The evolution of the Kiev class ‘cruiser-carrier’ hybrid from the days of the soviet union to its current role as an Indian Navy aircraft carrier.

Article by Oliver B. Steward, a Doctoral Candidate in International Security at the University of East Anglia. This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal.

The story of the Kiev class aircraft carrier has two parts;

(1) the construction and completion of the design as a hybrid ‘cruiser-carrier’ during the Soviet Union days of the Cold War in the latter half of the 20th century.

(2) Its operational history as an aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy refitted for the 21st century.

This comparative study would suit to assess its design characteristics and answer whether a multifunctional, and multi-purpose ‘cruiser-carrier’ was the best design concept which could have been achieved with this superstructure.

During the days of the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union began thinking of an aircraft carrier which would combine the attributes and firepower of a cruiser, with the flexibility and launch capabilities of an aircraft carrier – designed specifically for naval engagement and anti-submarine warfare in mind.

The construction of ships like the “Kiev’ marked a new era for the domestic navy ship building industry in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union needed to fulfil its tasks of demonstrating its tasks of fraternal socialism.  If the Soviet Union wanted to keep or even expand its network of overseas allies (during the 1970s the Soviet Union had an expansionist agenda, which escalated the Cold War under Soviet leader Brezhnev), it would require a naval force which consisted of capital ships that would support allies, and demonstrate Soviet capabilities to project power globally.

The United States was at the forefront of carrier design, and also outmatched the Soviets at this particular time militarily, technologically and also in terms of innovation. A new class of ship was needed in the Soviet Union to come up with the answer to the Kitty Hawk class and give it a strategic edge.

In 1975, the Kiev was built, followed by her sister ship Minsk, and followed by the Novorossiysk. The Kiev class was borne out of the Project Orel which was a full carrier deck proposal.  However, the Soviet Union was locked into an arms race with the United States and needed a carrier which was value for money, and also could match the then Kitty-Hawk class carriers at the time.  The superstructure featured two main components.

On the front deck, there would be anti-aircraft missiles and also surface to surface missiles intended to take out naval, ground or air targets, while the starboard had a flight deck which could support both jet aircraft and helicopters.  Thus, it was a ‘cruiser-carrier’ hybrid or otherwise defined as having properties of a missile cruiser, an anti-submarine ship, and an anti-submarine helicopter carrier.  Its design displacement was 43,000 to 45,000 metric tons, with a crew of 1,200 to 1,600, and a maximum speed of 32 knots.

Quoted in (Global Security) the Kiev class:

“With a 14,700 square meter flight deck, arrestor wires, and a bow ski-jump, the carrier airwing consists of 14 Yak-41M (Freestyle) vertical launched interceptors, 8 Yak 38 (Forger) attack aircraft, 10 Ka-27 PLO (Helix), 2 Ka-27 PS (Helix) search and rescue helicopters, and 4 Ka-27 RLD (Helix) helicopters. Two starboard elevators lift the aircraft from the hangar deck to the flight deck. Equipped with the Bazalt anti-ship missile system, the ship has 8 [or 12] surface-to-surface missile launchers. The [Kiev] class air defense system consists of 24 reinforced Klinok vertical missile launchers and 192 anti-air missiles”.

These Soviet ships were built at Chernomorksy Plant. A total of four Kiev class ships were built and served the Soviet Union.  Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian navy then acquired these aircraft carriers.  However, due to financial problems following the collapse of the Soviet Union the first two ships were sold to China as museums. The third ship, was scrapped.

But interestingly, and for the purposes of arguing whether this ship hybrid design was advantageous or, fundamentally a design flaw we look to the INS Vikramaditya (the Flagship of the Indian Navy).

The history of the INS Vikramaditya is as follows; it entered service with the Indian Navy in 2013, but was originally commissioned during the Gorbachev era of the Soviet Union in 1987 in the Soviet Navy. As it was then known in Russia as the Admiral Gorshkov before the Russian navy through financial difficulties and rationalism decided to decommission it in 1996 during the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin. The ship was purchased by the Indian Navy for the price of $2.35 billion.

However, what was the most interest, was the ship was converted from a hybrid function cruiser-carrier concept, to a sole carrier.  This meant all the armaments were removed from the foredeck including cruise missile launchers, and surface to air missile launchers. This gave space for a ski jump to launch aircraft, and gave the advantage for the aircraft to reach full power before making the ski jump take off, enabling aircraft such as the MIG 29 to take off and land.

Why this structural change?  One can speculate, but I would argue these points about the design flaws, that were found in hybridity of the ship itself:

Limitations in the ship design included the following:

  • Essentially the “Kiev” synthesized properties of a missile cruiser, an anti-submarine ship, and an anti-submarine helicopter carrier. This is a massive undertaken, but all three properties in my opinion could not work together.
  • Its command and control systems in my point of view needed to be directed towards one mission profile, instead of combining three differing profiles, which in an event of a war scenario would overwhelm the ships systems and crew during battle.
  • The Soviet design was too ambitious.
  • Instead of focusing on building an aircraft carrier with escorts, the Soviet Union wanted a hybrid system. This meant it could get two ships for the price of one essentially.
  • The cost limitations and the size of the superstructure meant that it could only carry a limited amount of aircraft, and armaments to fulfil its role as a cruiser. Meaning that both functions were inhibited by design limitations.
  • Therefore, as mentioned above, it could not directly challenge the Kitty Hawk aircraft carriers at the time, or for that matter the cruisers and destroyers of NATO forces.
  • The underdeck hanger of the Kiev class had only 22 places.

Why did the Indian Navy refit the ship?

  • The Indian Navy needed more space to operate its MIG 29 aircraft.
  • In addition, the Indian Navy did not need to supplement its existing frigates or cruisers and as such wanted a sole mission profile for the ‘Kiev class’ which was for a fully functional aircraft carrier.
  • Increased landing deck enabled anti-submarine warfare and anti-ship activities to still take place, but with a single platform of aircraft in mind.
  • The ship existing as a ‘aircraft carrier’ best utilised its superstructure and optimised its power projection.

However, it is my opinion, that what makes the Soviet Era aircraft carriers a novelty, was its uniqueness.  While during the 1970s other powers such as Great Britain, were investing in the Invincible-class mini carriers, the Soviet Union thought it could have a multi mission profile vessel which was novel in approach and design.  Nothing before could be compared to it, and nothing since has been built.

I would argue that the technology back in the 1970s then meant this would have been difficult to make this a reality.  However, as these ships never saw combat action during its ‘hybrid’ functionality phase, no one can say for certain whether this design concept would have held out in war.

The new Indian Flagship has the capability of operating MIG 29 fighters from its carrier desk.  It also has Kamov Ka-31 and Kamov Ka-28 anti-submarine warfare helicopters.  Interestingly, the ship is still in service, and on November 2016 its refit was completed.

However, what is further interesting, that according to India today, the Defence Minister AK Antony said that the aircraft carrier would enhance the reach and capabilities of the Indian Navy, and is quoted as saying:

“India’s economic development is dependent on the seas and safeguarding the nation’s maritime interests is central to our national policy.  Aircraft carriers have been part of the Indian Navy’s force structure since our independence and have effectively served the country over the past five decades or so.”

In conclusion, the refitted design of the “Kiev” class serves the same functions as a capital ship as it did during the its operational days under the banner of the Soviet Union, ensuring the power projection of a nation, and in this current era, securing the maritime interests of the rising superpower India.

One could imagine if the Soviet’s decided to instead build a solely aircraft carrier design, how this would have played out during the Cold War.

Its enduring legacy, and its ability to be transformed into a fully functional aircraft carrier means that the design of the ‘Kiev’ has truly found its place as an aircraft carrier in the 21st century.

Its evolution from design, to operational status, to refitting, and selling off to the Indian Navy means that we can evaluate and conclude, that the best purpose for this ship was best suited as an aircraft carrier, nothing more, and nothing less.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 years ago

The expression ‘jack of trades, master of none’ comes to mind. Sure it could fulfill those diffrent roles but it was never going to be used in such a way. No sane admiral is going to send his massively expensive and valuable carrier/cruiser hybrid to go hunt down ships or submarines and run the risk of it being sunk. So that leaves the argument that it could defend itself from all threats when alone. Yes, it could defend itself, but that ability, lackluster due to the amount of space devoted to carrier operations, effectively meant that when it came to… Read more »

Barry Larking
4 years ago

A case of drawing the wrong conclusions from a reverse, common to all countries. Embarrassed and humiliated by a foolish foreign adventure – who has not been? – the instinctive military response is to re-equip for success next time without fully examining the real issue. Was that really Cuba? Not just closing the stable door after the horse has bolted; failing to explain why the horse was ever in the stable to begin with. Brezhnev’s bonkers policies lead the Soviet Union over a cliff; intent on challenging the U.S.A. on the world’s oceans, he launched his own foolish adventure in… Read more »

4 years ago

I think that in addition to the points laid out in this guest contribution, we should keep in mind the geographical situation of the Soviet Union, as well as the Montreux Convention and how it applied to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was severely limited in operating bases for its naval forces. It has direct access to five seas (Barents Sea, Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Sea of Japan and Northern Pacific Ocean). The Black and Baltic seas are bottlenecked by US allies, and the Sea of Japan is nearly cut off as well. The Barents Sea and Northern Pacific… Read more »

2 years ago
Reply to  Jurri

@Jurri, yes, exactly my thought too, the Soviet Navy were forced to came up with this Kiev Aircraft carrying cruiser concept thanks to that Montreux treaty, which forbade the passage of any carrier heavier than 14000 tons but the very same Montreux allowed the passage of other type of ship, tonnage limitations notwithstanding, hence the Cruiser Carrying Aircraft concept was a simple way to just circumvented that treaty