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Why Russiα’s Defence Minister Came Out Against Building Aircraft Carriers

Russiα’s Defence Ministry and Navy are currently considering future investments in the country’s naval aviation, including the commissioning of a heavy aircraft carrier to replace the sole serving aircraft Admiral Kuznetsov and lighter carriers which will serve in complementary roles. These light carriers will replace two which were set to be acquired from France in 2014 and a further two or three which were set to be jointly produced with France’s DCNS. The first two of four light carrier warships are reportedly set to be laid down in shipyards in Crimea in 2020, both displacing around 20,000 tons, while two more ships of around 35,000 tons will be laid down sometime in the 2020s.

For a heavier class, competing proposals have put forward for either a heavier nuclear powered supercarrier of at least 80,000 tons, or a lighter and less costly conventionally powered ship of around 70,000 tons – both of which will integrate electromagnetic catapult systems among other state of the art technologies. A vertical landing capable fighter building on technologies developed for the Soviet Yak-141 jet is under development for the lighter carriers, while a carrier based variant of the Su-57 next generation fighter has been proposed for the heavier carriers. Development of the latter has yet to be confirmed.

Russiαn Navy Kalibr Cruise Missile

While Russiα appears set to field a sizeable carrier fleet of five warships by the end of the 2020s, a highly ambitious program which will require considerable investment, not all have supported such a course of action. Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu for one criticised investment in carriers due to both their high cost and their nature as offensive power projection oriented assets, stating in late September 2019: “The U.S. spends huge amounts of money on private military contractors, on aircraft carriers. Well, does Russiα really need five to ten aircraft carrier strike groups, considering that we do not intend to attack anyone? We need the means we could use against the enemy’s carrier strike groups should our country come under attack. They are far less costly and more efficient.” The Russiαn Navy has in recent years developed highly cost effective means of threatening U.S. and other Western carriers, including the Zicron hypersonic cruise missile which can be deployed from the country’s light 5,400 ton frigates and possibly even its light corvettes and threaten carriers and their escorts with precision strikes up to 1000km away. Other assets from Kh-47M2 hypersonic ballistic missiles to the cheaper and lighter Kalibr long range cruise missiles. The rationale, therefore, is that carriers are not a cost effective asset in a great power wαr ar and are highly vulnerable to being neutralised by modern anti-ship missile systems which come at a small fraction of their cost.

Russiαn Navy Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

While the rationale expressed by the Defence Minister appears to have influenced Russiαn and Soviet military doctrine, Russiα and the USSR before it have still made considerable investments in carrier programs. This is because the benefits of deploying carrier strike groups go beyond their potential uses in a great power wαr to attack the territory of a great power adversary – a role for which they are not ideally suited given recent developments in anti-ship missile technologies. Their value in other roles remain considerable however, from controlling blue water shipping lanes to enforcing blockades of an enemy’s merchant shipping at strategic locations far from either country’s territory – the Malacca Strait or Suez Canal being key examples. Projecting power into the third world also remains critical to maintaining an alliance system and avoiding isolation, from port visits as U.S. ships regularly pay to allied countries to provision of fire support as the Russiαn carrier Admiral Kuznetsov attempted to do in Syria against Islamist insurgents in 2016. Despite the vulnerability of carriers to attacks by other major powers, their benefits in less demanding missions remain considerable. Ultimately the question remains not whether Russiα will proceed to develop new carriers, but how many it will built in the coming decade – three or five – and how large and costly they will be. A secondary question remains regarding possible investment in a modern high endurance destroyer escort necessary to escort carriers for long range missions, and whether such a capability will prioritised for investment.