Here's What You Need to Know: This scenario could very well end in a tie.
The recent decline in relations between Russia and the West has put ship-vs.-ship warfare back on the table. After more than a decade of supporting land wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, the U.S. Navy is reinvesting in the core mission of sinking ships. The U.S. Navy is expanding this capability but at the same time introducing a new class of ship, the guided missile destroyer USS Zumwalt, designed primarily to support land warfare.
Meanwhile in Russia, Moscow is still trying to squeeze life out of its Kirov-class battlecruisers. The gigantic surface ships, all nearly thirty years old, have aging but still generally effective armament, and are still capable of carrying out their primary mission: attacking very large enemy ships, especially aircraft carriers.
What if the two ships met in combat, one-on-one?
The Zumwalt-class is the latest class of U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer. The three ships: Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Michael Mansoor and Lyndon B. Johnson, are optimized for naval gunfire support. The ships are the first true “stealth” ships in Navy service, with flattened, angular features designed to reduce their radar signatures.
The Zumwalts will displace fourteen thousand tons, making them the largest U.S. Navy destroyers ever. Their size and weight is largely a function of the ship’s stealthiness, which requires virtually everything to be hidden underneath a radar-defeating exterior. The 610-foot-long Zumwalt allegedly has a radar signature equivalent to a small fishing vessel, and a maximum speed of thirty knots.
Another contributing factor to the weight is the suite of weapons and sensors. The AN/SPY-3 Multi-Function Radar offers superior medium-to-high altitude search performance over previous radars, and can direct Standard SM-2 surface-to-air missiles. The Zumwalt class has eighty vertical launch silos for launching SM-2 and Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles, Tomahawk land attack missiles and ASROC anti-submarine rockets.
Although Zumwalt may not be capable of area air defense (although there was initially some question, it appears it will indeed be equipped with the SM-2) it will be more than capable of defending itself. The Navy placed an order for eighteen SM-2AUR missiles, likely for the first ship of the class. It can also fit four shorter range Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles in every missile silo, giving it a theoretical maximum loadout of 320 ESSM.
Given the atrophying of the Navy’s anti-surface capability and the land wars of the early twenty-first century, it’s no surprise Zumwalt is deficient in is the anti-ship mission. There no Harpoon missiles on the stealth destroyers, which do not fit in missile silos and must be accommodated on angled tube launchers, typically located on the main deck.
The ship’s two 155-millimeter Advanced Gun Systems, which have a range of up to eighty-three miles and a rate of fire of ten rounds per minute, have an anti-surface capability and would do tremendous damage against lightly armored surface ships of today.
Zumwalt’s opponent, the battlecruiser Kirov, is a relic from another era. Constructed in the late 1980s to quickly neutralize American aircraft carriers, the ships are designed for an offensive mission. At the same time, they have formidable anti-air capabilities.
The Kirovs were the largest non-aircraft carrier warships built by any postwar navy. Each was 826 feet long—nearly as long as the World War II battleships Bismarck and Iowa—but weighed just 24,000 tons. This was in large part due to their use of nuclear power for propulsion instead of boilers and turbines, giving Kirov and her sisters a top speed of up to thirty-two knots.
Another reason: Kirov traded heavy guns (the nine 16-inch guns of the battleship Iowa together weighed 1,075 tons, not including turret, armor, and ammunition) for missiles. For offensive armament, Kirov has twenty gigantic P-700 Granit antiship missiles. Each Granit is approximately thirty-three feet long and weighs more than fifteen thousand pounds, making them practically unmanned airplanes.
Granit had a range of 300 miles at Mach 2.5 and a 1,653 pound warhead. Initial targeting information could be provided by another platform, such as the Kirov itself, the Kirov’s helicopter, or land-based patrol aircraft such as the Tu-95 Bear. It could even be provided by the Legenda satellite targeting system, which was specifically established to feed target data to the Kirov and Granit combination.
Kirovs were also designed with air defense protection in mind, each armed with a generous arsenal of defensive missiles to keep her alive—at least until her Granits were expended. Ninety six S-300F long-range surface to air missiles formed an outer air defense, 192 3K95 and forty 4K33 short-range surface to air missiles created a layer inside that, and as a last resort, the ships had six AK-630 close-in weapon systems equipped with thirty-millimeter gatling guns.
In a battle between the two ships, which would prevail? Let’s assume place the two ships on the high seas at the maximum range of either side’s antiship weapons: 300 miles, the range of Kirov’s Granit missiles. Unlike previous scenarios, we’ll not assume that each ship knows where the other is, but that eventually, one will find the other. Kirov has the Legenda satellite system working for it, but Legenda is a radar satellite, and Zumwalt is a stealthy destroyer with the radar signature of a small fishing boat.
Both ships are furiously searching for the other, embarked helicopters scanning the ocean beyond the horizon. In this situation the stealth destroyer has the distinct advantage over the majestic, but non-stealthy battlecruiser. Zumwalt’s helicopters detect Kirov first, sending positional data back to their mothership. Kirov detects the helicopters but is unaware of Zumwalt’s actual location.
If Zumwalt’s stealth can hold, theoretically it can close to within gun range of the Kirov. The Russian battlecruiser, on the other hand, will want to hang back and strike Zumwalt from a distance. Unfortunately for the Russian side, everything about Kirov’s systems, from its satellite targeting to the guidance systems of its Granit missiles are radar-guided. Kirov could launch her missiles in a direction she suspects Zumwalt is at, the active homing radars of the Granits would still have to be able to pick up the American destroyer’s tiny radar signature.
Even if the Granits could lock onto Zumwalt, the latter has the air defenses to deal with it. Equipped with at least eighteen SM-2 medium range air defense missiles and several dozen Evolved Sea Sparrow short range air defense missiles, Zumwalt could probably knock down most of the Granits.
Can Zumwalt engage with its guns? It depends. At their maximum eighty-three mile range, a Long-Range Land Attack Projectile fired by the Advanced Gun System would take 161.89 seconds to reach the target. Even if Zumwalt knew precisely where Kirov was, the shells would be traveling much too slow to hit the moving battlecruiser. The GPS guidance of the AGS wouldn’t help much either, unless Zumwalt were able to observe Kirov moving at steady speed and bearing, and adding a little Kentucky windage. That might be good for the first barrage, but once Kirov started zig-zagging it would be impossible to get a bead on her.
The end result of this scenario: it’s a tie. Neither side can accurately target the other. In the future new weapons such as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile would give the Zumwalt a real edge. Alternately, a 155-millimeter projectile capable of receiving terminal guidance from an unmanned aerial vehicle would be useful.
Zumwalt, unable to get close enough to target with guns and Kirov, unable to use its radar-guided weapons, both break off to fight another day.
Kyle Mizokami is a 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.
This article first appeared in July 2016.
Image: U.S. Navy