Russia's Battlecruiser Is Back and Oozing with Naval Firepower (Maybe)

Kirov-Class Battlecruiser
December 21, 2023 Topic: military Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Russian NavyNavyBattlecruisersKirov-ClassRussiaNaval History

Russia's Battlecruiser Is Back and Oozing with Naval Firepower (Maybe)

Russia's battlecruisers - the Kirov class - seem deadly on paper. But in reality, they have done very little to warrant the attention they have received over the decades. 


Russia's 'Battlecruiser' to be Armed With Long Range Weapons - When the Soviet Union launched its "guided-missile cruiser" Kirov in December 1977, she was the largest warship – apart from aircraft carriers – built by any nation since the Second World War, and was truly reminiscent of the battlecruisers of a bygone era.

Though smaller vessels, armed with advanced guided missiles, reached the level of firepower that was once the domain of big gun battleships, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union set out to prove that there was still a place for large warships in the modern world.


A total of four (of a planned five) nuclear-powered Project 1144 Orlan Kirov-class guided-missile cruisers were constructed between 1974 and 1998 – and the introduction of the lead vessel even played a key role in the re-commissioning of the United States Navy's Iowa-class battleships in the 1980s.

The nuclear-powered warships were designed to carry a formidable array of sensors, including air/surfaced search radar, fire control radar, and hull-mounted sonar. The propulsion system was based on a combination of nuclear power and steam turbine with two nuclear reactors coupled to two oil-fired boilers, which could allow the ships to cruise along at a top speed of up to thirty-one knots.

Russia's Kirov-Class Battlecruiser: The Shipwrecker?

Instead of big guns that were common on battlecruisers, the primary armament of the Kirov-class was the "Granit" (NATO reporting name SS-N-19 "Shipwreck") long-range anti-ship missiles.

Twenty launchers were installed under the upper deck, mounted at a 60-degree angle.

Though the long-range missiles could not be controlled once launched, they had what was known as a "multi-variant target engagement program," which allowed the missiles to share information while in flight. The lead missile assumed a high-level flight trajectory, enabling it to increase its target acquisitions capability, while the other missiles followed a lower level. If the lead missile was destroyed, another of the missiles would automatically assume the lead role.

The Kirov was also equipped with a twin RPK-3 Metel (NATO reporting name SSN-N-14 "Silex"), and was further armed with ten RPK-2 Vyuga (SSN-N-15 "Startfish") launched via 533mm (21-inch) torpedo tubes. Most of the weapons systems are located forward of the massive superstructure, while the stern was employed to house machinery and a below-deck helicopter hangar, which accesses the flight deck via a lift. Three helicopters could be carried – serving in both anti-submarine and missile-guidance/electronic intelligence roles with the latter providing target data for the Granits.

Area air defense was also provided by vertical launch S-300F Fort (SA-N-6) long-range surface-to-air missiles, housed in a total of 96 launchers forward of the P-700 Granit bins, and close-in air defense was handled by a mix of Osa-M (SA-N-4 or Gecko) missiles 30 mm Close In Weapon Systems (CIWS) and 130 mm Dual-Purpose (DP) guns.

Yet, the vessels never lived up to the hype.

No Place for the Battlecruisers in the Modern World?

The Russian Navy's surface fleet remains in a sorry state, and the first two of the Kirov-class warships have been retired and are undergoing scrapping. The third vessel, commissioned in 1988 and currently named Admiral Nakhimov, was rarely deployed to sea and since 1999 had been permanently docked in Sevmash to await repairs. Only in 2006 was a decision made to modernize the ship.

Its refit has been in a word: slow. While the original plan was to have the ship back in service by 2012, the project had had numerous stops and starts, and the current timeline suggests that the guided-missile cruiser could be returned to service in late 2024 at the earliest, and odds are that it could be years before she heads back to sea.

Armed to the Teeth – If it Returns to Service

As previously reported, on paper at least, the Project 1144 class was armed to the teeth in order to handle virtually any surface combatant scenario. Now the Kremlin has announced it further improve the armament of the Admiral Nakhimov, as the warship will receive longer-range weapons and modern air defenses during her still-ongoing refit.

Kirov-Class Battlecruiser from Russia

"After modernization the cruiser will be armed with long-range precision weapons. Modern air defense complexes and antisubmarine weapons will protect the warship," Sevmash Shipyard CEO Mikhail Budnichenko told state media outlet Tass. "After the completion of all technological operations at the mooring berth the Admiral Nakhimov will sail for sea trials."

The overhaul and the upgrade of the cruiser proceed as scheduled, Budnichenko added – but to many military analysts it would simply seem to be "never-ending."

Once Admiral Nakhimov finally is in operation again, the plan is then to send Pyotr Velikiy – the ex-Yuriy Andropov – to undergo her own refit and upgrade. Currently operational with the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet, she is Moscow's largest warship in service. She has mainly taken part in drills in the Barents Sea or has remained in port. 

Russia may hope to extend the operational life of its battlecruisers.

Still, the question remains how long such a refit may take – and it is likely that if the second of the two operational warships head to port for an upgrade, it may likely never return to service.

Author Experience and Expertise

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

All images are Creative Commons.