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Stalinís Aircraft Carriers
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2012

The Soviet Union, believing itself the vanguard of manís social, political and economic revolution, strove for modernity in all things. During the 1930s, the military buildup of the First and Second Five-Year Plans emphasized the most modern weapons. By 1941 the Red Army boasted more tanks than every other army on the planet put together. The Red Air Force numbered thousands of planes.

The Red Navy inherited a gaggle of incomplete Tsarist warships, which it struggled to complete in the 1930s when they were already obsolescent. These included several cruisers of the Svetlana class and destroyers of the Novik class, all of which had been world leaders when laid down during the first years of World War One. Among those ships not completed were the four battle cruisers of the Borodino class, big and fast ships intended to carry a dozen 14-inch guns.

Russian industry could not deliver turbines for them fast enough to suit the Tsarist Navy, and the engines for two of them had instead been ordered in Germany and Britain. That problem, along with a lack of materials and skilled workers, caused construction to be abandoned on three of the ships, with only Izmail going forward until the Bolshevik Revolution brought her to a halt as well.

Sea power that might have been: the battle cruiser Izmail.

The new Soviet government sold the three less advanced ships to a German breaker in 1922, considering them not worth attempting to complete. Izmail was retained, but the Red Navy could not obtain funds to complete her as a battle cruiser. In 1926, the Navy submitted plans to complete her as an aircraft carrier similar to the American and British battle cruiser conversions Glorious and Saratoga and avoid the technical problems of re-starting the production lines for her 14-inch rifles. But once again financial strictures prevented approval ó the biggest obstacle remained her engines, which had never been delivered. In 1931 the shipís remains were finally cut up for scrap in Leningrad.

Denied their aircraft carrier, the Red admirals turned to a big ship that did possess engines Ė the decommissioned battleship Frunze. Known as Poltava in Tsarist service, she had suffered a severe fire in her forward boiler room in November 1919 and had never been repaired. She was considerably shorter than Izmail and would have made a far less satisfactory carrier. After two years of talks, work began on her engine rooms while the naval staff continued to discuss whether she should enter service as a battleship or an aircraft carrier. Necessary repairs turned out to be far more extensive than originally thought, and she was cannibalized for spare parts to help renovate her three sisters and turned into a floating barracks in Leningrad. She was sunk there in 1941 and finally scrapped in the mid-1950s.

Izmail under construction, 1915.

The Soviet Unionís First Five Year Plan, which ran from 1928 to 1932, emphasized heavy industry and collectivized agriculture. This yielded the means to expand the armed forces, and in the Second Five Year Plan (1932-1937) the Navy received the resources to build new ships beyond the old cruisers and destroyers completed under the First plan. With Italian assistance, the Red Navy built a class of impressive heavy cruisers, a large number of fast but structurally weak destroyers and short-range submarines.

General Secretary J.V. Stalin called for a major fleet build-up under the Third Five Year Plan (1938-1942). This was to include battleships, battle cruisers, light cruisers, improved destroyers and longer-range submarines. The Great Helmsman also gave the nod to a pair of aircraft carriers, though he remained a firm proponent of the battleship as the ultimate measure of naval power.

The Project 71 ships approved for this plan were fairly small, 13,000-ton ships with a 630-foot flight deck, based on the same hull as the Chapayev-class light cruisers. They would have been almost identical in size to the British Colossus-class light carriers. The design specifications called for an air group of 15 fighters and 30 torpedo bombers, to be launched by a pair of pneumatic catapults. She would have two elevators, downward-turned funnels in the Japanese manner, and a heavy anti-aircraft armament.

Italian shipyards had given immense technical assistance in the battleship, cruiser and destroyer programs, but the fascist state had no carrier expertise to offer. The Soviet engineers received a tour of the German carrier Graf Zeppelin, but seem to have realized that the Germans knew only slightly more about aircraft carriers than they did, and that that knowledge came second-hand from the Japanese. Project 71 proceeded very slowly, and the authorized ships ó one for the Baltic fleet, and one for the Pacific ó had not been laid down when the Axis powers made their treacherous attack in June 1941.

A Soviet aircraft carrier under construction at Nikolayev, 1983.

By 1943, wartime experience caused the TsKB design bureau to re-cast the carrier into a much larger ship, labeled Project 72. She would be 812 feet long, comparable to the American Essex class, and displace 29,000 tons. Like Project 71, she drew heavily on the German Graf Zeppelin design, and like the German ship was projected to carry a very small air group for her size, 60 aircraft. Vice Admiral L.G. Goncharov, the lead designer, acknowledged the lack of Soviet experience and suggested that the Americans be asked to provide an Essex-class carrier to the Red Navy or, barring that transfer, allow Soviet officers to serve aboard American carriers. The Soviets do not appear to have made either request.

Two years later, Goncharovís team produced a new design based on the incomplete hull of the battle cruiser Kronstadt, known as Project 69AV (the battle cruiser had been Project 69). This big ship would displace 32,000 tons and carry 76 aircraft. In all 33 different carrier designs came out of the design bureau for the 1946 post-war building program, with Project 69AV the favorite of Admiral N.G. Kuznetsov.

Graf Zeppelinís hulk in Soviet hands.

Stalin at first approved two of the ships, one to be built at Leningrad from the incomplete Kronstadt and one at Nikolayev using materials salvaged from her sister Sevastopol, wrecked by the Germans. The General Secretary would later order the Black Sea ship re-cast as a conventional battle cruiser, while Kronstadt was scrapped in the 1950s. Completion of the German Graf Zeppelin, towed away in 1945, apparently was never seriously considered and in 1947 she would be sunk as a target.

In Third Reich we gave the Soviet Navy no aircraft carriers, but they clearly had the technical ability and the will to build them, with only a little outside help. We corrected this somewhat with a pre-war variant in the Playerís Guide that swaps an additional SURF unit and a CV for one 3-5 armor. But realistically, the Red Navy does not need a deus ex machina event to bring it a carrier, only a Willing Disciple of Lenin in turn willing to allocate BRPs to carriers rather than tanks or aircraft. Both the 9 SURF and the CV from the Playerís Guide counter set should be added to the Soviet Force Pool at the start of 1940.