Could the Yak-44 Make a Comeback For Russia’s Next Carrier?

In May of this year, the Krylov State Research Center, Russia’s primary state-sponsored shipbuilding R&D institute, debuted their Project 230000E, also known as “Shtorm” (or Storm in English). Shtorm is the working name given to Russia’s next prospective venture into the world of supercarriers, presenting Russia’s hope to finally reach a solid degree of naval parity with the United States. Their only carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, doesn’t possess the same capabilities which the Nimitz class of carriers afford the US Navy, nor does it really function all that well. Constant propulsion issues, at-sea breakdowns and a very limited deployment schedule have essentially dulled down the Kuznetsov’s warfighting abilities, and don’t allow for the Russian Navy to truly utilize the vessel as they envisioned when they first built it. So it makes sense that they’d want to pursue building a ship that does. IHS Jane’s had the inside scoop, bringing to light the variations on the powerplants that could be used with the ship (i.e. nuclear versus conventional), the hybrid deck layout which includes a ski-jump but also a pair of electromagnetic catapults, the double island superstructure (similar to the Queen Elizabeth class) and so on. Now, if Russia is actually able to build such a warship, it’ll need suitable aircraft to use aboard the vessel. By that, I mean fighters to fly air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, utility helicopters that ferry personnel, assist with vertical replenishments and anti-submarine warfare, cargo carriers for parts and personnel delivery, and lastly, airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C).

A scale model of the proposed Project 23000E Shtorm carrier. (Global Security)
A scale model of the proposed Project 23000E Shtorm carrier. (Global Security)

While Russia anticipates fulfilling the fighter/attack and utility roles with its current aviation projects, its AEW&C capabilities are very anemic. At the moment, the Russian Navy uses Kamov Ka-31 Helixes to fulfill the AEW&C role- essentially refitted coaxial helicopters that carry a large rotating/folding radar antenna underneath the fuselage. While the Helix does actually perform somewhat as needed while deployed aboard the Kuznetsov, it just doesn’t live up to the mark set by fixed-wing AEW&C aircraft like the E-2C/D Hawkeye, currently in shipboard use with the United States Navy and the French Navy. A limited range and a very limited onboard sensor suite are two of the Helix’s biggest flaws. Therefore, Russia if builds a better carrier than the one they have right now, they’re going to need better AEW&C aircraft too. The article in IHS Jane’s did state that Russia expects to build a jet-powered airborne early warning aircraft. However, an AEW&C jet would, in comparison with a turboprop version, likely necessitate heavier maintenance, fly with a reduced range and, in general, just cost a heck of a lot more. So it might actually make more sense for Russia to consider building the propeller-powered alternative instead, and luckily for them, in designing a brand new AEW&C plane, they can call upon the scrapped Yak-44 project.

Interestingly enough, the Yak-44 was fairly conventional in design. The underlying idea for such an airborne early warning system came about in the 1970s when the USSR, all too aware of the United States’ burgeoning supercarrier fleets, began planning the design and construction of their own large-sized flattops which would perform a similar function of power projection as its American counterparts. At that point in history, the only aircraft carriers operated by the Soviet Navy belonged to the Kiev class. The Soviets didn’t even consider the Kievs as true carriers, and accordingly designated them “heavy aviation cruisers”. A Kiev’s air wing was primarily staffed by VSTOL (vertical/short takeoff and landing) Yak-38 Forgers, the Red equivalent of the British Aerospace Sea Harrier. Heavy aviation cruisers with jumpjets didn’t exactly give the Soviet Navy the same blue water capabilities as a larger, more diversely-equipped carrier could, so it became evident that the time was ripe to build a ship that would deliver what they wanted. With such a ship came the requirement for larger fighters and support aircraft. The aim was to create a deployable air wing of sorts that would mirror that of a typical American carrier. This included fighters (like the F-4 Phantom II and the F-14 Tomcat), attack aircraft (like the A-6 Intruder and the A-7 Corsair II), carrier on-board delivery planes (like the C-2 Greyhound), utility helicopters (like the Kaman UH-2/SH-2 Seasprite) and last but not least- airborne early warning aircraft (like the E-2 Hawkeye). With respect to the AEW and COD missions, the Soviet Navy, in 1979, turned to Yakovlev, one of their mainstay aviation design bureaus, to come up with a multi-version platform for future review.

The only mockup of the Yak-44 ever built, aboard the Kuznetsov.
The only mockup of the Yak-44 ever built, aboard the Kuznetsov.

Similar to what Grumman did with the E-2 Hawkeye, Yakovlev put together a proposal for a propeller-powered high-wing aircraft that featured a rotodome positioned above the fuselage, and twin tails in the rear to allow for greater control authority, given the aerodynamic layout and architecture of the plane. Labeled the Yak-44, it wasn’t exactly a carbon copy of the Hawkeye though it did bear a strong resemblance to its Western cousin. It used a set of contra-rotating propfans as its powerplant, was heavier (due to it being designed to carry a larger fuel load), and the rotodome could be lowered towards the fuselage so as to reduce the overall height of the aircraft for storage in a carrier’s hangar bay. The Yak-44 was designed to withstand the stresses and rigors of catapult launches and arrested recoveries, and thus featured a very durable landing gear setup. Just in case, it was also supposed to be capable of launching from a ski-jump without the use of a catapult, especially for deployments aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov class of carrier. In 1991, Yakovlev built a non-flying mockup of the Yak-44 and the Soviet Naval Aviation authority loved it.

And then, the Soviet Union fell.

With the newly-formed Russian Federation unable to afford its predecessor’s grandiose naval aspirations, massive cuts were enacted and the once-gargantuan Soviet Navy began shrinking rapidly. The nuclear-powered carrier project, due to field six Yak-44s upon its completion and christening, was scrapped and a second Kuznetsov carrier which was under construction at the time, the Varyag, was left unfinished (China would later buy the incomplete hulk and finish it themselves). The Yak-44’s demise followed soon afterwards, in 1993. But could it possibly make a reappearance in the near future?

The cancellation of the Yak-44 program doesn’t necessarily mean that the aircraft is completely dead. With a set of updates including a newer, more powerful sensor system, higher capacity datalinks and the ability to direct and control autonomous and semi-autonomous drones, the Yak-44 could actually make a comeback with Russian naval aviation as a replacement to their Ka-31 AEW rig, increasing the versatility of a future carrier air wing. The Yak-44 isn’t a very out-of-date concept either, though they might want to reconsider changing the original complex powerplant system to a turboprop setup, which tends to be a little easier on wear and tear and maintenance. However, even if the Yak-44 is the more wallet-friendly option to the jet-powered alternative, price will still be a major issue. Considering that Russia has drastically scaled back its military modernization programs with major cuts imposed on its new aviation procurement regimen, and the fact that the country’s economy is on shaky footing, Russian naval aviation might not even have a suitable carrier available for the Yak-44 to operate off. Then again, considering that the Russian Navy wishes to begin construction on the Shtorm carrier by 2030, Russia’s economic fortunes could change for the better, so as to provide for the carrier and all its necessary components.


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