Russia's Kirov-Class Battlecruisers: A Nightmare That Isn't Going to Stop

Kirov-Class Battlecruiser from Russian Navy

Russia's Kirov-Class Battlecruisers: A Nightmare That Isn't Going to Stop

The Kirov-class battlecruisers, once envisioned as the crown jewels of the Russian Navy, failed to live up to their formidable reputation. Despite being among the largest warships, second only to America's aircraft carriers, their operational effectiveness has been questioned.

 

Summary: The Kirov-class battlecruisers, once envisioned as the crown jewels of the Russian Navy, failed to live up to their formidable reputation. Despite being among the largest warships, second only to America's aircraft carriers, their operational effectiveness has been questioned. Launched in 1977, these nuclear-powered giants were heavily armed but struggled to match the enduring capabilities of their U.S. counterparts. With only two of the original four ships remaining by 2023, and one stuck in drydock since 1999, their future seems uncertain amid ongoing modernization efforts.

Kirov-Class

 

-This scenario mirrors a broader trend where traditional surface warships face obsolescence due to advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems and hypersonic weapons. Both Russian and American navies have heavily invested in these large platforms, potentially at the expense of other, more relevant capabilities like submarines. The sinking of the Moskva, a smaller Russian battlecruiser, by Ukrainian forces underscores the vulnerability of such assets in modern warfare.

-The focus, instead, should shift towards developing effective countermeasures against emerging threats and enhancing the reach of offensive systems beyond A2/AD bubbles, ensuring naval forces remain competitive in contested environments.

End of an Era: The Decline of the Mighty Kirov-Class Battlecruisers

If the centerpiece of the United States Navy’s offensive strategy was the aircraft carrier, since the Cold War era, the Russian Navy’s main offensive system was their battlecruiser. Heavily armed, nuclear-powered, and seriously armored, the Kirov-class battlecruiser was to be the most important strategic asset in the Russian fleet. 

Yet, as my colleague, Peter Suciu, outlined in an article in these pages last year, the Kirov-class “never lived up to the hype.” 

Of course, one could say the same about America’s vaunted aircraft carriers in the age of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) defensive systems of the kind that both China and Russia possess (as well as their partners in Iran and North Korea).

Kirov-Class

The fact of the matter is that the era of surface warships might be at an end because of how sophisticated A2/AD has become (and how ubiquitous these systems have become). As for the Kirov-class, they struggled in ways that America’s flat tops never did. The Soviets and, later the Russians, envisaged these beasts raging across the world’s oceans in ways that sent shivers down the spines of even the Americans. 

The Kirov-Class Never Lived Up to Its Hype

Launched in 1977, the Kirov-class’s eponymously named warship was the second largest warship to traverse the oceans (next to America’s aircraft carriers). Four of these behemoths were built since then. They inspired so much fear-and-loathing among the US Navy’s brass that the Iowa-class battleships were refurbished and brought back into service in the 1980s as a counterweight to the Soviet battlecruiser threat. The Kirovs were loaded with potent long-range missiles rather than the traditional “big guns” that usually armed the decks of similar sized warships.

These warships carried an assortment of other missiles as well as torpedoes. They also housed three helicopters. 

Despite these beastly armaments, the Kirov-class lacks the staying power those other systems, such as those belonging to the US Navy, enjoy. Four warships were built between 1977-1988. 

Of those four, only two remained until 2023. The Admiral Nakhimov has been languishing in drydock since 1999! The other battlecruiser, the Pyotr Veliky, was slated to be modernized but the Russian Navy ultimately announced it was being retired last year. 

Kirov-Class

As for the Admiral Nakhimov, it has been undergoing “modernization” in port for years. There is real concern among Russia’s military planners that the warship will never leave port; that it will simply be constantly upgraded. Nevertheless, the Russians appear committed to refurbishing this weapon of war—giving it all new and deadlier weapons, to boot!

The Russian Battlecruiser and American Aircraft Carrier Aren't Useful Today

Although, this gets back to a point raised earlier: are large surface warships even relevant in today’s era of A2/AD and hypersonic weapons? 

The Americans have overcommitted to their aircraft carrier capability to the detriment of other, more relevant capabilities, such as their submarines. Meanwhile, the Russians appeared to have done something similar with their Kirov-class battlecruisers. 

In fact, the Russians should have gotten the wake-up call when their warship, the Moskva, which belonged to the smaller and cheaper Russian battlecruiser Slava-class, was sunk by the Ukrainians at the outset of the Russo-Ukraine War.  

Investing heavily into modernizing the remaining Kirov-class battlecruisers is a waste. 

Circumventing A2/AD with Distance

A similar fate which befell the Moskva could easily befall the Kirov-class, modernization notwithstanding. A better use of resource for any navy today would be to spend its money on developing effective countermeasures against drone swarms, hypersonic weapons, and massive numbers of antiship missiles. 

Kirov-Class

At the same time, being able to deploy offensive systems far beyond the range of A2/AD systems would ensure that a navy remained relevant in this age of contested environments. 

The Russians are making the same mistake that the Americans are in investing so heavily into their surface prestige weapons. These systems will not prove decisive. They are boondoggles. 

About the Author 

Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at American Greatness and the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life, and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy. Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.