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The Soviet Navy - Aircraft carriers

Written by Sakhal

In the 1980s, the whole strike capability of the Soviet naval aviation was represented by the land-based bombers of the Naval Air Force. The standard model of naval bomber was the Tu-16 "Badger", of which about 250 units remained in service. The largest part of those aircraft were attached to the Northern and Pacific fleets, supported by another 80 aircraft adapted to tanker service. It had been already started the process for replacing the Tu-16 by the Tu-26 "Backfire", which gave a new dimension to the Soviet naval aviation. Its substantially extended operational range - almost twice than that of the Tu-16 - allowed to cover the largest part of the Norwegian sea and constituted, because of that, a new long-range threat against the aircraft carriers of the NATO.

The Tu-16 and Tu-26 were armed with Kipper, Kelt or Kingfish anti-ship missiles, which had an estimated range of 100 to 150 nautical miles. Their guidance system towards the target was probably a combination of automatic pilot and active radar or passive infrared seeker. Before being able to launch an attack, the Soviet bomber forces would have required exact and detailed information about the enemy forces. This information would have been delivered by about seventy Tu-16 reconnaissance aircraft, many of which were equipped with electronic countermeasure systems, plus about forty-five Tu-95 "Bear" long-range aircraft, which could penetrate deeply into the North Atlantic. These latter were used as well to facilitate the mid-course guidance for the long-range surface-to-surface missiles which were in service with the Soviet Navy. The largest part of the long-range reconnaissance aircraft were in service with the Northern and Pacific fleets, while in the Baltic and the Black Sea reconnaissance - and probably attack as well - would have been entrusted to the Tu-22 "Blinder", an aircraft of shorter range.

Reconnaissance by satellite

Albeit satellites were playing an increasingly important role in tracking the movements of the forces of the NATO, it would be difficult to evaluate the quality of the data gathered by this kind of espionage. Photographic reconnaissance was probably well developed, but the Soviet could not afford the risk of relying on this procedure in the Northern theater, where dense layers of clouds are common, covering the areas where the forces of the NATO could hide. Active search radars could detect a formation of warships without being necessarily possible to discern the composition of the squadron from the data, while satellites fitted with passive electronic espionage systems could evaluate said composition through the capture of radio signals. However, this latter system would be vulnerable to enemy countermeasures. Because of this, it can be deduced that the Soviet Union still relied substantially on reconnaissance aircraft. This would be a potential weakness when considering the notorious vulnerability of heavy bombers against supersonic interceptors.

Another even more serious vulnerability which suffer all the land-based aircraft assigned to maritime missions is the significative loss of their effectiveness as they move away from their bases to attack distant targets. This problem would be particularly acute in the Northern theater. A long-range attack would require a long travel time and consequently a reduction in the possible number of sorties. It would also involve a greater incidence of engine failures or damages attained during service. Moreover, the attacked forces would have had a greater alert time span before the arrival of the enemy aircraft, which would have allowed the aircraft carriers of the NATO - for example - to perform an evasive action and intercept the bombers by launching a large number of fighters. By last, the vital communication links between the attacking bomber force and their bases could have been subject to interferences, especially if Norway were in the hands of the NATO. Because of all of this, it would have been expectable that the Soviet had kept their bombers awaiting, until the aircraft carriers of the NATO were close enough in direction to Norway as to allow them to launch massive air attacks which had reasonable probabilities of being coordinated with attacks from submarine and surface units.

Anti-submarine aviation

In the 1960s, the anti-submarine aircraft serving with the Soviet Air Naval Forces was the amphibious M-12 "Mail" - whose original Soviet denomination is Beriev Be-12 "Tchaika" (Seagull) -, of which in the early 1980s about seventy-five units were still in service, mostly with the Northern and Black Sea fleets. In the early 1970s, the M-12 began to be replaced by the new model Il-38 "May", obtained from the modification of a civilian transport aircraft. Albeit clearly inspired in the North American P-3 Orion, it was unlikely that the Il-38 were equipped with the long-range detection devices incorporated into the North American anti-submarine aircraft. Also its capacity of armament was relatively small. More recently a new anti-submarine version of the Tu-95 bomber appeared. It had a longer range than the Il-38, but it would be difficult to make a guess on how this aircraft could have operated effectively without a detection system comparable to the SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) of the NATO. And it was impossible to make such a system available for it, not just because of technological reasons but especially because of geographical reasons. However, the main weakness of the Soviet anti-submarine aircraft was their inferior capability for processing data. Basically, and starting from similar data obtained through sonobuoys, the means available to Soviet aircraft would not have allowed them to distinguish with ease, unlike it would have happened with their western counterparts, the diference between the noises produced by submarines and the confusing sound of the sea bottom.

The helicopter carriers of the Moskva class

Until the late 1960s, the anti-submarine role in the Soviet Navy was entrusted to the coastal forces. But in 1967 the Moskva helicopter carrier appeared and shortly after her twin Leningrad entered service. They were hybrid vessels, with the armament proper of a cruiser on the prow and a take-off deck and hangar for anti-submarine helicopters in the stern. Conceptually, they were similar to the Italian counterpart Vittorio Veneto. However, the two Soviet ships were much larger and much more powerfully armed. Their cruiser-like armament comprised a couple of anti-missile systems and a launcher for anti-submarine missiles, plus a wide range of cannons and rocket launchers. In their aft hangar about fifteen Ka-25 "Hormone" helicopters could be accommodated. The helicopter carriers of the Moskva class had a hull-mounted low-frequency sonar, as well as a variable-depth sonar (VDS) on the stern.


Basic version of the Kamov Ka-25 (Hormone-A) and top-down view of the Moskva showing clearly her flight deck and elevators. This unusual warship carried up to eighteen helicopters.


Kamov Ka-25 anti-submarine helicopters stationed in the flight deck of the Moskva helicopter carrier.


The Moskva helicopter carrier in navigation in 1969. This photograph shows clearly the flight deck with its two elevators and the hangar in the superstructure.

Their construction time, new design and configuration, as well as their quick deployment in the area of the Black Sea Fleet led to believe that their role would be to chase the North American submarines armed with Polaris operating in the eastern Mediterranean. In the first days following the introduction of the Polaris, when the range of these ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) was only about 1500 nautical miles (2780 kilometers), the eastern Mediterranean offered some of the best launching points against the Soviet Union. With the introduction of the A-3 version, whose range reached 2500 nautical miles (4632 kilometers), the importance of the eastern Mediterranean decreased substantially. The Spanish base of Rota, from where the North American submarines armed with Polaris operated, no longer harbored these strategic missile units. Moreover, the introduction of the new Trident missile opened the way to the end of the deployment of the North American SSBN (Ship Submarine Ballistic Nuclear) in the Mediterranean.


Anti-submarine cruiser of the Moskva class in the Mediterranean.


The bulky superstructure of the Moskva anti-submarine cruiser showcasing a diversity of armament, radars and other electronic systems.

Albeit there was no proof of the Moskva having ever detected an enemy SSBN during her first twelve years of service, it was undoubtful that the growth of the Soviet anti-submarine power in the Mediterranean advised the United States Navy to reallocate their SSBN into safer waters. Of course, many submarines of the NATO still remained in the Mediterranean, including North American SSN. The two ships of the Moskva class found themselves in the paradoxical situation of having to chase these submarines, which in turn were in those waters to chase the Mediterranean Squadron of the Soviet Navy, of whose units they were part. In the event of hostilities, regardless of their location in the Mediterranean, the ships of the Moskva class would have faced serious difficulties. Against the air power of the North American Sixth Fleet, to which that of the two French aircraft carriers then in service could have been added, they would have had to entrust their defense solely to their own surface-to-surface missiles and the firepower of their escort units.

The aircraft carriers of the Kiev class

When the helicopter carriers of the Moskva class were designed, the Soviet Union had good expectations of using airports in the Middle East to achieve an umbrella of air cover that ensured the safety of these units in the eastern Mediterranean. However, these expectations did not exist in the Norwegian Sea nor in the Pacific, where the successors of the Moskva class, the aircraft carriers of the Kiev class, were intended to operate. Obviously, the Soviet decided to take advantage of the latest advances in the development of VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft so the new aircraft carriers could be provided with their own onboard fighter aircraft. Albeit the aircraft carriers of the Kiev class kept the cruiser/aircraft-carrier hybrid configuration used in the Moskva class, the Soviet incorporated into them a flight of ten to twelve Yak-36 "Forger" attack aircraft, besides the eighteen anti-submarine helicopters present in the Moskva class.


The Kiev navigating with four Kamov Ka-25 helicopters and one Yakovlev Yak-36 "Forger-A" VTOL fighter aircraft stationed in the deck.


The Kiev, which entered service in 1976, was the first aircraft carrier properly said of the Soviet Navy. She was followed by her twins Minsk and Novorossiysk in subsequent years.


The large containers of the powerful SS-N-12 surface-to-surface missiles installed in the forecastle of the Kiev.

The western observers noticed that the Yak-36 had not fully accomplished the purposes for which it had been conceived. It was a fragile aircraft, with operational range and other characteristics which were inadequate to serve effectively as interceptor. Its attack capabilities were decreased as well by a small payload capacity, which could not be increased - unlike which had happened with the AV-8 Harrier - by using a launching ramp, for the Yak-36 could not take off by using its wheels. The consequent saving of fuel and increase of payload for armament that the AV-8 achieved, by taking off through its wheels along a flight deck whose end was raised like that of a ski, could not be achieved by the Yak-36, which was limited to a vertical take-off. Even if it could have been an aircraft useful for reconnaissance and ground support operations, as well as attacks against small surface units lacking their own aerial cover, the Yak-36 would have been powerless for defending its own ships against the attack squadrons of the North American aircraft carriers. It would have been also totally ineffective if engaging in combat against the formidable F-14 Tomcat.

The main armament of the Kiev class was represented by the massive SS-N-12 surface-to-surface missile. In the forecastle they were located four twin launchers with eight missiles of this type, plus sixteen reloads. It was estimated that the SS-N-12 had an operational range of about 250 nautical miles and was fitted with a large warhead of great destructive power. However, this missile required a mid-course guidance system towards the target, which could be provided either by Ka-25 "Hormone B" helicopters or by Tu-95 "Bear" strategic aircraft. Despite the long range of these missiles, the ships of the Kiev class would have been still within range of the attack squadrons of the North American aircraft carriers if approaching enough to fire them. Because of this, it is unlikely that the ships of the Kiev class would have engaged in combat against the North American aircraft carriers, unless they were close enough to their own bases.


The Minsk aircraft carrier after a long stay on the sea, as the amount of rust indicates.


The forecastle of the Minsk anti-submarine cruiser, populated by anti-submarine rocket launchers, anti-aircraft/anti-submarine missile launchers, anti-ship missile containers and cannons. They are visible as well the rails along which munition carriages circulated.


Yak-36 fighters stationed on the deck of the Minsk.

Since the value of anti-submarine operations against the western SSBN seemed to have decreased in the Soviet estimations, the most probable deployment of the Kiev (Northern Fleet) and the Minsk (Pacific Fleet) in the event of conflict would have been one with the purpose of defending the bases of the SSBN. However, if the Warsaw Pact had managed to create more favorable conditions for its operations in the Norwegian Sea by means of the occupation of Norway, the distancing by any means of the threat posed by the North American aircraft carriers and the elimination of the airbases of the NATO in Iceland and Scotland, it would have been probable that the Kiev, accompanied by the Kirov and other missile cruisers, attacked the surface forces of the NATO which were defending the anti-submarine barrier in the Greenland-Iceland-Great Britain belt. That Soviet force would have tried to position itself astride of the barrier and hunt the submarines of the NATO which patrolled those waters, as well as shoo the Orion and Nimrod patrol aircraft which overflew the area by using the Yak-36 carried onboard. If they had managed to successfully complete the opening of the barrier, the Soviet submarines would have had free way to enter the North Atlantic, which would have allowed an effective suppression of the western convoys.


The Baku, fourth unit of the Kiev class, which showcased more sophisticated radars for target acquisition and tracking than those of her sister aircraft carriers, was incorporated into the Northern Fleet in 1988 (date which corresponds to this photograph).

New aircraft carriers

In the early 1980s informations arrived to the West according to which the Soviet Union was building an aircraft carrier powered by nuclear energy, which apparently would enter service in 1985. This new vessel would have allowed the Soviet Union to advance its positions faster, as informations hinted that she would be fitted with catapults, which would allow to operate with fighter aircraft of high performance. Which was not yet clear, however, was whether the new aircraft carrier would operate with specialized attack squadrons - as in the case of the North American aircraft carriers - or she would have as main role to provide fighter aircraft cover for the Soviet anti-submarine and anti-ship units operating in the Greenland-Iceland-Great Britain belt. The MiG-27 "Flogger", which was back then believed to be embarked on the new aircraft carrier, would have added a secondary attack capability.


The first unit of the new aircraft carriers of the Tbilisi class of 65000 metric tonnes marked a significant advance upon the Kiev class. It was intended that this aircraft carrier transported the new Yak-41 VSTOL interceptor fighters, back then in flight tests, as well as the Su-27 Flanker. The first aircraft carrier of the Tbilisi class could start her sea trials that same year (1989).

Note from the author/translator: This was the order of things as far as 1983, while the original version of the description given to the former picture dates back from 1989. The new aircraft carrier was eventually one of conventional propulsion and not fully operative until 1995. As the MiG-27 was already an obsolete aircraft and the new Yak-41 was not up to the task as it would perpetuate the deficiencies of its predecessor, the air wing finally comprised the powerful and particularly large Su-27/33. As the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a crisis of huge proportions in Russia (not to mention the other countries and ex-republics of the Warsaw Pact), the Admiral Kuznetsov is in 2017 - and apparently for a good number of years - the only aircraft carrier in service in the Russian Navy.

AIRCRAFT CARRIERS OF THE SOVIET UNION (In service/development in 1989)

-- Tbilisi (Units: 1) (Main armament: 26 x aircraft, 24 x helicopter, 12 (+?) x SS-N-19 SSM, 60 x RBU-12000 A/S rocket)


-- Baku (Units: 1) (Main armament: 13-14 x aircraft, 20 x helicopter, 12 (+?) x SS-N-12 SSM, 60 x RBU-12000 A/S rocket, 10 x torpedo tube)


-- Kiev (Units: 3) (Main armament: 13 x aircraft, 19 x helicopter, 8 (+16) x SS-N-12 SSM, ? x FRAS-1 A/S rocket, ? x RBU-6000 A/S rocket, 10 x torpedo tube)


-- Moskva (Units: 2) (Main armament: 18 x helicopter, 8 x FRAS-1 A/S rocket or 24 x SS-N-16 SSM, 240 x RBU-6000 A/S rocket, 10 x torpedo tube)


Related articles

The Soviet Navy - Surface ships

The Soviet Navy - Submarines

The Soviet Navy - SLBM

Categories: Ships - Aviation - Cold War - 20th Century - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2020-10-04

Article updated: 0000-00-00

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