Why America (and the World) Still Fears Russia's Lethal Battlecruisers
They might be old—but they are getting a big, modern facelift. And that’s a big problem.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union embarked on a project to do what no navy had done for decades—build a surface warfare vessel comparable in size to the battleships of World War I and World War II. The U.S. Navy—and every other navy in the world—had given up on ships of this size due to expense and vulnerability. Why concentrate capabilities in a single ship which could quickly fall victim to missiles and torpedoes?
The Soviets not only persisted in building the ships, but have kept them in service even after the Cold War ended. Originally intended to threaten the U.S. Navy’s most precious warships—aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines—the surviving ships now play a different role, showing the flag and ensuring that the world keeps Russian naval power in mind.
The Kirovs (Project 1144) originated as nuclear powered antisubmarine cruisers, designed to either hunt American missile submarines, or protect Soviet nuclear “bastions” from U.S. and British attack boats. At the time of their initial conception, the Soviets did not focus on antiship capabilities in their surface ships. However, improvements in missile technology, combined with the increasing threat posed by American surface vessels and especially American carriers, made it possible to imagine a ship that could combine surface, subsurface and antisubmarine warfare capabilities.
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The ship that could fulfill all of these missions was immensely large by Cold War standards. Built around the P-700 Granit surface-to-surface missile system, the Kirovs could threaten Western carrier battle groups while also carrying out an anti-submarine role. Displacing twenty-six thousand tons, the Kirovs dwarfed previous Soviet surface ships. Indeed, the United States itself had not constructed surface warfare vessels of this size since World War II. Only aircraft carriers and large, flat-decked amphibs exceeded the Kirov’s in size.
The battlecruisers also served another strategic purpose; power projection. The Kirovs used an unusual combination of nuclear and steam propulsion to generate a speed of thirty knots, while at the same time providing a backup in case of technical failures. This gave the ships long legs, in addition to extraordinary firepower. The Kirovs were ideal platforms for projecting Soviet prestige, forming the core of task forces that could influence political developments around the world. In the long range, the Soviet Navy expected the Kirovs to operate in tandem with its new (never built) class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
The construction of the Kirov’s lent weight to arguments in the U.S. Navy in favor of recommissioning the Iowa class battleships. Although the vessels differed dramatically in capability and configuration, they were both big; the U.S. Navy imagined several new ways of packing systems onto the gigantic Iowa hulls that would make them formidable, multi-purpose ships. Eventually, the U.S. Navy would recommission the battleship with moderate modifications, improving their land-attack and surface-attack capabilities.
The Kirovs (and ships like them) also made clear that the Soviet surface fleet could pose a serious threat to U.S. carrier battlegroups, and potential to U.S. ballistic missile submarines. This resulted in increased attention to the conventional cruise missile threat, including improved radars and point defense systems.
Service and Upgrades
At the end of the Cold War, funding for the Soviet Navy collapsed. The fifth Kirov was cancelled, the first suffered damage and was never repaired, and construction of the fourth (Pyotr Velikiy) was delayed. In a move characteristic of the turbulent politics of twentieth-century Russia, all four existing and incomplete Kirovs acquired new names.
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Currently only Pyotr Velikiy, the last of the four ships, remains in active service. But unlike some of the white elephants of the Soviet period, the Russians have found a good use for her. The Russian Navy has used Pyotr Velikiy heavily, showing the flag around the world to demonstrate the continued relevance of Russian seapower. She even conducted antipiracy operations for a time off Somalia, perhaps one of the greatest mismatches between mission and capability in recent memory.
Over the years, rumors have persisted regarding the return of the three other Kirovs to service. The Russian Federation finally decided, in 2015, to begin a thoroughgoing refit of Admiral Nakhimov, third ship in the class, and the only besides Pyotr Velikiy to receive significant post–Cold War maintenance. The refit will amount very nearly to a full reconstruction on lines similar to the rebuilds of battleships during the interwar period. Nakhimov will receive major upgrades in radars and electronics, as well as the addition of a Vertical Launch System to replace her existing array of SSMs. This will serve to make her a far more modern, capable unit. When Nakhimov leaves refit in 2018, Pyotr Velikiy is scheduled to receive the same treatment over a three-year period.
The other two ships will likely never return to service. Kirov (later Admiral Ushakov) suffered a reactor accident in 1990 and was never fully repaired. Frunze (now Admiral Lazarev) entered reserve in 1994, and is reputedly in very poor material condition.
The Kirovs fulfilled, and continue to fulfill, a very real role for Russian seapower. They can threaten U.S. assets, while also providing an impressive, prestigious platform for the display of Russian maritime prowess. They demonstrate that the large surface ship model that went out of style at the end of World War II can nevertheless result in a formidable collection of weapons, depending on the configuration of those systems. Assuming that the refits of Nakhimov and Pyotr Velikiy continue to go forward, we can anticipate continuing to see these ships in Russian service for decades.
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 Money, Information Dissemination and the Diplomat.
Image: A starboard bow view of the Soviet Kirov class nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Kalinin. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy