi Su-33 “Sea Flanker” as the main carrier-based aircraft at that time, the Soviet Union also planned to use an aircraft carrier configuration similar to that of the United States and a steam catapult in order to maximize the combat strength of the Su-33. The new aircraft carrier was called the 1143.7 aircraft carrier, officially known as the Ulyanovsk-class aircraft carrier. The size of this class of aircraft carrier has become significantly larger, with an overall length of 321.2 meters, an astonishing deck width of 83.9 meters, and a full-load displacement of about 75,000 tons.

In terms of power, due to the excellent development of nuclear power in the Soviet Union, the aircraft carrier of this class has to be installed with four nuclear reactors code-named KN3, and the total power of the four steam turbines has reached 280,000 horsepower, which is the same as that of the American Kitty Hawk-class aircraft carrier. The Ulyanovsk-class aircraft carrier is different from the super nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of the United States. Although it uses a catapult, it also has a small ski-jump deck.

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In terms of carrier-based aircraft, the Soviet Union planned to carry 68 aircraft for this class of aircraft carriers. The reason why the number is a little less than that of the American Kitty Hawk class is mainly for two reasons. The first is that the size of the Su-33 is relatively large, and the second is the warship, there are fixed armament in the form of anti-ship cruise missiles, similar to previous aircraft-carrying cruisers. First of all, let’s talk about the composition of the carrier-based aircraft of the aircraft carrier. According to the plan, the main fighter of the aircraft carrier is Sukhoi’s Su-33 carrier-based aircraft, which can perform tasks such as air superiority and attack. The early warning aircraft are six Yak-44, and 18 KA-27 helicopters which were to be used for anti-submarine and other purposes. From the combination of carrier-based aircraft, it can be seen that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of the Soviet Union is relatively complete. Although it does not have as rich carrier-based aircraft as the United States, as a multi-purpose fighter, the Su-33 can completely replace a variety of attack aircraft and Fighter aircraft, although not at the level of the United States.

In terms of ship-borne weapons, the aircraft carrier has installed 12 launchers of P-700 anti-ship missiles on the deck of the bow runway. If missiles are fired, then carrier-based aircraft cannot take off here. From today’s point of view, the installation of anti-ship missiles on aircraft carriers is a very backward practice, but at that time the Soviet Union believed that when the aircraft carrier lost its carrier-based aircraft, with this super anti-ship missile, it still had the combat of more than 10,000-ton warships. In addition to attack weapons, there are also terminal defense weapons including short-range air defense missiles and 8 AK-630 cannons. If the fixed weapons carried by warships are appropriately reduced and the defense forces are mainly handed over to other Soviet escort ships, then the aircraft carrier of this class will have at least 70 carrier-based aircraft, which is quite good.

The Soviet Navy was quite satisfied with this class of aircraft carriers, so construction began in 1988, but in 1991, the aircraft carrier that had completed 40% of the construction work was temporarily cancelled due to changes in the Soviet situation, and the second aircraft carrier did not even have start building. By 1992, the aircraft carrier was completely dismantled, and the Soviet-era supercarriers disappeared. Judging from the construction time of this class of aircraft carriers and the performance of the previous Kuznetsov-class aircraft carriers, the Soviet Union also wanted to take a small-step fast-running plan similar to China’s strategy of building naval ships , that is, only one or two aircraft carriers will be built for each class of aircraft carriers. The lessons learned during the construction of the Ulyanovsk-class were to be used in the next class of aircraft carriers in order to catch up with the U.S. Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers as much as possible.

If Russia has enough economic strength, then the Soviet Union’s vision can be gradually completed in Russia, but Russia cannot even use the Kuznetsov aircraft carrier properly, and the so-called new aircraft carrier plan is nothing more than a variety of drawings, and design model only. By judging from the current situation of Russia, the best way for russia is to retire the only aircraft carrier and use a multi-purpose amphibious assault ship instead. The Soviet Union’s dream of an aircraft carrier may never be realized again.

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