Surface Forces: The Battlecruiser Preservation Society

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October 22, 2019: Russia has once more decided to proceed with the long delayed refurbishment and upgrade of its nuclear-powered Kirov class battlecruiser, the 28,000 ton Admiral Nakhimov. This refurbishment process is currently stalled, with about fifty percent of the work done. It was thought that the shrinking defense budget would lead to the retirement of the Nakhimov but now the navy says work will proceed and the battlecruiser will be back in service by 2022. At that point the youngest Kirov, Peter the Great, will enter the shipyard for a three year refurbishment.

Earlier this year (April) Russia decided, as many expected, to scrap two of its four Kirov class battlecruisers. These two ships were removed from active duty in 1990 and 1994 with the hope of later putting them back in service. Designed in the 1970s, the lead ship of the class, the Kirov, was under construction from 1974 to 1980 when it entered service and later renamed Admiral Ushakov in the 1990s. The Ushakov had a nuclear reactor problem in 1990 and was taken out of service pending repairs. The second ship, the Frunze (later Admiral Lazarev), was under construction from 1978 to 1984 when it entered service. In 1994 Lazarev was put in storage to save money but was to eventually return to service. Now, this ship is being scrapped. The third ship (Nakhimov) began construction in 1983 and was completed in 1988. Taken out of service in 1999 (to save money) it was reactivated in 2005. Nakhimov began a refurbishment in late 2014 that was supposed to be completed in 2018 but is only half done as of 2019. The fourth Kirov (Peter the Great) began construction in 1986 but was not completed until 1998 and is still in service as the flagship of the fleet.

A fifth Kirov was planned but construction never began and it was canceled in 1990. There was also another ship that used the hull and power plant design of the Kirov but was built as the 36,000 ton SSV-33, a command and control ship that served as an electronic intelligence and missile and space satellite tracking vessel as well as a seaborne communications relay. Construction began in 1981 and was completed in 1989. Soon it was realized that SSV-33 was not worth operating and it was taken out of service in 1992 because of fire damage and scheduled for scrapping in 2010, a process that took over seven years to complete. SSV-33 only went to sea once, in the Pacific and with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 there was never money to build her a berth for the ship in its Pacific home port. So SSV-33 was anchored offshore and ended up serving as a barracks ship until the 1992 fire ended its brief career.

A growing number of admirals and Defense Ministry officials wanted to scrap the two remaining nuclear-powered surface ships (two Kirovs) plus the non-nuclear carrier Kuznetzov to save money for building new ships and having enough sailors to man those new ships. That decision was believed inevitable because the defense budget was shrinking as a result of low oil prices, sanctions and a chronic recession. Somehow the navy budget will be reorganized to accommodate the refurbishment of the two Kirovs as well as the carrier Kuznetsov. Something else will not be built but the navy is not discussing that in public.

The Kirovs and the carriers were built at the end of the Cold War as prestige ships to show how the Russian Navy had finally become a mighty force to be reckoned with. But even as these ships were built the Soviet Union was approaching economic and political collapse. The mighty Russian fleet quickly disappeared in the 1990s as over a hundred major ships were taken out of service and eventually (with Western help, because most were nuclear subs) scrapped. The process continues with the last two nuclear surface ships facing the scrapyard as well.

Elimination of the last Kirovs was delayed because of the decision to complete refurbishment of the Admiral Nakhimov. This overhaul was initially supposed to begin in 2005 but got delayed by money and political problems. The upgrade, which all four Kirovs were to eventually go through, was meant to keep each overhauled ship in service for another twenty years. Now the navy insists that both the Nakhimov and Peter the Great will undergo the upgrades which include new electronics, upgraded weapons and refurbishment of the nuclear reactor and most mechanical components. Russia currently only has one of these nuclear-powered battlecruisers, Peter the Great (Pyotr Velikiy), in service. This was the last one built and has been operating for 21 years. This ship will soon need the refurbishment and upgrade and that is scheduled to begin in 2022 and be completed by 2025.

The Kirovs are 28,000 ton warships that first entered service, in the Baltic Sea, during 1980. This was the Admiral Ushakov, which was initially called the Kirov but renamed, along with many other ships, after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Admiral Lazarev entered service in 1984, Admiral Nakhimov in 1988 and Peter the Great in 1998.

The Kirovs, in addition to their nuclear power plants, carry twenty Shipwreck (P-700) anti-ship missiles and three different types of anti-aircraft missile systems (with over 250 missiles). There are also anti-submarine torpedo launchers, eight 30mm cannon for anti-missile and close-in defense, two 130mm guns and three helicopters in a below-decks hanger. There is also 76mm (3 inches) of armor around the reactor and lighter armor in other parts of the ship. The Kirovs are very vulnerable to submarine attack and, despite their formidable air defenses, are not invulnerable to a determined missile attack.

The crew of 720 has plenty of space, as the ship is 252 meters (827 feet long) and 28.5 meters (94 feet) wide. The Kirovs are fitted with additional (quite comfortable) staterooms for senior officers so that the ship can operate as the flagship of a task force. While the upgrade can be seen mainly as a way to keep shipbuilding workers employed and maintain a formidable looking Russian warship in commission, a Kirov on the high seas is a warship to be reckoned with. The high speed (Mach 2) Shipwreck anti-ship missiles weigh seven tons, have a range of 500 kilometers and carry a 750 kg (1,700 pound) warhead. This missile was built to cripple an American aircraft carrier, but it would outright destroy any lesser vessels. The Shipwreck entered service in 1983 and evolved into Yakhont and currently the Russo-Indian BrahMos. The refurbished Kirovs are to receive the Yakhont and more modern anti-aircraft and anti-submarine weapons. Given the growing budget problems the navy is having and the need to build new SSBN (nuclear ballistic missile carrying subs) and more frigates and corvettes to defend the vast coastline of Russia, it was a surprise when Russia announced the last two Kirovs and the Kuznetsov would be refurbished and remain in service until at least 2040. Ambitious announcements like this have been made before and derailed by financial realities. With that in mind, this ambitious plan is not a sure thing. Believe it when you see it.

 


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