Russia to Expand Carrier Fleet With Two Huge New Assault Ship Classes; Vertical Takeoff Aircraft Could Follow

Smaller, multi-functional "amphibious ships" that land marines and equipment and can support a squadron of helicopters or Harrier-like planes

Since the late 2000s the Russian military has planned to develop helicopter carrying amphibious assault ships domestically under a program similar to the South Korean Dokdo Class and French Mistral Class.

In August 2009, Chief of the Russian General Staff General Nikolai Makarov suggested that Russia enter a joint project with France to develop these warships, first purchasing one carrier from French builders and constructing three more in Russia itself. Makarov stated that while Russia would be able to undertake such a program and build these warships to a similar standard domestically, doing so would require a ten year delay to develop the necessary technologies - hence why a joint program was preferable to provide the carriers at an earlier date.

<figcaption>The comparable French Mistral-class</figcaption>
The comparable French Mistral-class

Seeking to support its flagging domestic shipbuilding industry, French President Nicolas Sarkozy pressed for the first two warships to be built in France and the second two in Russia - both of which would make extensive use of Russian components. Two more would then be built in Russia under a joint venture, providing Russia with a fleet of four of the light carriers. These warships were French Mistral Class vessels, and the joint program was set to considerably strengthen Russia’s military shipbuilding capabilities - which following the collapse of the Soviet Union and loss of shipyards in Ukraine had flagged considerably.

France would go on to cancel the contract to provide Mistral Class warships to Russia after their completion, which came as a response to heightened tensions between Moscow and the Western Bloc due to a clash of interests in Ukraine in 2014. Russia has since worked to develop the capabilities to built light carrier warships domestically, and according to Navy Deputy Commander in Chief Viktor Bursuk the country is scheduled to begin construction of the first warship in 2020.

The official indicated that two amphibious assault ship variants were planned, which he referred to as a “universal amphibious assault ship” and “large amphibious assault ship.” According to Deputy Defence Minister Yuri Borisov and a number of other Russian defence ministry sources, the first of the warships are set to enter service in the early 2020s. The decision to develop two carrier types in parallel closely mirrors the Japanese Navy’s approach, developing the Izumo Class and the lighter Hyuga Class and inducting two of each vessel into service. 

Assuming a similar size to the Mistral Class vessels, Russia’s new carrier will be by far the largest surface warships the country’s navy has commissioned since the fragmentation of the Soviet Union. Russia has since focused heavily on expanding its attack and ballistic submarine fleets, and has yet to construct any surface vessels larger than a frigate for its fleet - relying heavily on modernising its large Soviet era destroyers.

With only a limited number of destroyers available, Russia’s new carriers are likely to be heavily armed to reduce the need for a large escort fleet - much as the country’s Kuznetsov Class and the Soviet Kiev Class carriers were.

It also remains a possibility, particularly for the ‘large amphibious assault ship’ referred to by the Deputy Commander in Chief, that Russia may well develop a new fixed wing aircraft to operate from its warships. With these ships potentially approaching the size of the Japanese Izumo Class or even the Untied States' own American Class carrier warships, this remains a considerable possibility. 

Much like the United States developed the F-35B with short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) to operate from its own amphibious assault ships, so too did the Soviet Union before it develop Yak-38 Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) strike fighter to operate from its own Kiev Class vessels - which lacked runways entirely. These aircraft served until the year of the Soviet disintegration, when the more advanced Yakovlev 141 VTOL fighter was also cancelled with four prototypes built.

The possibility of a resurrection of the Yak-141 program, or a derivative program making use of similar technologies, remains a considerable possibility for the Russian Navy to equip its new carriers - thus allowing it to field a larger force of fixed wing aircraft carrying warships without the costs of developing and operating a vessel the size of the Kuznetsov, Ulaynovsk or SHOTRM ships.

Whether the development of new carriers for the Russian Navy will herald a renaissance in the country’s shipbuilding, and lead to the commissioning of destroyers and other large surface warships in future, remains to be seen. 

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