"On 21 July 1970, in the Chernomorskiy Shipyard, the largest Soviet shipyard, situated in Nikolayev, the lead ship of Project 1143 was laid down — an antisubmarine cruiser with aircraft armament, which was named Kiev. It was intended to become the first Soviet aircraft carrier – i. e. a ship designed for aircraft landings and take-offs directly from the deck. The specific characteristics of this project were the result of a difficult intra-Soviet compromise, which found expression in everything including classification. Post factum, the definition 'antisubmarine cruiser with aircraft armament,' later exchanged for 'heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser,' can be explained inter alia by a desire, to avoid problems with passage through the Black Sea straits, but these explanations are false: firstly, the Montreux Convention does not incorporate a direct ban on passage through the straits of aircraft carriers of litoral Black Sea states; secondly, in the Western classification (used among others by Turkey, which controlled the straits), including the classification used in addendums to the Montreux Convention, Kiev and its descendants were always clearly defined as aircraft carriers.
"The reason for these classification tricks was purely internal: it was impossible, in the context of Soviet ideological reality, to announce directly the construction of ships that were at the same time branded by the [Soviet] press as 'tools of aggressive war.'
"To a large extent, the same reasons defined the ship's characteristics: it was a hybrid that overcame the hurdles put in its way by numerous opponents of aircraft carriers as a vessel class. The hybrid was designed for the deployment of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft and helicopters, but with a cruiser's missile munitions and the size of an 'aircraft carrier'. With a 37 thousand ton standard displacement, a 273 meter length, and a 180 thousand horsepower steam turbine propulsion system, Kiev could be placed somewhere between the French Foch and Clemenceau-class aircraft carriers with a standard displacement of approximately 30 thousand tons and a length of 265 meters, and the 45 thousand ton American Midways.
"In contrast to those ships, Kiev lacked a full deck – its bow contained cruiser fighting equipment, which restricted its aircraft carrying capabilities to operating VTOL aircraft, just like the much smaller British Invincible-class ships, which were designed at that time.
"The biggest problems of Project 1143 were related to the air group: the Yak-38, a subsonic VTOL plane with weak weapons and a relatively small action radius, looked odd on a ship equipped with anti-ship missiles with a range of up to 500 km. In fact, the Yak-38, officially classified as a strike fighter, could not perform any of the truly critical tasks: as a strike aircraft it was useless in anti-fleet operations since it did not have missiles that would allow it to attack ships, and as part of air defense forces its chances would be slim in a confrontation with the enemy's strike machines operating under supersonic fighter cover.
"Kiev's shortcomings were obvious, so new alternatives were considered.
'Any Detailed Development Of Project 1160 Was Never Started. Instead Of A New Aircraft Carrier, It Was Decided To Continue Series 1143'
"The chief alternative was the project assigned the number 1160. It contained some compromise solutions, such as anti-ship missile launchers, but it was a full-fledged aircraft carrier project. Nuclear propulsion system, 72 thousand ton standard and 80 – full displacement, full deck, an aircraft system that included an angled deck, four steam catapults, and arresting gear – all this made it a fully functional analogue of American super aircraft carriers.
"As for the air group, there were plans to use MiG-23A Molniya (Lightning) aircraft (the deck-based variant of the newest contemporary Soviet frontline fighter), Su-24K missile bombers (the deck-based variant of a strike aircraft that was being developed at the time), P-42 anti-submarine defense aircraft specially designed for aircraft carriers by the Beriev design bureau, as well as 'flying radars' based on the latter, and helicopters. As planes developed, plans changed: in 1973, there were suggestions to use deck-based variants of Su-27 and MiG-29 that were being developed then.
Project 1160 aircraft carrier, a variant (Source: Lenta.ru)
"The creation of this ship required solving a number of process tasks, the chief of which was the development of arresting gear and steam catapults – devices that Soviet industry had not previously produced. There is no doubt that these systems could be produced in 1970s – the USSR already disposed of all the necessary technologies by that time.
"Nevertheless, any detailed development of Project 1160 was never started. Instead of a new aircraft carrier, it was decided to continue Series 1143. In 1972, another Project 1143 ship was laid down — the heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser Minsk, and in 1975 – Novorossiysk.
'The Navy Did Not Abandon The Attempts To Obtain A Ship Capable Of Taking Conventional Take-Off And Landing Aircraft'
"Supporters of the aircraft carrier idea, with the backing of ministers of defense and shipbuilding industry and the interest of the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian navy, continued to propose new variants. In 1973, on the basis of the groundwork done on Project 1160, the Nevskoye design bureau started developing Project 1153 – an atomic CATOBAR (Catapult Take-off But Arrested Recovery) aircraft carrier similar to 1160— with catapults and arresting gear but smaller in size and cheaper, with two catapults instead of four. This project, however, was also supposed to carry anti-ship missiles, and the air group was supposed to consist of 50 aircraft (at 60 thousand ton standard displacement).
"The building of the ship was supposed to start in 1978, but in 1976, the aircraft carrier lobby lost two of its major figures: the minister of defense Andrey Grechko died on April 26, and the minister of shipbuilding industry Boris Butoma – on July 11. At the insistence of the new head of the military department, Dmitri Ustinov, Series 1143 was extended with the fourth ship – heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser Baku.
Project 1153 aircraft carrier, possible general view (Source: Lenta.ru)
"Nevertheless, the navy did not abandon the attempts to obtain a ship tailored for conventional take-off and landing aircraft. The Nevskoye design bureau began developing a new aircraft carrier project, as near as possible to Project 1143 in general ship systems – to remove at least the cost obstacle to the development of a new ship.
"On September 1, 1982, in the Chernomorskiy Shipyard, the fifth ship of Project 1143 was laid down — heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser Riga. It was the result of a compromise between the desire to finally have a normal aircraft carrier and the pressure of the 'anti-aircraft carrier' lobby that consented only to modifications of Project 1143. From the technical perspective, Project 1143.5 was a hybrid of preliminary work done in Project 1153 and the "Order" research and development project, planted onto the source base of Project 1143.
"In size, 1143.5 with its 55 thousand ton standard displacement was not much smaller than 1153 and considerably larger than its predecessors. The large deck and elevator area facilitated the use of heavy and large Su-27-based machines, but catapults were removed from the project – instead, a ski-jump ramp was supposed to be used to allow shorter take-off run.
"Gone too was the nuclear propulsion system and instead, Riga (which soon afterwards was renamed the Leonid Brezhnev, following the Secretary General's death) got a steam turbine system consisting of four TB-12 geared-turbine units and eight KVG-4 boilers with a total capacity of 200 thousand horsepower. This variant of propulsion system determined the future of the ship, which was renamed Tbilisi after its launching in 1985, and then, in 1990, with the collapse of the USSR already on the horizon, — Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov.
'In Order To Make The Creation Of Aircraft Carriers Of The New Generation Possible, The Navy Must Keep And Repair Admiral Kuznetsov'
"Admiral Kuznetsov could not help being a problematic ship – its introduction into service coincided with the disintegration of the country and was accompanied by serious organizational problems, one of which was the uncertainty of its future: in autumn 1991, Russian navy command seriously contemplated as a threat the scenario of the ship being hijacked in Sevastopol by Ukrainian separatists who were rather popular even in the Black Sea Fleet.
"The result was Kuznetsov's secret and hasty departure from the Black Sea to the Northern Fleet, even though some of the works had not yet been completed, including works on the propulsion system.
"The ship's deployment in the Kola Bay removed the worries over its nationality, but did not contribute to its normal introduction to service: most of the technical experts, whose absence rendered the aircraft carrier's maintenance highly problematic remained at the Black Sea. Partially, these problems were solved by the fact that heavy aircraft-carrying cruisers Kiev and Admiral Gorshkov (until 1990 named Baku) were part of the Northern Fleet as well. They had propulsion systems almost identical to that of Kuznetsov, but severe reductions in military expenditures and the transfer of these ships from the first line to the reserve with the accompanying crew size reduction did not improve the situation.
"In 1993, the first three ships of Project 1143 — Kiev and the Pacific Ocean-based Minsk and Novorossiysk were withdrawn from the navy for good. In 1994, the navy lost Admiral Gorshkov as well; by that time, it had been laid up for repairs after a fire in the aft engine-boiler room. In Nikolayev, works on Kuznetsov's sister ship – the heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser Varyag (laid down in 1985 under the name Riga and renamed in 1990) – were stopped. The last ship of the 1143–1143.7 family, named Ulyanovsk, was scrapped in the Nikolayev shipyard in 1993, when it was 20% ready. Further fate of these ships was different in each case. The most interesting was the story of Gorshkov and Varyag: the former, after a long reconstruction in Severodvinsk was given to India in 2013 as the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya; the latter was sold by Ukraine to China in 1998 at the price of scrap metal, and about 15 years later became the aircraft carrier Liaoning.
The launching of Riga, renamed Varyag (Source: Lenta.ru)
"As for Ulyanovsk, which was laid down in 1988, when ideological dogmas were no longer a fixed part of the Soviet military construction, it was the closest to a full-fledged aircraft carrier – a hybrid with simultaneous use of a ski-jump ramp in the bows and catapults on the angled deck; its large size and nuclear propulsion system made it similar in its capabilities to the unimplemented projects 1160 and 1153, as well as to American atomic aircraft carriers. However, it too had to carry anti-ship missiles.
"In 1995, it was decided to send Admiral Kuznetsov to the Mediterranean: the long-distance voyage was timed to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the Russian navy to be celebrated the year after. The first voyage could have been the last one – the breakdown of the propulsion unit nearly resulted in the loss of the ship during a storm. The aircraft carrier finished its voyage successfully and returned to the Kola Bay, but the condition of the technical systems of the engine-room department remains a source of major concern even now.
"Lack of funds for full repairs in 1990s — early 2000s, coupled with the shortage of skilled experts, made the ship's problems chronic. They could be partially solved by cannibalization – removing necessary parts from Project 956 destroyers, which used similar turbine-geared propulsion units and boilers; but this was not a comprehensive solution. Power problems significantly reduce the ship's performance, which affects the capabilities of its aircraft — for a take-off with maximum takeoff weight (i.e. maximum fuel supply and payload), the ship needs to put on full speed. The existing operating limitations result in a reduction of fuel supply and payload, which affects the aircraft's combat performance. Externally, the problems with the ship's propulsion system are expressed, among other things, by excessive smoking in some modes – according to some experts, the direct reason for smoke may be a defect of the automatic controls of the main propulsion machinery, which makes using optimal fuel combustion modes impossible.
"Problems with the propulsion system are only one part of Kuznetsov's shortcomings. The infrastructure degradation that went on for a long time, the air group that was always undermanned, and the general condition of the fleet that did not have enough funds for full combat training until 2000s, – all this resulted in the loss of a significant part of the aircraft carrier service experience acquired with previous ships. Now, this experience has to be acquired anew, but the only Russian aircraft carrier has not grown any younger in the interim.
"The modernization and repairs of Admiral Kuznetsov, scheduled for the next few years, should fundamentally solve the ship's problems. But it's not enough to maintain carrier-based aviation as a system. The Russian navy still needs planes capable of providing cover for its deployment off the coast – primarily in order to defend its own sea borders in the Arctic and in the Pacific Ocean. But in order to make the creation of aircraft carriers of the new generation possible, the navy must keep and repair Admiral Kuznetsov. In this realm, no other source of human resources and technologies exists in Russia."