Is it a battleship or a cruiser? Put them both together and meet the Russian Navy’s combo “battlecruiser.” The Soviet-era Kirov-class comprises the largest surface fleet vessels in the Russian Navy aside from the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. Along with their size, they are chock full of armaments. Pyotr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov battlecruisers carry 20 anti-ship missiles, numerous surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft guns, and even helicopters. The ships are old (from the 1980s), but they are nuclear-powered.
The Kirov-class Somehow Made It to the Modern Era
Originally, they were designed to take on U.S. aircraft carriers and eliminate the escort ships in the American carrier battle groups. But after the Cold War, there was not enough money and resources to keep the battlecruisers afloat – three of the four Kirov-class ships were sent to refit. But they soldiered on, and the Russian Navy planned a facelift to bring them up to modern standards. Russia canceled the modernization plans of the Admiral Ushakov and Admiral Lazarev, two other Kirov-class battlecruisers, and sent those ships to the scrap yard in 2021.
Are Modern Missiles Worth the Weight?
The Admiral Nakhimov is still laid up in re-fit mode and will likely not be ready until next year. It’s been delayed nearly every year since 2017 and work was started in 2013. Russian engineers have struggled with the Nakhimov’s outdated nuclear powerplant that uses highly-enriched uranium. But the Nakhimov could be worthy of respect one day as Russia sank hundreds of millions of dollars into it. It is being outfitted with Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles and Oniks anti-ship missiles. Undersea warfare will be enhanced with the Otvet anti-submarine missile. Both ships could also deploy the Tsirkon hypersonic weapon someday to terrorize enemy shipping.
One Kirov-class Is Still In the Mix
The Pyotr Velikiy is the flagship of Russia’s Northern Fleet and still takes part in drills in the Barents Sea. It led a strike force test battle maneuver to fire at ground targets in 2020 and 2021. It needs modernization and refit too, but Russia has only the capacity to work on one of the Kirov-class at a time. Velikiy could enter drydock for engine modernization and upgraded missile systems after the Nakhimov is done, but delays are hobbling this plan.
Kirov-class battlecruisers are long at 827 feet. They displace 28,000 tons when fully loaded. The ships can steam at 32 knots with a range of 1,000 nautical miles.
Perhaps Russia Should Focus on Smaller Warships
There are questions from Russian naval analyst Pavel Luzin of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, about whether the large ships have much of a future in Vladimir Putin’s Navy. The service may need to rely on smaller and less powerful vessels. “Frigates and corvettes—they are the biggest types of warships that Russia is capable of producing in the face of the engine challenge,” Luzin told Forbes.
Regional or Blue Water Navy?
Without a carrier and a large force of capital ships, it is more difficult to project power as a blue water Navy. Russia may have to choose the option of a regional force and protect only near borders and bases. But the anti-ship and anti-submarine missiles, including hypersonics that Russia fields, are impressive. If it can get one of the Kirov-class battlecruisers the next-generation suite of weapons, Russia could better stand up an advanced Navy. So, the Kirov-class upgrades are a bellwether of things to come.
A battlecruiser with those missiles is worth the wait. This would give Russia more options when it comes to shore bombardment with the Kalibr or anti-ship prowess with the Oniks – not to mention hypersonic missiles. The Kirov-class may still have a shot to serve as a modern floating missile truck.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.