The Soviet Navy’s first full-deck aircraft carrier, the Tbilisi (formerly called the Leonid Brezhnev), is in the late stages of fitting out at the Black Sea Shipyard in Nikolayev and is expected to begin sea trials in 1989. Like the four Kiev-class vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) carriers, the Tbilisi will carry out initial sea trials and conduct flight training in the Black Sea. Then, in 1990–1991, according to Western intelligence estimates, the carrier will pass through the Turkish Straits to make her first operational deployment into the Mediterranean.
The only treaty restrictions on Black Sea nations’ aircraft carriers passing through the Turkish Straits, are that they must travel singly and cannot be escorted by more than two destroyers.1 Turkey, which has control of the Straits, is a member of NATO. However, Turkey’s proximity to the Soviet Union, which has a common border with Turkey, and the increasing economic relationship between the two make Turkish denial of the Straits to the Soviets in any situation short of full-scale war highly unlikely.
Once in the Mediterranean and the seas beyond, the new aircraft carrier will provide the Soviets with a valuable area-control capability. The ship’s air wing is expected to comprise about 65–70 aircraft, the exact number to vary based on the types assigned. The Tbilisi, like the Kiev-class carriers, will carry V/STOL fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and likely will fly conventional fixed-wing aircraft launched by a ski-ramp and recovered with arresting gear.
The later ships of the class are expected to have catapults for launching aircraft. Catapults may be backfitted into the Tbilisi at a later date.
Now flying from the Kievs and expected to go aboard the Tbilisi are the Yak-36 Forger-A/B fighter-attack aircraft, the latter being a two-seat variant. An improved V/STOL fighter-attack aircraft, the Yak-41, is now under development for carrier operation.
Several high-performance conventional aircraft have been evaluated for possible carrier operation at the Saki naval air test center in Crimea. It appears that the large Su-27 Flanker, a Mach-2 interceptor, is the principal candidate for operations from the Tbilisi. The Flanker-B mod-2 variant has been observed undergoing ski-ramp launches and arrested landings at Saki. Now in production for the Soviet Air Defense Forces, sufficient numbers of Flankers could be ready for carrier service on board the Tbilisi by 1992.
Specialized, fixed-wing antisubmarine and early warning aircraft are likely to be developed. When the Tbilisi first goes to sea, the antisubmarine warfare function will be carried out by the Ka-27 Helix-A helicopter.
Unlike the earlier Moskva hermaphrodite helicopter carrier/ missile cruisers, and the heavily armed Kievs, the Tbilisi, with an estimated full-load displacement of about 64,000 tons, will probably carry only short-range, defensive weapons—most likely short-range, vertical-launch SA-N-9 missiles an 30-mm. AK-630 multibarrel (Gatling) guns. The flight deck extends to the bow (with a ski-ramp on the Tbilisi), providing more aircraft operating space in place of the missile launchers, ASW rocket launchers, guns, and magazines of the earlier aviation ships.
Prominent on the ship’s starboard island structure is a phased-array radar installation, which may be a Soviet counterpart of the U. S. AN/SPY-1 Aegis radar.2 The island is topped by a barrel-like electronic warfare/tactical air control navigation (TACAN) antenna, and above that is what appears to be a Top Plate radar—a relatively small air/surface-search radar. The spherical Top Knot TACAN antenna that tops the island of the Kievs is absent. Forward and aft of the island are deck-edge elevators; there is also probably one or more centerline elevators.
While the previous Moskva and Kiev classes have hull-mounted and variable-depth sonar installations, the Tbilisi probably has a smaller acoustic detection suite, or none at all. The previous aviation ships were built with the SUW-N-1 and RBU-series ASW weapons as well as torpedo tubes (since removed from the Moskvas). Without these shipboard weapons, the value of a major sonar system is limited, and task force area detection can be accomplished by ASW screening ships as well as by ASW helicopters with dipping sonars.
The Tbilisi probably has a combined nuclear and steam turbine (CONAS) propulsion plant likely double the CONAS plant in the Kirov-class battle cruisers. This would mean the carrier has a four-reactor, four-shaft plant capable of producing 300,000 shaft horsepower. In the CONAS arrangement, the reactors are used for normal cruising; the oil-fired boilers cut in for higher speeds.3 (The Soviet SSV-33 space command/ support ship appears to have a similar, though smaller, CONAS propulsion plant.)
Launched on 5 December 1985, the Tbilisi was built in the same building dock that produced the four Kiev-class ships, the last of which was completed in 1987. A second Tbilisi-class ship was laid down in the dock on 10 December 1985. Because this is the only building dock in the Soviet Union large enough to build these carriers, one can predict a maximum building rate of one ship completed every four to five years. Thus, by the year 2000, the Soviets could have three of the Tbilisi class at sea, plus the four Kiev-class V/STOL ships.
While the total number of aircraft embarked in these seven ships would be only about 300, of which perhaps half would be fighter-attack aircraft, their combat potential would be significant in areas where hostile high-performance land-based or carrier-based aircraft are not available.
These carriers and their aircraft are expensive to produce and to operate. All indications are that the Tbilisi and at least one other ship of the design will be completed. Historically, the Soviets have built large warships in groups of four or more. (The two-ship Moskva class is rationalized as having being overtaken by the improvements in U. S. Polaris submarines the Moskvas were intended to counter, and the decision to instead build the larger Kiev-class.)
Although submarines remain the “capital ship” of the Soviet Navy, the Gorbachev regime continues to build these large, nuclear-propelled aircraft carriers. Their cost to the Soviets is considerable, but the carriers’ potential for supporting submarine operations and providing power projection in the Third World is significant.
In 1945, I was stationed at Naval Auxiliary Air Station, Santa Rosa, California, with Carrier Aircraft Service Unit 36. Out task was to service newly formed carrier air groups that were undergoing training before being assigned. The air group had the first squadron of Grumman F8Fs in the Navy’s inventory.
In the waning days of the war, the Japanese launched a new weapon against the U. S. mainland. It was known as “Fu-Go”—hydrogen-filled balloons, made of paper and carrying incendiary bombs. They would be launched from the east coast of Japan, climb to about 30,000 feet, and be carried by the prevailing jet stream to the continental United States. A timer released the bomb load. The Army had set up a defense called “The Fire-Fly Project,” consisting of aerial patrols over the Northwest forests and 3,000 soldiers serving as fire fighters.
One spring afternoon, someone on the ramp at Santa Rosa noted a bright speck in the sky. We obtained binoculars and tried to identify the object. The final consensus was that it had to be a Japanese fire balloon. The sun could be seen shining through the envelope, and one eagle-eyed salt swore he could see the weapons package hanging below the bag.
We launched an F8F to shoot down the foreign devil, and kept our eyes glued to the bright speck above us, waiting for the telltale flash that would signal the balloon’s destruction.
Soon the F8F returned and the disgusted pilot climbed out, shaking his head. “I went up to 46,000 feet,” he said, “and the damned thing seemed just as far above me as when I was on the ground.”
As dusk approached, we stood in small groups, talking quietly and glancing apprehensively up at the object—now brighter than ever. Finally, as darkness fell, the object shone forth in all its splendor. We finally recognized it—the planet Venus.
Jay E. Wright
1 Montreux Convention (1936), Article 11.
2 The only Soviet ship now fitted with a fixed-antenna, phased-array radar system is the space command/support ship SSV-33; see “The Soviet Navy: Space Ships,” Proceedings, April 1988, pp. 129–130.
3 A similar nuclear-fossil fuel plant had been proposed for U. S. aircraft carriers in the mid-1970s and possibly earlier.