Reason to Worry? Russia Wants a Super Carrier
Over at The National Interest last week, eagle-eyed editor Zachary Keck relayed the news that Russia has set out to construct an aircraft carrier roughly double the size of any it’s built before. Indeed, the vessel will—if the reports are to be believed—surpass the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers in both displacement and “air wing,” the number and mix of aircraft that operate from its flight deck. Using Nimitz and her sisters—the elite of this elite ship type—as a benchmark, the new ship and its air wing may cost $8.5 billion and take seven years to finish. That’s a major leap in scale and complexity for Russian shipbuilders, and in ambition for Russian sea warriors.
As with any airport, the number of aircraft it will support determines a carrier’s size. Warplanes are fuel-thirsty. They demand hours upon hours of upkeep per flying hour. Keeping them flight-ready thus demands aviation technicians in large numbers. Ships have to be capacious to house all those fuel tanks, workshops, and sailors. How capacious? Russian news outlets claim the Russian Navy’s new flattop will sport an air wing of up to 100 warplanes, compared to roughly 90 on board American flattops and 50 for Admiral Kuznetsov, the 55,000-ton, 1980s-vintage flattop that currently constitutes the inventory. If so, it will probably displace well over 100,000 tons—twice the tonnage and aircraft capacity of Admiral Kuznetsov.
Let’s not make too much of this. The learning curve promises to be flatter for the Russian Navy than for, say, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, a force just making its entrée into this field. Russia is no newcomer to naval aviation. The Russian fleet, and the Soviet fleet before it, have operated carriers of modest dimensions and capability since the 1960s. Admiral Kuznetsov remains the navy’s lone flattop for now, but two refitted Soviet-built vessels now serve in the Chinese and Indian navies. Russian shipyards, then, have proven they can execute intricate ship designs—and significantly modify and upgrade those designs in the case of the Indian Navy’s Vikramaditya, nee Admiral Gorshkov.
But the boost in combat capacity between Admiral Kuznetsov and the new carrier involves more than tonnage or raw numbers of aircraft. Rather than mounting a “ski jump” on the ship’s flight deck to loft planes skyward, shipbuilders will install steam catapults beneath the deck. Ski jumps act like ramps, enabling light aircraft to achieve takeoff speeds under their own power. Catapults, on the other hand, can slingshot heavyweight fighter/attack planes or early-warning aircraft off the bow.
Naval aviation is one domain where heavier is better. Russia’s new carrier will operate not just more but heavier-laden aircraft—boasting greater fuel capacity, flight range, and weapons payloads—than its Soviet-era predecessors. Such warplanes can stay aloft longer, venture farther from the fleet without midair refueling, and hit targets with more ordnance. So if you replace each airframe with a more powerful one, doubling the inventory more than doubles the air wing’s fighting power.
The capability for “conventional assisted takeoff but arrested recovery,” or CATOBAR, constitutes the state-of-the-art for carrier design—and it’s a capability found only in the American and French navies at present. Constructing a CATOBAR carrier larger than the current mistresses of the sea will signal that Russia has arrived as a sea power—if Russian shipwrights pull it off.
It seems odd, though, that Russia—an increasingly cash-strapped continental power that has never built a vessel of such size and complexity—would take such trouble and expense for apparently uncertain gain. Rather than invest in luxury platforms like aircraft carriers, the Russian military should allocate finite resources to beef up the army and air force—Moscow’s wherewithal for managing events on dry land. Right?
Evidently not, if you’re a Russian patriot or political magnate. Moscow is undertaking the project for reasons that outsiders may deem whimsical but the Russian leadership, military, and populace seem to find beguiling. They believe floating airfields put power behind purpose. Furthermore, carriers’ majesty helps rouse national pride from its post-Cold War slumber—banishing bad memories from the 1990s, when Russian warships rusted at their moorings while erstwhile enemies ruled the sea.
Indeed, to Russian eyes aircraft carriers are national aspirations manifest in steel—and thus constitute a worthy investment of time, taxpayer rubles, and scientific and engineering ingenuity. Fielding them lets Moscow gird itself for high-seas challenges supposedly emanating from the West, radiate power onto foreign shores, and announce that Russia is back following its post-Cold War years of decrepitude. Happy days are here again!
The greats of politics and strategy might agree with Russian aspirations. Thucydides, to name one, would nod knowingly at Russia’s aircraft-carrier ambitions. The chronicler of the fifth-century-B.C. Peloponnesian War famously attributed human actions to “three of the strongest motives, fear, honor, and interest.” Driven by these motives, alliances headed by Athens and Sparta marched off to twenty-seven years of bloody strife that culminated in the defeat and downfall of Athenian democracy.
This scribe from classical antiquity knew a thing or two about power politics. And he furnishes a convenient template—fear, honor, interest—for appraising most any human endeavor. That goes for the Russian carrier project in the twenty-first century just as for Greek warmaking two millennia ago.
Start with fear, as Thucydides does. History has taught Russians to dread invasion. Now as always, Russian leaders are acutely conscious that the heartland features few natural defenses to fend off invaders—whether the invaders are French and German armies rampaging across the western plains or Japanese maritime forces invading continental Asia and menacing the Russian Far East. Using military might to augment sparse natural defenses remains crucial for a Moscow mindful of past vulnerability.
Carrier fleets would let Russia go back to its Soviet-era playbook for national defense. By the 1970s the Soviet Union envisaged mounting a “blue belt of defense,” a defensive buffer in offshore waters. Overseers of the blue belt envisaged deploying seagoing forces in concert with land-based air and missile forces to shoo away U.S. Navy submarines and aircraft carriers prowling offshore. Aircraft carriers comprised part of the land/sea mix. Helicopter carriers Moskva and Leningrad, for instance, played their part by dispatching anti-submarine whirlybirds to hunt American boats.
Today’s leadership may envisage regenerating the Soviet buffer zone. If successful, Moscow can ward off seaborne assault while creating safe operating grounds for ballistic-missile submarines executing nuclear deterrent patrols. CATOBAR carriers such as the one Moscow is constructing carry composite air wings capable of multiple missions. Their operational portfolio will extend far beyond anti-submarine warfare. Such flattops could reprise Moskva and Leningrad’s sub-hunting function in the blue belt while pouncing on U.S. task forces with missile-armed warplanes.
Call this concept Blue Belt 2.0. Moscow wants to encase the Russian seacoast with sea- and land-based defenses while proscribing any hostile naval presence in the near seas. Sound familiar? It should. The approach resembles China’s “offshore active defense” strategy in the China seas, which Beijing regards as “blue national soil” and thus as an offshore preserve. Chinese maritime strategy is reminiscent of Soviet strategy, may have been partly inspired by it, and may in turn be inspiring Russian strategists to emulate it—a virtuous or vicious cycle depending on your standpoint.
Maybe it’s natural for continental states that front on the sea to try to enclose and guard nearby seas as though they were fencing off territory. Land powers gazing seaward deploy such anti-ship and anti-air weaponry as they possess to hold opponents—and fear—at bay.
Next, honor. Thucydides doesn’t put it thus, but honor stands above the other motives. It’s a prime mover in its own right, animating words and deeds. Indeed, modern synonyms for honor—prestige, reputation, credibility, and the like—are ubiquitous in capitals worldwide. Honor colors fear. It could exaggerate fear of rivals, prompting leaders to act in unforeseeable ways.
And even calculations of interest are more subjective than we care to admit. What are the objective units of measurement for, say, preserving a regional status quo? There are none. The quest for honor and renown could induce leaders to inflate the value of a worthy goal, or perhaps to undersell it.
Such not-strictly-rational motives are at work behind Russia’s aircraft-carrier project. Indeed, there’s a seductive if not circular logic to sea power. Great powers operate carriers, goes the thinking, and the greatest powers operate the greatest carriers. If Russia wants to rank alongside the United States as a global power, it needs to make itself a globe-straddling sea power. And to accomplish that, it must develop a carrier fleet composed of the biggest and best flattops ever to cruise the briny main.
China harbors a fetish for having, or being, the biggest and most of everything. It celebrates being the world’s most populous country, producing the most of this or that type of widget, and so forth. Nor is Russia a slouch in this regard. Officialdom’s thirst for honor must have been what prodded Moscow to essay the jump from humble aircraft carriers with modest aims to multimission behemoths comparable to the Nimitz class—plus a little. Never underestimate the power of one-upsmanship in naval affairs.
And never discount the sheer sport of sailing around great navies. As Howard K. Beale, the great chronicler of Theodore Roosevelt’s diplomacy, puts it: it’s “such fun to have a big navy” when you’re a TR, or some other outsized national figure like a Vladimir Putin. Creating carrier formations on par with the U.S. Navy’s would help Putin & Co. repeal what Putin once termed the twentieth century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe”—the collapse of the Soviet Union—and have fun while doing it!
Bottom line, the Russian leadership sees carriers as more than implements of statecraft. They’re tokens of national revival and destiny. Resuscitating a naval project that dates back to Peter the Great and features such great names as Fleet Admiral Sergey Gorshkov—the founding father of the blue-water Soviet Navy—thus signifies Russia’s return to the forefront of power politics. Honor molds action in a host of ways.
And lastly, carriers advance tangible interests. That’s the province of cost/benefit analysis, whereby statesmen identify supposedly quantifiable goods that are worth expending scarce national resources to obtain and earmark resources to obtain them. Political leaders and their advisers identify an interest, calculate how much it’s worth to the nation, and let that calculation govern how many resources they spend on it and for how long. Should the price of a goal mushroom beyond its value, the leadership should cut its losses.
Balancing costs against benefits while factoring in danger and risk: that’s Strategy 101. What Russian interests are at stake that carrier fleets could protect? Beyond defending Russian shores—the uppermost concern for any government—deploying carriers would enhance Russian interests in manifold ways.
For one, it would open up offensive options, giving political leaders new options. That’s what military forces exist to do. Think about it. Aircraft carriers are “power-projection” platforms without peer, as the U.S. Navy’s exploits since the Cold War—exploits pitting America against Russia’s traditional allies—have amply demonstrated. Lesson: the capacity to pummel rival countries from the sea translates into political clout, helping presidents and diplomats get their way in peacetime and wartime alike. In short, a carrier is the Swiss army knife of ships—an all-purpose tool Moscow wants in its back pocket.
To glimpse how Moscow may use carriers in the future, look at your map—and think about how climate change may alter Russia’s strategic geography. Geography has been an enemy to Russian seafarers throughout history. Eurasian geography combined with icebound northern waters compels Russian shipping to traverse long, cumbersome, southern routes that an enemy can easily block—even if skippers merely want to move from one seacoast to another within their own country.
Russian navies have learned this lesson at enormous cost to themselves. Ask Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, who saw his Baltic Fleet sent to the bottom in 1905 after making a 20,000-mile voyage from the Baltic to the Yellow Sea to duel the Imperial Japanese Navy. Rozhestvensky lost—big. He may have stood some chance against Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō’s freshly refitted battle fleet had the shorter route along Russia’s northern shores been open—letting the Baltic Fleet tarry at friendly seaports along the way for stores and repairs.
Now think about how an ice-free, readily navigable Arctic Ocean will change Russia’s geopolitical surroundings. U.S. Navy oceanographers estimate the Arctic could be largely ice-free for part of each year by the 2030s. For that part of the year when the icecap recedes, short, navigable, relatively safe northern sea routes will enable the Russian Navy to move formations between oceans quickly for the first time.
Boosting its naval strength, then, will help Moscow turn climate change to advantage. Indeed, the effect on the Russian psyche could resemble the Panama Canal’s effect on Americans, which geopolitics guru Nicholas Spykman likened to picking the United States up and swiveling its gaze 90 degrees to the south—from Europe toward the Caribbean Sea, and thence to the Pacific Ocean.
Climate change, then, promises to remake Russian strategy in the Arctic basin. Carrier fleets can help safeguard passage through northern sea lanes for Russian warships and merchantmen. Indeed, that may be their top priority. But more than strategic mobility is at stake. The Arctic is a major prospective supplier of undersea natural resources—which is why coastal states adjoining the polar sea have taken to wrangling over how to demarcate their territorial seas and exclusive economic zones there.
Russia owns an early advantage in competition for this natural bounty, having hardened its vessels against cold weather, built icebreakers, and amassed the experience necessary to ply icy waters. Likewise, aircraft carriers acclimated to polar settings would bestow a significant operational edge on the Russian Navy. It would hold the edge not just over lesser navies like Canada’s or Denmark’s but over the U.S. Navy, a force accustomed to operating in warmer, more hospitable climes. All in all, then, Russian interests could profit handsomely from the carrier project.
Quelling fear, burnishing the motherland’s reputation, advancing concrete interests—to Russian eyes that adds up to a compelling brief for carrier aviation. In fact, the project probably looks like a bargain considering its possible payoffs. Somewhere, Thucydides is smiling.