Russia is planning to build its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier after breaking its only flattop

  • Russia wants to build its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the state run TASS news agency reported Tuesday, citing unnamed sources in the shipbuilding industry.
  • Unlike the US, which has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, Russia only has one conventionally-powered carrier, and it’s in bad shape.
  • The carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, plagued by a number of problems during its life, was severely damaged in a shipyard accident last year, and Russia has begun talking about scrapping it.
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Russia wants to build its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, Russian state media reported Tuesday, citing unnamed sources in the shipbuilding industry.

The carrier, a source told TASS, “will have a nuclear energy unit and displacement of about 70,000 [metric tons],” which would make it smaller than US carriers but still larger than Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the steam-powered Admiral Kuznetsov, which suffered a devastating accident last fall.

Last summer, Russian media reported that the Russian navy had begun developing a nuclear propulsion system for a next-generation aircraft carrier. Development on the new carrier is expected to begin in 2023, and the ship could be delivered to the fleet by the late 2030s.

In the final years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union began work on a nuclear-powered carrier known as the Ulyanovsk, but the fall of the Soviet Union led the Russians to suspend development. The project was scrapped, and the ship’s partial hull was disassembled.

The US has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in its arsenal. China, a rising great power, has two conventional carriers resembling the Kuznetsov, but the country is working on a third carrier that could be the country’s first modern flattop.

Read more: Satellite images show China building a big aircraft carrier believed to be its first modern flattop

Russia's only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, passes through the English channel en route to the Mediterranean belching black smoke. The carrier has never gone to sea without an oceangoing tug, which experts say is a 'cautionary tale' for the rest of the world.

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Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, passes through the English channel en route to the Mediterranean belching black smoke. The carrier has never gone to sea without an oceangoing tug, which experts say is a ‘cautionary tale’ for the rest of the world.
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Leon Neal/Getty

Russia, however, only has one carrier, and it’s a bit of a disappointment.

The ship is rarely seen at sea. From 1991 to 2015, the Kuznetsov, sometimes described as one of the worst carriers in the world, set sail on patrol only six times. When it sets sail, the ship is accompanied by tugboats, preparation for problems.

Last fall, the carrier was severely damaged when the massive Swedish-built PD-50 dry dock at the 82nd Repair Shipyard in Roslyakovo sank with the carrier on board. A heavy crane fell on the vessel, punching a large gash in the hull and deck.

Read more: Russia is talking about scrapping its only aircraft carrier, putting the troubled ship out of its misery

Russia’s ability to repair the damage appears to be limited due to the damage to the shipyard, and there has been talk of scrapping the flagship rather than investing in costly attempts to repair a tired ship that brings only limited capabilities to the Russian Navy. On a 2016 mission in Syria, the carrier saw the loss of two onboard fighter jets in just three weeks due to failures of the ship’s arresting wires.

A new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would certainly provide a capabilities boost, but it’s a tall order, especially as the Russian military has struggled to find funding for other big defense projects.

Short on funds, Russia had to cut production for the T-14 Armata main battle tanks and fifth-generation Su-57 stealth fighters. Russia reportedly also can’t afford its devastating new nuclear-powered cruise missiles that still don’t work right.

Read more: Russia apparently can’t afford Putin’s problematic nuclear-powered cruise missile