Aircraft carriers aren't the Russian navy's only problem. It has also struggled for decades to build jets for them.

  • Russia's sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, has been out of action for years for repairs.

  • Russia's navy and its Soviet predecessor both struggled to keep their aircraft carriers operational.

  • Moscow has also struggled with the other vital component of naval aviation: carrier-based jets.

In July, Russian state media reported that Russia's sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, could return to active service by the end of 2024.

Kuznetsov has been undergoing repairs since 2017, and its return to duty has been delayed repeatedly by mishaps and malfunctions.

The carrier has done only one combat deployment in its nearly 30-year career, and its return would be a milestone, but even if the Kuznetsov passes its planned sea trials, equipping the ship with a fully functioning air wing will probably remain a significant task for Russia.

Despite operating aircraft-carrying ships for more than a half-century, Russia has struggled to build effective fixed-wing jets for those ships to carry into action.

Yakovlev Yak-38

Russian Soviet navy Yak-38 aircraft carrier
A Yak-38 on the deck of a Soviet aircraft carrier in October 1985.US Navy

The dawn of the jet age after World War II ushered in advances in carrier aviation as well.

The Soviets had seen the advantages in the vertical/short-takeoff-and-landing design, or V/STOL, used by Britain's Hawker Siddeley Kestrel — the precursor to the now-renown Harrier "jump jet" — in the 1960s and opted to use that design for their first carrier jets.

The result, the Yak-38, was introduced in 1976 — three years before the British navy's Sea Harrier entered service — as the Soviet Union's first fixed-wing aircraft for its first true aircraft carriers, the Kiev-class.

The Yak-38 had two lift jets behind the cockpit and a single vectored-thrust turbofan engine with two adjustable nozzles that could be pointed downward for vertical flight. Its stub wings, which could be folded to save space, had four hardpoints, enabling the jet to carry about 2,000 pounds of ordnance.

A total of 231 Yak-38s were eventually built. Despite its novelty, however, the jet was mostly a failure.

Russian Soviet navy Yak-38 aircraft carrier
Yak-38 jets on the deck of the Soviet Minsk Kiev-class carrier in November 1982.US Navy

It was prone to mechanical issues, especially in hot and humid environments. By the end of Kiev's first cruise in 1976, for instance, only one of its six Yak-38s was still operational. The jet also had trouble with its automatic ejection system, which was activated by accident on multiple occasions and wrecked the jets.

The Yak-38 had many other shortcomings. Its range, payload, and speed were less than that of rival militaries' aircraft. Even the updated Yak-36M, with a longer range and double the payload, was underpowered compared with NATO carrier aircraft.

The inefficiency of the Yak-38's lift engines meant the jet rarely took off vertically, as it consumed too much fuel and limited the jet's already small payload. The Yak-38 didn't have its own radar, meaning its pilot was reliant on visual sightings or on other Soviet forces for guidance. The jet could carry Kh-23 anti-ship missiles, but since it was a single-seater, the pilot would have to fly the jet and guide the missile at the same time.

The Yak-38 only saw combat in landlocked Afghanistan. At least four Yak-38s operated alongside other Soviet jets from a base in the country's southwest in 1980. While it conducted several airstrikes during its monthlong deployment, the jet still struggled with the heat and dust, and its performance was not particularly noteworthy.

Soviet leaders decided against further upgrades and retired the Yak-38 shortly after the Soviet collapse in 1991.


Russia Su-33 fighter takeoff Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier
A Su-33 taking off of the Admiral Kuznetsov as it sails off the Syrian coast in January 2017.Andrei Luzik\TASS via Getty Images

Even as the first Kiev-class carriers and Yak-38s began to enter service in the mid-1970s, the Soviets were planning their replacements. By that time, the Soviet military's thinking about the value of sea control and naval air dominance had changed, and its commanders saw that V/STOL jets and the Yak-38, in particular, had limited utility for either.

The Soviets sought a larger carrier and a jet capable of conventional takeoffs and landings — like those of the major NATO powers — to provide greater range and payload and more reliability in dogfights. The result was the Kuznetsov-class carrier and the Su-33.

The Su-33 was effectively a naval variant of the Su-27 air-superiority fighter with several differences, including a reinforced undercarriage and landing gear for carrier landings, forward canards to reduce takeoff distance, a larger wing area for extra lift, foldable wings, and more powerful engines.

Russia Su-33 fighter landing on Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier
A Su-33 landing on Admiral Kuznetsov as it sailed off the Syrian coast in November 2016.Andrei Luzik\TASS via Getty Images

The new jet had a top speed of more than 1,400 mph and a range of more than 2,000 miles, along with a 30mm cannon and 12 hardpoints that could carry 14,000 pounds of ordnance.

Despite the jet's improvements over the Yak-38, it was also of limited effectiveness. Because the jet was exceptionally large, the Kuznetsov, which was smaller than US carriers, couldn't carry many of them. The jet's size also made it difficult to move around on the carrier. The Su-33 was also meant to be capable of ground-attack missions, but its takeoff weight, and thus the weaponry it could carry, were limited by Kuznetsov's ski-jump ramp.

The Su-33 didn't enter service until after the Cold War, and only about 22 were built. Three have been lost in crashes, and only 17 are believed to still be in service today.


MiG 29K aircraft INS Vikramaditya indian navy aircraft carrier
A MiG-29K landing on the INS Vikramaditya in 2014.Indian Navy

While the Sukhoi design firm was working on the Su-33 in the 1980s, the Mikoyan Design Bureau was working on its own carrier aircraft, the MiG-29K, a naval variant of the MiG-29.

Work on the MiG-29K was halted in 1991 when the Russian navy selected the Su-33 for its carriers, but the project was revived in 2004 for the Indian navy, which was acquiring the Kiev-class carrier Admiral Gorhskov from Russia and wanted the jet for the carrier's air wing.

With a top speed of about 1,300 mph and the ability to carry 9,900 pounds of ordnance, the MiG-29K was better suited for ground strikes than the Su-33. India also chose the MiG-29K because its air force already operated the MiG-29 and was familiar with the airframe.

Indian navy MiG-29 fighter jet aircraft carrier INS Vikrant
A MiG-29 aboard the INS Vikrant in September 2022.ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

New Delhi placed two orders, in 2004 and 2010, for 45 aircraft and related equipment for $2.2 billion. Its first MiG-29Ks were delivered in 2009, and the first squadron became operational in 2013. The MiG-29K also underperformed, however.

A 2016 report from India's Comptroller and Auditor General said that between 2009 and 2015, the MiG-29Ks that had been delivered were only available for service between 15.93% and 47.14% of the time. In addition to issues with the jet's airframe and avionics, the report said 62% of the engines delivered by Russia had been withdrawn from service or were rejected because of defects and deficiencies.

At least five of the Indian navy's MiG-29Ks were lost in crashes between 2018 and 2022 — a far higher rate than for the Indian air force's MiG-29s. The problems were compounded by the fact that India was wholly reliant on Russia for major support issues, as Moscow refused to transfer jet-engine technology or allow India to build its own MiG-29Ks.

The Indian navy said in 2018 that all serviceability issues had been resolved. It even deployed some MiG-29Ks to the Sino-Indian border at the height of tensions between the countries in 2020. But Delhi appears ready to move on to other jets.

Russia aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov
An Su-33 and a MiG-29K aboard Admiral Kuznetsov as it sailed off the Syrian coast in January 2017.Andrei Luzik\TASS via Getty Images

Despite designing the country's first domestically built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, around the Russian-made jet, India has opted to retire all its MiG-29Ks by 2035 rather than extend their service lives or buy more. India's navy says it instead plans to buy 26 French-built Rafale-M jets, which will require redesigning Vikrant's aircraft elevator, and eventually use a domestically developed carrier-based jet.

After the MiG-29K program was restarted for India, Russia's navy ordered 25 of the jets in 2009 to be used aboard Kuznetsov. The fighter made its combat debut in 2016, flying from the carrier during a deployment to Syria.

Neither the jet nor the ship emerged unscathed. In one incident, a MiG-29K broke the carrier's arresting cable during landing. As the crew cleared debris from the deck, another MiG-29K circling overhead crashed into the sea after its engines unexpectedly shut off.

Russia had planned to replace its Su-33s with MiG-29Ks but later decided that the MiGs would supplement its Su-33 fleet instead. Since Kuznetsov began its refit in early 2017, however, no jet has flown from the ship.

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