During the 1970s, the Soviet navy was undergoing massive expansion, aimed at countering the US-NATO naval might. Several combat vessels of various tonnage and roles were under construction. At the helm of the Soviet navy was the widely respected Admiral Sergey Gorshkov. Like all commanders, he had to manage a growing fleet, maintain existing vessels while finding replacements for older ones. One of the types needing urgent replacement was the Sverdlov class cruiser, which had little use thanks to 6 inch guns being their primary armament. These vessels were derivatives of Italian pre-world war 2 era designs but still served a very important role. They were the primary command and control vessels of the Soviet navy. Although Kara class cruisers were seen as a potent replacement, but their 9000 tonne bulk and limited command and control facilities meant that they were neither good sub chasers nor good command and control vessels. They could still command an ASW flotilla but were not good enough to lead a Soviet naval battle group. Since Soviet navy deployed battle groups to protect their submarines, a potent vessel was needed to replace the Svredlov and lead a wide variety of vessels into combat. Thus a new, much larger vessel was desired and the development of Kirov class was started.
The Big E, one of the several extremely potent carriers in USN service at that time.
The need for a new vessel was realized in the late 1960s itself. This new vessel would be designated Project 1144, and have a displacement close to 9000 tonnes with an armament of P-120 missiles for surface warfare and S300 for taking out aerial targets. It would be capable of doing ASW as well. It was supposed to be nuclear powered and hence was designated as Nuclear Antisubmarine Cruiser. There was another concept, designated Project 1165 which was supposed to have around 32-40 P-700 Granit AShM along with S-300 missiles. It would have been a much larger vessel compared to the Project 1144. After giving a serious thought, the concepts were combined under the existing tag of 1144. The new 1144 was now supposed to have 20 Granits. These missiles, nicknamed carrier killers gave the newly formed Project 1144 a potent armament. Granit was one of the first smart weapons. When ripple fired, the missiles could work as a team, with one lighting up its radar and others using the data for designating their own targets. Thus the enemy would think that there was just 1 missile coming towards them while the rest were flying lower without being detected. Flying very low and at speeds over Mach 3 in the terminal phase made intercepting them with 1970s tech nearly impossible. The number of Granits on 1144 was deemed enough by the Soviets to take out an entire CBG. They would arm some with nuclear warheads whereas others would have conventional ones. The 1144 design would end up displacing over 27,000 tonnes with full load. Another attempt was made to separate the roles of anti-sub and anti-surface warfare just before the construction of Kirov began.
Design & Propulsion
These vessels are 252m long, 28.5m wide and have a draught of 10m. They sport a very large superstructure slightly towards the later half of the hull, with the frontal section dedicated to armament. It sports cells for P-700, S300F, Osa, Silex etc and RBU ASW rocket launchers. The vessel has two masts, sporting 2 different 3D scan radars, whereas the stern has a large helo deck which can support 3 helicopters. The ship requires a crew of over 700 to run it at peak efficiency. The ship is pretty heavy too, displacing close to 27,000 tonnes with a full load. Hence it has the tag of the largest & most heavily armed non carrier major surface combatant in the world.
Here is Peter the Great sailing alongside HMS Dragon D35.
Kirovs have a unique propulsion system, a mix of nuclear propulsion and regular steam propulsion called as CONAS. A pair of KN-3 pressurized water reactors power the vessel through 2 steam turbines which drive two shafts. The steam propulsion includes 2 boilers, also driving a pair of turbines which turns the shafts. These systems can be used independently for cruise at speeds around 15-20kn or together for high speed ops over 30kn. Since it uses dual propulsion, the exhaust for its boilers is provided on the back side of its primary mast. This is a unique system with its own limitations. Kirov can run at top speed for only a certain amount of time and is dependent on regular fuel for it. The top speed is pretty mediocre while using nuclear propulsion only. The large size of the propulsion plant also increased complexity and thus cost of the vessel. Thus only 4 were completed before USSR ceased to exist and only 1 remains in service.
In this pic of Kirov we can see the exhaust in this pic, just below the primary radar.
This pic of Kalini shows 2 helos on the deck, with the hangar doors opened. We can also the door through which her towed array is deployed.
A rare pic of Peter the Great firing a P-700 missile.
These cruisers are very heavily armed, making them the most feared vessels on the planet. Primary armament is formed by 20 P-700 Granit AShM, which can have both nuclear and conventional warheads. This missile was the apex of Soviet missile technology, following the ideology that a million dollar missile can sink a billion dollar carrier. The sheer kinetic energy it generates at Mach 3 can penetrate even the toughest of the ships. The lead vessel ie Kirov also has a pair of SS-N-14 ie Silex ASW missile launchers on the bow, the rest feature Tor SR-SAM in its place. Primary air defense is provided by S300F missile launchers, placed in 12 launchers which feature 8 cells each. Thus a total of 96 cells for S300 missiles can be carried. These launchers are placed in front of the 20 angled Granit launchers which are themselves placed in front of the bridge. The S300 cells deploy the 5V55RM missile with a range of 9km – 100km and possible engagements upto 25,000ft. The last Kirov sports an upgraded variant, designated S300FM with a max engagement range of 200km. They sport Tor and Osa launchers for short range protection. Kashtan and Ak-630 are used for point defense. The vessels sport a number of changes specific to the unit. For eg Kirov and Frunze have Ak-630 between the Granit launchers and the side rails, whereas others sport Kashtan CIWS in the same place. ASW is done by RBU series weapons and torpedo launchers. Tor cells are also seen on the sides of the helo deck on all vessels except Kirov, which sports Kashtan in its place. Gunnery includes a single 130mm gun on the stern for all vessels except Kirov which sports 2 100mm guns. The vessel can support 3 helicopters which can be used for either ASW or AEW or even surface warfare.
Frunze has 2 Tor launchers instead of the twin Silex launcher.
Kirov class cruisers sport a variety of sensors giving them good all round situational awareness. The bow has a large sonar dome for sub hunting, along with a towed sonar array which is capable of operating at variable depths and placed in the stern. Using them together allows the ship to search for far off submarines without the interference of sounds generated by the ship itself. The helicopters can act as over the horizon sensors looking for enemy aircraft, missiles, vessels and submarines at a standoff distance. It has Top Pair 3D search radar on the main mast with Top Steer backing it up on the second mast. Thus when one of them is tracking a suspected target, the other one can keep looking for new targets. This concept was used on the Slava class as well and is also used on many modern vessels like the Horizon class frigate, Daring , Kolkata, Type 52C n D class destroyers etc. On Kalini and Peter the Great, the Top Steer is replaced by the newer Top Plate radar, which finds extensive use on many vessels like the Type 54A, and Talwar class of frigates. Since the S300F fires semi active radar homing missiles, Top Dome provides guidance to them during their flight towards the target. It can probably guide 6 missiles towards 3 different targets. Peter the Great sports Flap Lid guidance array instead of the Top Dome which can probably guided 2 missiles each to 6 targets simultaneously. This is surely the best sensor suite ever put up on a naval surface combatant to ever enter service during the cold war.
This pic compares the sensors on 3 Kirovs, Top Dome is marked in green, Top Pair in yellow, Top Plate in blue, Top Steer in pink and Flap Lid in black.
The American navy had nuclear powered cruisers in service for some time. The 4 Virginia class cruisers were entering service at roughly the same time as the Kirovs, but were no where close to the firepower the Kirovs packed. To counter the rise of the Soviet navy former US president Ronald Reagan started an ambitious plan of a 600 ship navy, wherein the iconic and powerful Iowa class battleships were reactivated and their glorious careers stretched far longer than what they had been designed for. They received extensive refits, including new weapons like Harpoons and Tomahawks which supplemented the legacy 16inch guns she was designed with. Thus the Iowas were re-activated to match the psychological edge the Kirovs bought with them, however they needed extensive protection, often led their own battle groups if they were not operating with a carrier and her battle group. Sadly we never had a chance of seeing these iconic naval vessels along side or close to each other, I would be happy to be proven wrong in this case.
USS Iowa unleashing her 16inch main guns.
The units & their fate
Kirov, the lead vessel of the class was laid down at the Leningrad shipyard on 27th of March 1974. She was completed and launched on 26th of December 1977 and commissioned on 30th of December 1980. Three more vessels of this class were built and named Frunze, Kalini and Yuriy Andropov. All of them were renamed to Admiral Ushakov, Admiral Lazarev, Admiral Nakhimov and Peter the Great respectively. The final vessel is more commonly known as Peter the Great, but we have chosen to use the original names of the other 3 to avoid confusion. A fifth vessel named Admiral Kunetsov was laid down but scrapped on the ways due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The name was used for the Soviet aircraft carrying cruiser presently in service.
Another vessel was designed around the Kirov’s hull and the powerplant, it was named as Ural. It displaced over 34,000 tonnes, 7000 tonnes more than the Kirov itself. She was officially designated as a communications relay and electronic warfare ship but in reality she could do a wide variety of tasks. The tasks included tracking western satellites and missiles along with surface and subsurface targets, collecting electronic intelligence, serve as a command post etc. She was a big vessel, too big for the docks she was assigned to and hence she was always anchored away from shore. The 1000 strong crew and the complex electronics made it very costly to operate and as she was commissioned just before the USSR ceased to exist ie in 1989, she was never used properly. She is slated to be scrapped in 2017.
Ural seen during her glorious days. (Credits-On the pic)
The fate of the Kirovs however isn’t as bad. There rumors that Russia plans of reintroducing all 4 of them into service but this has however been changed several times. The lead ship, Kirov had reportedly suffered a reactor accident and is contaminated in some areas. The vessels have been through years of neglect thus there refit can be very costly and difficult. However the 3rd vessel, ie Kalini, presently named Admiral Nakhimov has entered refit and will return to service. Her Granit battery has been removed in the pic posted below as part of the refit. It is speculated that she would receive UKSK universal VLS, around 64 modules could be fitted instead of the Granits, thus greatly increasing the firepower at the cost of a massive reduction in the maximum effective range at which the vessel can destroy targets. Another speculated update is the replacement of the old S300F batteries with newer Redut based S400F. The S400F fires the 9M96 series of missiles, with a maximum 120km range, with active radar homing, thus removing the need for missile directors like the Top Dome and Flap Lid. The number of modules of either Redut or the Redut-M which can be fitted in place of existing S300F cells is also going to be more than what the Kirovs presently sport thus improving their self defense and area defense capabilities.
Kalini with her Granit battery removed (Credits-On the pic)
Interestingly, Frunze recently received a coat of paint and minor repairs, which hints towards a possible refit.
With the sanctions in place at the time this article was being written, it is possible that only Admiral Nakhimov might be upgraded, that to a limited one instead of the ambitious upgrade we spoke about in the above paragraph. It is also possible that the sanctions can be lifted and the dream of all 4 Kirovs back in service can be realised. One thing is pretty sure, we will see atleast two Kirovs in service for some time to come. Mean while, Peter the Great soldiers on as the most powerful non-carrier naval vessel afloat.