Why the Russian Nuclear Powered Aircraft Carrier Failed So Spectacularly

The nuclear powered aircraft carrier Ulyanovsk was planned to be the best Russian vessel ever built... But, it ended up being scrapped when the project was almost completed.
nuclear powered aircraft carrier

In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia became an independent country. This was a difficult time for Russia, as they had to rebuild their economy from scratch.

One of the projects that Russia decided to undertake was the construction of a nuclear powered aircraft carrier… Unfortunately, this project failed miserably and ended up costing Russia billions of dollars.

The transition from the USSR to Russia wasn’t good for the Russian Navy

soviet naval officers and enlisted men stand in formation on the deck of the e7c7f6
Soviet naval officers and enlisted men stand in formation on the deck of the Slava Class Guided Missile Cruiser MARSHAL USTINOV by Picryl. Public domain

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had a profound impact on the Russian Navy. The new navy was significantly smaller than its predecessor, and it lacked both the manpower and the resources to maintain a global presence. In addition, many of its ships were in poor condition and in need of repairs.


The Russian Navy was only a shadow of the Soviet navy – and the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier they had in mind was now an impossible project.

Soviet nuclear powered aircraft carrier Ulyanovsk

Aircraft Carrier Ulyanovsk Under Construction
Aircraft Carrier Ulyanovsk Under Construction by dodmedia.osd.mil. Public Domain

The Soviet aircraft carrier Ulyanovsk was a unique ship. Built in the 1980s, it was designed to be the first Russian nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

The vessel was laid down in 1986, but the project was never completed. It was scrapped at 40% completion in 1992, when the Soviet Union decided to discard the aircraft carrier Ulyanovsk, making it one of the most prominent and most expensive naval failures in history.


Then, Russian leaders sold the steel to the United States at $150 a ton when the US initially offered a much better deal of $450 a ton. So, Russia lost an aircraft carrier and made a horrible deal.

Russia was desperately looking for funds, and the US was eager to stop the Russian aircraft carrier Ulyanovsk project. In the end, Russia’s failed attempt to build a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was nothing more than a costly blunder.

Why did Russia’s nuclear powered aircraft carrier Ulyanovsk project fail?

There are two main reasons why Russia’s nuclear powered aircraft carrier project failed.


First of all, the technology to build such a vessel was simply not available in Russia at the time. Also, it is doubtful that Russia would have been able to afford the project in the long term because even today, its only aircraft carrier is in poor condition, and it won’t be operational any time soon.

The aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is slowly dying too

Russian Navy Northern
Russian Navy Northern by picryl.com. Public Domain

The ship is named after a famous admiral who fought in the Russo-Japanese War – and was once the pride of the Soviet Navy. 

But, it has been out of service for the last few years and is expected to be refitted in 2024… at best.


Today, Admiral Kuznetsov is a sad reminder of a bygone era, and its future is uncertain. It has many problems that have led some observers to conclude that it is slowly dying even if it is refitted.

Aircraft carrier Ulyanovsk Specs

ТААКР by К.Е.Сергеев. Licensed under CC by 3.0

  • Planned: 2
  • Cancelled: 2
  • Ordered: 1986
  • Laid down: 1988
  • Status: Scrapped at 40% completion
  • Displacement: 75,000 tons (full load)
  • Length: 321.2 meters (1,054 feet) 
  • Beam: 83.9 meters (275 feet)
  • Draught: 10.6 meters (35 feet)
  • Propulsion: 4 KN-3 nuclear reactors / 4  steam turbines with unlimited range
  • Aircraft carried: 68 aircraft in total

This aircraft carrier would have given Russia additional sea power

The aircraft carrier Ulyanovsk was a promising project that could have provided Russia with a reasonably capable and modern aircraft carrier, which would have been much needed for fighting Ukraine.

Featured image credit: MilitarySportsHoliday by Сергей Федюнин. Licensed under CC by 4.0


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