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Does Russia Really Need a Second Aircraft Carrier?

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Does Russia Really Need a Second Aircraft Carrier?

Russia’s top naval commander confirmed that the Kremlin is pursuing a second aircraft carrier. Does it need one?

Does Russia Really Need a Second Aircraft Carrier?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Russia is in the process of building a new aircraft carrier, according to statements made by Admiral Viktor Chirkov, Russia’s senior-most naval commander to state media. On Monday, Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency reported that the Russian navy will “receive a new promising aircraft carrier.” Additionally, Chirkov told state media that the Russian Navy can expect to add a total of 50 vessels of multiple types. The Russian Navy currently operates a sole carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which has been in operation since 1991 after being launched in the late-1980s by the Soviet Union.

“The Navy will have an aircraft carrier. The research companies are working on it, and strictly in compliance with the requirements from the Chief Commander,” Chirkov remarked, reportedly during a trip to a diesel engine supply plant for the Russian Navy near Moscow.

The ITAR-TASS report confirms earlier Russian media reports that the Russian government-owned Krylov State Research Center was working towards the creation of a new carrier class for the Russian Navy, one allegedly capable of fielding 100 combat aircraft. By comparison, the United States’ Nimitz-class nuclear carriers carry around 90 aircraft.

Interestingly, earlier reports pointed out that the new carrier class concept would use catapult launch systems for combat aircraft instead of the ski-ramp take-off systems found in most Soviet-era carrier designs. Additionally, the body of the carrier would be designed to reduce drag by around 20 percent compared to previous Russian carriers, theoretically increasing the top speed of the vessel.

The only indication that the carrier Chirkov referred to this past week and the one reported by the Russian media last month are one and the same is Chirkov’s statement that “the research companies are working on it.” Krylov State Research Center, a state-owned research facility, was cited as the brains behind this new carrier concept. Chirkov did not specify the size of capabilities of this new carrier.

Regarding the Russian Navy’s 50 vessel expansion plans, Chirkov noted that focus would be on “next generation naval multi-purpose surface ships,” and “strategic and multi-purpose nuclear-powered submarines.” “The Navy is able to meet the requirements, with surface ships and nuclear-powered submarines,  to accomplish a range of tasks for the purpose from different remote basing points,” Chirkov added. In 2015, the navy will add new frigates and patrol boats, according to The Moscow Times. The Russian Navy’s shipbuilding agenda is reportedly planned through 2050.

There is good reason to remain skeptical of the Russian admiral’s statements and take these reports with a grain of salt given Russia’s overall economic condition and historical lack of industrial capacity to rapidly construct complex naval assets, especially aircraft carriers. As David Axe has noted for Reuters, Russia “has failed to maintain its expensive shipyard facilities and perishable worker skills.” Thus, while state researchers may have a promising blue-print for a new carrier, actually building the ship may be a far off prospect.

Additionally, the Russian military does not enjoy the same sort of strategic and budgetary luxury often available to U.S. defense planners. Given current crises in Eastern Europe and the Middle-East, and a general state of cool relations with the West and the United States, Russia’s short-term military spending is primarily going toward maintaining the readiness of existing assets. Russian officials regularly state grand ambitious plans for widespread military development. Consider recent reports that Russia would build 10 airfields in the Arctic by 2016.

Finally, even assuming that Russia gathers the manpower and industrial competency to put out its carrier as promised, the strategic wisdom of an additional carrier for the Russian Navy is highly questionable. Carriers play a very specific role in naval strategy (one that may be outmoded given the current sophistication of anti-ship weaponry). The Kuznetsov, Russia’s sole post-Cold War carrier, has been deployed just five times, never more for longer than 6 months. When it was deployed, the carrier was paraded as an asset of prestige, intended to showcase Russian support for key allies. A second carrier, for all the billions of dollars it would cost to produce, would yield little in the way of strategic use. (On a per-ruble basis, investments in cyber war capabilities may be far more cost-effective for Russia.)