The United States has 11 aircraft carriers in total. Russia has only one. This is reflective of the past, in which we saw that the USSR also didn't put much importance on constructing aircraft carriers and putting them into operation.

Why hasn't Russia bothered to keep a larger inventory of aircraft carriers? Why hasn't it wanted to project its power through carriers? Why has the United States wanted to project its power through carriers?

What is the main point of difference in these two strategies?

  • 1
    Are questions like these considered on-topic for this site?
    – Alok
    Aug 2, 2012 at 7:37
  • Well, I think it isn't historical (hence OT) as you're dealing with present time naval composition; but I am new on the site hence the question.
    – Alok
    Aug 2, 2012 at 18:13
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about a counter-factual incapable of historical evaluation. Ask instead about what Soviet naval strategy was. Jun 7, 2014 at 14:39
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    Russian Naval strategy was sea denial. US Naval strategy was sea control. Aircraft carriers are expensive, technologically difficult, and much less useful for sea denial than for sea control.
    – MCW
    Jun 7, 2014 at 20:17
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    The Soviet navy was at heart a coastal defense force, with limited longer range capabilities mainly to defend egress routes for their ballistic missile submarines. No carriers needed when you're always within range of land based aircraft.
    – jwenting
    Jun 9, 2014 at 4:02

6 Answers 6

  • First of all, aircraft carriers are expensive. Russia (compared to USA) was never resource-rich enough to be able to afford the expense; neither was USSR.

  • Second of all, Russia (or rather USSR) had no motivation. USA's main geopolitical goal is to safeguard seabourne trade routes; and to prevent strong competitors from arising and commanding great sets of resources ala Japan's goal in WW2.

    Contrast that with Russia/USSR, which is dependent economically on seabourne trade to an enormously smaller extent; and whose main geopolitical concerns are right there on a landmass - protecting core russia by building a periphery barrier and keeping the populace under control. A carrier is of pretty much no help in that goal.

(as discussed in the comments - while Russia has a lot of maritime border, they aren't important for most part. Nobody'll invade - or trade - through Arctic. And since WWII, Japan hasn't been a credible geopolitical threat on the Pacific coast).

  • 7
    I'd up-vote if you had sources.
    – Luke_0
    Jul 22, 2012 at 1:25
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    @Luke Do you really need sources to point out that Russia is more land-locked than the USA?
    – quant_dev
    Jul 23, 2012 at 9:34
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    1. You didn't explicitly say that in your answer. 2. The USA has less coastline than Russia. Look at this CIA World Factbook page
    – Luke_0
    Jul 23, 2012 at 12:37
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    Luke - That's kind of misleading. The vast majority of that coastline is on the north shore of the asian landmass. This area is geopolitically a non-entity, and isn't navigable a lot of the year due to ice. Although the latter issue has been changing lately...
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 23, 2012 at 14:05
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    @Luke - as T.E.D. said, total coastline is irrelevant - the total seabourne trade is what is important. Not a lot of trade happening through Taymyr :) Not only does Russia lack great trading ports geographically, it also lacks navigable river system for cheap transport TO those ports (think Missisippi river system + New Orleans). You don't need carries for defense of coasts, you need it for defense of trade routes and trade partners
    – DVK
    Jul 23, 2012 at 16:18

The aircraft carrier is an offensive weapon; it is not very useful to protect one's own territory-- and the USSR was never planning an aggressive war. The USSR's main military preparations were for a defensive war in Europe similar to the Great Patriotic War during WWII and for nuclear deterrence so to avoid a nuclear strike from the United States.

Even in the case of war with the US, the USSR planned a land attack on the European NATO members with a massive tank rush.

The US, on the other hand, permanently conducts aggressive wars for resources against small and medium-sized countries overseas. The current military doctrine even calls for the ability to conduct two wars in two different countries at the same time.

Besides that, the best means to quickly defeat a small country is to put a carrier near its borders and to make a massive bomb strike. Transporting land weapons such as tanks on the other hand is expensive and takes much time.

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    "permanently conducts aggressive wars for resources" - -1 for political BS without any proof. Last I checked US got zero free oil out of Iraq, never mind that only an idiot would assume they intended to get any resources out of Vietnam or Afghanistan. Never mind that the last war where a country expanded their territory by invasion was ... drumroll little adventure that Russia had with Georgia where they all by annexed South Ossetia. The last N times USA annexed any territory they gave it all to others (Kosovo to Albanians; Iraq to Iraquis in theory and Iranians in practice; etc...)
    – DVK
    Jul 22, 2012 at 10:57
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    Russia did not annex South Ossetia, you are wrong. Actually Russia tryed to mirror the US behavior in Kosovo.
    – Anixx
    Jul 22, 2012 at 12:08
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    You are wrong. You should learn how the US and German companies grabbed the Kosovo industry, hastily privatized by the rebel government. Particularly, the copper industry.
    – Anixx
    Jul 22, 2012 at 14:39
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    @DVK It is not true that the US did not at least try to extract resources from Afghanistan. American companies (JP Morgan, backed by Pentagon) were looking for gold there, for example: management.fortune.cnn.com/2011/05/11/…
    – quant_dev
    Jul 23, 2012 at 9:36
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    I actually rather like this answer, in spite of the gratuitous slap at the US. I would point out though that weapons aren't inherently offensive or defensive. Carriers are pretty much required for effective warfare in the islands of the Pacific. A USA without them could not realistically have Hawai'i as an integrated state, as it could not plausibly defend it against carrier-based attack.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 23, 2012 at 14:15

Russia is not a true naval power. It has only a handful of ports: St. Petersburg, Vladlivostok, Archangelsk, and Sevastopol (and all but the last are icebound for several months of the year). Its naval needs are primarily defensive, meaning that it can use land-based aircraft, rather than aircraft carriers for this purpose. Of course it needs a surface fleet and submarines to defend these approaches.

  • 4
    To add a point, few of Russia's ports are warm water.
    – Luke_0
    Jul 22, 2012 at 19:24

The other answers are all correct and worth an upvote. Money, land-bound, defensive mentality were factors.

However, I will add one key element the others have not mentioned, which is that it was a deliberate part of their strategy. Soviet military planners considered the United States to be a threat to their polity and they deliberately made an "anti-USA" strategy, which dictated designing weapons and methods which were specifically for countering US technology.

In naval warfare, this meant that they deliberately decided to put all their money into submarines. The hope was that in a "sub vs carrier" war, the subs would win. By focusing completely on subs, they were hoping they could surpass us in this one key technology which would trump our other advantages.

  • I don't think this is very accurate. They put "all their money" into subs because the sub is the most anti-sea vessel known mankind. USSR and Russia have the doctrine of Sea Denial. USA chose Sea Control. Russia does not need subs to sink carriers. A modern carrier has 90 jets, and USA last I checked has 11 carriers, so 990 jets. This is not going to invade a large piece of land like Russia. Land supports many air bases, many more than 990 jets, as well as all sorts of AA weaponry. Carriers can only be used offensively against island nations and weak nations near water like in Middle East.
    – DrZ214
    Sep 4, 2015 at 6:11

The Soviet Union believed in spreading Communism (an ideology) through giving communist revolutionaries weapons such as guns, tanks, and planes.

The USA believed in projecting military power to guard its economic interests, which included containing the spread of communism (domino theory). Sometimes the US even gave weapons to bad people (Saddam Hussein, the Taliban of Afghanistan, etc.) to counter the spread of communism or guard its economic interests. The US has good reason to believe that it cannot rely on many of its fickle "allies." Therefore the US needs another method of projecting military power. That is where the carriers come in. They are much more reliable than dictators etc. However carriers are also much more vulnerable.

Nuclear Powered Icebreakers were more important to the Soviet Union (and now Russia) because no other ships (neither aircraft carriers nor tankers) can survive the ice of the Arctic Ocean, which is where much of Russia's oil resources are located.

The Soviet Union did build aircraft carriers, but on a much more limited scale than the USA. Communism prevented the Soviet Union from trading as much as the US, since it believed in centralized economies. Centralized planning also allowed convoys of ships to have military escorts such as those to Cuba. With the end of the Cold War, Russia has little need for naval power and Ukraine (former USSR) recently sold a partially completed Soviet aircraft carrier to China.

It should also be noted that the the most humiliating defeat in America's recent history was the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was conducted from Japanese aircraft carriers.


This is a very interesting question. To answer it I had to see if you are correct, that indeed Russia/USSR did not have a larger number of aircraft carriers.

Based on this article, Russian Aircraft Carriers Sold Journal: American metal market, Date: 11/16/1994, Vol: 102(222): 11 - 11 you are correct. Russia did not have a large number of aircraft carriers. A South Korean company bought a decade ago two Russian aircraft carriers for scrap metal: the Minsk and Novorossiisk.

Based on the same article I have to conclude that the limited number of aircraft carriers is due to the fact that Russia believes the cold war has ended:

The two 37,000-ton aircraftcarriers, built in 1979 and 1984, were the mainstay of the Soviet Union's Far East Naval Fleet, but with the end of the Cold War, Russia decided to decommission them.