Why Russia Is Investing in Modernized Battlecruisers

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December 25, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: RussiaRussian NavyBattlecruiserKirovSecurity

Why Russia Is Investing in Modernized Battlecruisers

These ships will provide power projection and will be more affordable than trying to keep an aircraft carrier.

Key point: These battlecruisers help with many different capabilities that the Russian navy needs. Just as importantly, they would let Moscow defend itself and eventually retire its aging and very expensive single aircraft carrier.

A second Russian battlecruiser may be on the cusp of returning to service for the first time since the 1990s. 

The Admiral Nakhimov, one of four Kirov class nuclear cruisers built by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, appears finally to be nearing the final stages of a long-planned refit that will return her to service with a suite of lethal new weapons. If her reconstruction remains on schedule, she will re-enter service as one of the world’s largest and most powerful surface combatants.

Like her sisters, Admiral Nakhimov (named after a nineteenth-century Russian admiral who participated in the Crimean War) displaced some 28,000 tons full load and could make some 32 knots on a combined diesel and nuclear propulsion system. She was equipped with the most advanced surface-to-surface, surface-to-air, and anti-submarine weapons of the day. The Kirovs were initially expected to provide the core of independent surface groups that could threaten US and NATO carrier battle groups. To this end, they carried the P-700 Granite SSM, which relied on a sophisticated set of communications technologies that enabled missiles to communicate in flight, with the hope that at least one missile would reach a carrier and inflict enough damage to prevent it from completing its mission. 

Like other late period Soviet naval projects, the Kirovs differed significantly from one another in configuration, as well as in service history. The Admiral Nakhimov mostly closely resembled Pyotr Velikiy, but had a considerably different anti-aircraft missile suite. Despite her age, the Admiral Nakhimov has enjoyed only a very short service career. She entered service in 1989, but the economic crisis that ensued at the end of the Soviet Union sharply reduced her tempo of operations. By 1999 she had entered what amounted to reserve status, a purgatory that included the bulk of the former Soviet surface fleet. Plans for refurbishing the Nakhimov began to emerge around 2006, with confusing and contradictory reports about the progress of the refit flying for more than a decade. This kind of confusion was typical of the Russian Navy in the 1990s and 2000s, as ambitions often exceeded the means of Russia’s chaotic economy. 

Post-refit, the Nakhimov will carry the 3M22 Zircon surface-to-surface missile, a smaller but more sophisticated weapon than the Granite. The hypersonic Zircon can reportedly reach Mach 8 or higher, maneuver during flight, and strike targets at a range of over 200 miles. It is much smaller than the Granite, enabling the ship to carry up to three times as many weapons. The Zircon appears to be interchangeable with Russian land-attack cruise missiles, meaning that the Nakhimov (and eventually the Pyotr Velikiy, assuming she is brought up to the same standard) will have a much more effective land-attack capability than their architects originally intended. The Nakhimov will also receive a substantially upgraded anti-air missile system (the naval version of the S-300), and various other upgrades. 

The plan now is for Admiral Nakhimov to re-enter service in 2022 with a series of significant upgrades. The Pytor Velikiy will likely begin her own (less substantial) refit around the same time. The primary contribution of Pyotr Velikiy has been as a visual manifestation of Russian naval power. While submarines continue to represent the core of Russia’s naval strength, we can expect that the refurbished Admiral Nakhimov will take on much of that role, especially with the future of Russia’s aircraft carrier (the perpetually troubled Admiral Kuznetsov) in deep question. Even with its more advanced missile systems, the Nakhimov would have little hope of inflicting serious damage on an alert U.S. carrier battle group. 

It is thus not difficult to imagine Nakhimov anchoring a Russian surface battle group off the coast of Syria, Libya, or another crisis hotspot. She could offer effective surface and air protection to Russian naval assets, while also demonstrating the political commitment of the Russian state. In more tangible terms, Nakhimov could play the role that so many U.S. cruisers and destroyers have undertaken over the last three decades, launching precision-guided cruise missiles against land targets either in support of Russia or allied land forces, or to inflict enough harm to coerce a foe into submission. This is a genuine improvement over Pytor Velikiy, at considerably less expense than refurbishing and operating the Admiral Kuznetsov. 

Nevertheless, we should keep the refit of the Nakhimov in context. Her refit is entirely opportunistic on the part of the Russian Navy, in the sense that no navy has given much consideration to building a ship of her size and capabilities since the 1980s. If the hull were not readily available and in decent shape, returning the ship to service would make little strategic sense (indeed, two Kirovs in somewhat worse shape will not be returned to service). Her refit does not seem to portend a return to the construction of large, ocean-going vessels on the part of Russia’s shipbuilding industry, but rather reflects the inability of that industry to economically build new large warships. In great power conflict, the Nakhimov undoubtedly represents a threat to Western naval forces, but also an extremely attractive target, especially for submarines. 

The addition of a second modernized battlecruiser undoubtedly fills gaps in Russian naval and strategic capabilities. However, it does not portend a transformation in Russian naval affairs, or a fundamental shift in naval power between Russia, NATO, and the United States. Indeed, if the refit of both battlecruisers allows Russia to give up on the Admiral Kuznetsov, it may represent the choice of a more moderate, sustainable direction for Russia’s surface fleet. 

Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and MoneyInformation Dissemination and the Diplomat. This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters.