Over the years, I have seen people compare Nimitz and Kuznetsov without proper information on the actual roles for which these vessels were designed for. One is designed to lead a flotilla of vessels or operate solo while keeping enemy fleet at bay using its nuclear tipped 700km heavy AShMs and enemy aircraft away using its air superiority aircraft. The second vessel is permanently mated with a battle group to maintain air superiority and strike a variety of strategic and tactical targets using its air wing. The roles look pretty different here itself, lets look at the ideologies that went behind these vessels to sort out the roles even further and show that these vessels are essentially incomparable.
Heavy aircraft carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov
As the name suggests, this vessel isnt a pure aircraft carrier but is called a cruiser due to its massive AShMs payload and extensive command and control facilities along with sensors present on this vessel. Lets have a look into the Soviet naval ideology before moving onto the role of this cruiser. Soviets essentially took up the best lessons learned during the world war 2, from both the allied and axis powers to build their armed forces during the almost 50 year long Cold War to counter the western powers. Soviets placed more emphasis on submarines and ASW to protect their own vessels and destroy those of the enemy in case of an armed conflict.
Soviets learned this from the havoc Germans wreaked on allied shipping during what U-Boat arm of their navy called as the “Happy times”. Submarines which might not be as costly as surface vessels could be mass produced and standardized for different roles. It was also observed that without proper surface support and air cover, the submarines would be taken out too soon to leave a mark. Again, this lesson was learned during the world war 2 when the allies changed tactics, employed aircraft carriers and sensors like Sonar and Radars to detect and sink submarines either on the surface or in the depths.
Soviets thus started building an impressive fleet of anti sub and anti surface warfare vessels which during the later part of the cold war enter service as the Krivak class ASW frigates, Udaloy class ASW destroyers and the Sovremenny class anti surface warfare destroyers. These were supposed to be lead by vessels which could provide air cover for these vessels while doing anti sub and anti surface warfare on its own. Thus the design of Admiral Kuznetsov was developed (she was named Leonid Brezhnev at that time). They gave onboard offensive capability independent from the fighters which the aviation cruisers could use while taking on a flotilla. From the Kievs to the unfinished Ulyanovsk all of these aviation cruisers had heavy anti ship missile armament for offense.
USS Nimitz CVN-68
For the allies, which fought against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during the second world war, carriers became single most important type of vessel used by their navies. Air power had sunk the once unsinkable battleship which were costly and used just twice in their entire history against each other. These massive and complex vessels were costly and had loads of problems throughout their service lives. It was also realised that no amount of armor and anti-aircraft guns could stop waves of enemy aircraft armed with torpedoes and bombs. Ironically two of the biggest and the most famous classes of battleships ie Bismark and her sister Tirptiz and Yamato and her sister Musashi were all either sunk or crippled by aircraft, except Tirptiz, almost all the aircraft which attacked the other three were operating from aircraft carriers. Even during the war, battleships were used for second grade jobs like shore bombardment and escorting aircraft carriers, whereas carriers formed the nucleus of a battle fleet.
Typical world war 2 era USN flotilla with several carriers and battleships providing escort to the carriers
From the Essex to Nimitz, size of carriers grew exponentially. They were not given any onboard offensive weapons as they had escorts. The escorts changed from battleships to heavily armed destroyers and frigates in 21st century. The only offensive capability western carriers had were the air wings they carried. The Americans started using nuclear propulsion which allowed the carriers to sail non-stop for 20 years, and its operational readiness only limited by food, fuel for its jets and spare parts.
Heavy aircraft carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov
She was given 12 P-700 Granit AShMs which can be nuclear tipped and are one of the few smart weapons of its generation. Air defense for the vessel was provided by her air wing and naval Tor along side 8 Kashtan CIWS. She also has 4 Ak-630 as CIWS which can also be used for attacking smaller vessels.
Admiral Kuznetsov has a massive flight deck with a 12 degree ski jump to allow Su-33 air superiority fighters to operate off its deck in STOBAR configuration. This flight deck has flush covers for the 12 P-700s thus making it uniform and ideal for air ops. It has 3 launch positions, two short and one long.
A pic showing the deck layout and the launch positions
Estimated payload for short take off point is around 2 tonnes and full load is more than 6 tonnes. Although criticized for less payload compared to western fighters which use catapults to haul larger payloads off the deck, Su-33 with a payload of 4 R-77s and 6 R-73s could easily operate off the deck while using the shorter take off positions as this will payload will weigh around 1.5 tonnes. It is an impressive payload for air superiority mission. It can also carry 4 Kh-31s and 2 R-73s, yet weigh close to 2.5 tonnes for a surface attack role. Given Flanker’s impressive range, further boosted by buddy refueling, this vessel can control a wide area. She can also deploy Ka-28 ASW helos and Ka-31 AEW helos. It was designed to carry an air wing of 58 aircraft although post Soviet collapse economic problems meant that it never had any where close to that number. This clearly shows that she was never a pure carrier but a cruiser+carrier. She was supposed to get an extensive upgrade post cold war which has been time and again due to lack of funds.
USS Nimitz CVN-68
Nimitz class is essentially a floating airfield+city for its crew of over 5000 men and women. This 100,000 tonne behemoth can support close to 100 jets during combat if needed, but generally carries around 70. These aircraft are launched using 4 steam catapults, 2 on the bow 2 on the angled deck and recovered using 4 arrestor wires.
This pic shows the layout of Nimitz class’s flight deck, its catapults and deck edge elevators for jets.
The air wing consists of a squadron of fleet defense fighters, another squadron of strike aircraft supported by some refueling aircraft. Presently all these 3 roles are played by F/A-18E/F or the F/A-18C. During the cold war, F-14 squadrons provided fleet defense, A-6 and A-7 squadrons looked after the strike role and KA-6 and A-3 were used as tankers. At times S-3s were used as tankers as well. S-3 were primarily used for ASW along side variants of the Sea Hawk, presently only Sea Hawks are used for ASW. A Nimitz class carrier generally controls an area of 1000km radius with the carrier at its center, this area can be further boosted by buddy refueling.
Nimitz lacks any offensive weapons and relies entirely on aircraft for destroying targets both in the surface and the air. Onboard defense was usually provided by RIM-7 Sea Sparrow and Phalanx CIWS during the cold war. Thus during the cold war both the Nimitz and Kuznetsov had similar air defense capability although Nimitz has a larger air wing but Kuznetsov can destroy targets even if its aviation facilities are disabled. Presently onboard air defense is provided by RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow MR-SAM and RIM-116 RAM SR-SAM. As western carriers are permanently mated with a battle group, Aegis cruisers and destroyers also provide air defense using large quantities of LR and MR SAMs.
As intended, we can obviously see that both these vessels cannot do what the other one can, while Kuznetsov can venture alone at times Nimitz cannot due to lack of onboard offensive capabilities. These vessels, although similar but are designed for totally different roles and ideologies essentially making them incomparable. I hope this helps in clearing the often biased comparison of these two vessels.