America's Lethal Iowa-Class Battleship vs. Russia's Battlecruiser: Who Wins?

USS Iowa fires a full broadside during a target exercise. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

It would have been a battle for the ages.

It’s 1988. World War Three has begun, with the armies of the Soviet Union and the rest of the Warsaw Pact pouring over the Inter-German Border. Their destination: the Rhine River and beyond, dealing NATO a knockout blow that will end the war.

Meanwhile at sea, an equally titanic battle is about to take place. A Soviet Kirov-class battlecruiser, attempting to intercept a U.S. Navy carrier battle group, is intercepted by the battleship USS Iowa. The biggest ship-against-ship battle since the World War Two is about to begin. Who wins?

Built in the late 1980s, the Kirov-class battlecruisers were designed—like much of the Soviet navy at the time—to neutralize American carrier battle groups during warfare. American aircraft carriers were a threat to not only the Soviet mainland but also Moscow’s nuclear missile submarines, and were to be taken out as quickly as possible. A secondary mission of the Kirov class was as commerce raider, designed to cut the flow of American and Canadian ground reinforcements to the battleground in Europe.

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The Kirov class were the largest surface warships built since the end of World War II. Each displaced twenty-four thousand tons and measured 826 feet long—nearly as long as an aircraft carrier. Nuclear powered, they could cruise indefinitely at speeds of up to thirty-two knots.

The purpose of the battlecruisers was to attack, and they were well suited for the task. Each carried twenty enormous P-700 Granit antiship missiles. Each, a Granit missile weighed more than fifteen thousand pounds. This was enough to include 1,653-pound high explosive warhead, enough fuel to give it a range of three hundred miles at Mach 2.5, and a both inertial and active radar guidance. Initial targeting data would be provided by the space-based Legenda satellite targeting system, shore-based aircraft, shipboard helicopters or the battlecruiser itself.

Granit was unique among Cold War–era antiship missiles in having an early networking capability. One missile per salvo rises higher than the rest, providing radar targeting information to the rest of the missiles though a network. If that missile was shot down, another would rise to take its place.

The Kirov cruisers were also designed to be self sufficient in anti-air weapons, the overall armament forming a layered defense system. Each carried 96 S-300F long-range surface to air missiles, a naval adaptation of the land-based S-300 system. The ships also carried 192 3K95 short-range surface-to-air missiles based on the Tor, and forty 4K33 missiles based on the Osa. As a last resort, the ships had six AK-630 close-in weapon systems equipped with thirty-millimeter gatling guns.

Four Kirov-class battlecruisers were built: Kirov, Frunze, Kalinin and Yuri Andropov.

Built in the 1940s, the Iowa-class battleships were designed to be fast fleet battleships, capable of chasing down and engaging enemy battleships such as the famed Yamato class of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Although the Iowas never engaged another battleship, they provided naval gunfire support for U.S. ground forces during World War, the Korean War, Vietnam, and off the coast of Lebanon in 1983.

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The Iowa’s main armament consisted of three massive gun turrets, each housing three sixteen-inch guns. Each gun could heave a one thousand nine hundred pound armor-piercing shell to a range of twenty miles. The guns could make quick work of any modern warship, except for perhaps another battleship—but they have to get the target in range first.

The Iowa ships were heavily armored, as battleships should be, with just over a foot of steel protection at the waterline. Bulkheads were protected by eleven inches of steel, and the main guns had nearly twenty inches of steel armor. The ships were powered by four steam turbines, giving them a top speed of 32.5 knots.

In the early 1980 all four battleships—Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri and Wisconsin—were returned to service and a number of upgrades were performed. Four of the ten dual five-inch gun mounts were removed, and it in their place sixteen Harpoon antiship missiles were installed. First deployed in 1977, the turbojet-powered, radar-guided anti-ship missiles pack a powerful 488-pound warhead. In addition to the Harpoons the Iowa class were fitted with thirty-two Tomahawk cruise missiles and four Phalanx CIWS close-in weapons systems.