By the 1970s, the colossal battleships of WWI and WWII had fallen out of favor with the world’s major navies. These ships were increasingly seen as too expensive and too vulnerable to justify their high procurement and maintenance costs. But even as Western navies concluded that the age of the battleship was over, the USSR saw an opportunity to build a large surface ship of unprecedented scale. Taking advantage of naval weapons and targeting innovations of recent decades, the Soviet shipbuilding industry set out to design a battle cruiser, i.e. a lighter and faster variant of the battleship, in the discreet goal of destroying American submarines. The Project 1144 Kirov-class later became the most versatile mission to endanger US Navy carrier groups, with a large arsenal of torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles to threaten aircraft carriers and sub- strategic sailors. Underlying these tactical objectives was a broader strategic objective: the Kirov battle cruisers were to operate in conjunction with a fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to project Soviet power across the world.
The flagship Kirov, Kirov (renamed in 1992 in Admiral Ushakov), was established in 1974 and inducted into the Northern Fleet in 1980. Armed with twenty P-700 Granit cruise missiles, ten 533 torpedo tubes, aboard the S-300F and ground-based missile systems air (SAM) 9K33 Osa, several types of anti-submarine rockets, as well as more than a dozen mounted guns and close-range weapon systems, the Project 1144 class was armed to the teeth to handle virtually n any surface combat scenario. These battle cruisers are the biggest and heaviest surface fighters in the world, only overtaken by some aircraft carriers. The class is capable of carrying three helicopters and could travel at a maximum speed of thirty-one knots. Three other Kirov ships, Frunze, Kalinin, and Yuri Andropov (later renamed to Admiral Lazarev, Admiral Nakhimov, and, Petr velikiy respectively), were fixed until 1986.
These great dreams of power projection and unbridled naval might faded with the Soviet collapse. The Orel and Ulyanovsk aircraft carrier projects never went beyond the drawing board, while the Kirov ships fell into disuse between the early to mid-1990s. The Navy eventually decided to withdraw half of the Kirov floats in order to save the other. Ushakov and Lazarev will be or are being scrapped from 2021. Nakhimov and Petr velikiy were placed in a repair, refit and modernization program to continue serving in the Russian Northern Fleet. Both ships would be equipped with the upcoming Russian winged hypersonic 3M22 Tsirkon cruise missile, as well as the new Kalibr cruise missiles and Otvet anti-submarine missiles.
Petr velikiy is currently active, while Nakhimov the transfer has been delayed until at least 2023. Both ships are expected to serve well over the next several decades.
Battle cruisers seem increasingly out of place amid a rapidly modernizing Russian navy, given the Kremlin’s focus on smaller, lighter surface ships and new submarines. Nonetheless, they have the firepower to endanger NATO Naval Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) and other maritime assets. No less important, Moscow is loath to part ways with these towering steel cathedrals as symbols of naval prestige and testimonies to the prowess of the Soviet shipbuilding industry.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National interest.