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.

Back to our duel. In our scenario, let’s assume that each ship knows the location of the other at three hundred miles. At this range, the Iowa class is at a disadvantage: its longest range weapons, the thirty-two Tomahawk missiles, are land attack missiles and useless against the Kirov.

Kirov, on the other hand, launches all twenty of its Granit missiles. . . and then retreats. The battlecruiser has used up its entire complement of offensive weapons on a single massive blow and has nothing substantial left to continue the fight with. (While it still has a pair of 130-millimeter dual-purpose guns, it would be suicidal to get in close enough to use them, given Iowa’s overwhelming gun armament.)

Two of the Granit missiles fail to launch, or malfunction and fall into the sea, leaving eighteen streaking towards the American battleship. Iowa’s deficiency in air defense armament means that it has only two Phalanx CIWS guns to shoot down the Granits. Its SLQ-32 active radar jammers and Mark 36 SRBOC chaff launchers attempt to spoof the Granit’s active radar guidance systems.

It’s impossible to say how many of the eighteen remaining missiles would have gotten past Iowa’s Phalanx gatling guns, radar jamming and chaff dispersal. For the sake of the scenario, let’s assume nine missiles breach Iowa’s defenses. The mighty battleship’s armor was formidable, designed to shrug off sixteen-inch armor-piercing rounds, so it’s likely it would fare pretty well against a Mach 1.6 missile with a simple 1.5 ton high explosive warhead. The Iowa’s main guns were also heavily armored, as were the magazines and the engine spaces.

Iowa would sustain damage, but how much? Let’s assume two of the main gun turrets are knocked out of action, but one turret is still functional and the engines are undamaged. Three sixteen inch guns are still good enough to kill the Kirov but even under ideal circumstances, Iowa is only half a knot faster than the Russian battlecruiser, and at three hundred miles doesn’t have a chance of catching up to it.

If the Iowa were to close the distance with Kirov the odds slightly considerably. Iowa would have to get with sixty-seven miles for it to be able to use its sixteen Harpoon missiles—but even then such as small number of missiles would have a difficult time getting through Kirov’s three-layered air defense network.

In fact, the only range at which Iowa can really win a fight with Kirov is within twenty miles, when the ship’s nine sixteen-inch guns can come into play. At that range, the Kirov is indisputably dead meat, sent quickly to the bottom by the battleship’s big guns. Still, as satisfying as such an engagement would be, it’s hard to see how the Soviets would let an Iowa get that close.

Our 1988 hypothetical engagement is an example of the superiority of guns over missiles in certain scenarios. Guns—at least conventional guns—just don’t have the reach of modern missiles. Certain advances since then—including railgun weaponry and the long-range anti ship missile (LRASM) could breathe new life into a battleship platform, but that’s an argument for another day.

In 1988 the USS Iowa loses, limping away to fight another day. Still, that’s not all exactly bad news for the Americans: Kirov was forced to expend its missiles against a battleship that didn’t sink, and wasn’t able to fulfill its primary mission of sinking aircraft carriers or savaging NATO’s Atlantic convoys. Kirov returns to her home port to rearm, but thanks to the carriers that were saved, there may not be a port to go home to.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

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

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