Russia Cancels Plans to Modernise Kirov Class Nuclear Powered Cruiser: Cuts Fleet to Just One Ship

A Russian Navy source has announced that plans to modernise the Kirov Class nuclear powered battlecruiser Pyotr Veliky have been cancelled, with the ship instead set to be decommissioned. The Kirov Class ships are by far the largest surface combatants serving in the world, and at 28,000 tons they are comparable in size to Japan’s Izumo Class aircraft carriers and well over three times the size of the Arleigh Burke Class destroyers that form the backbone of the U.S. Navy. Four of the ships were built in the Soviet Union, of which the Pyotr Veliky is the newest having been laid down in 1986 and launched three years later. With the first two ships decommissioned shortly after the USSR disintegrated, and deteriorating badly in storage which made their restoration unaffordable, it was expected that the Pyotr Veliky and its sister ship the Admiral Nakhimov, which had been laid down three years prior, would both be modernised with 21st century sensors, electronics and weaponry. With the Admiral Nakhimov set to complete its refurbishment and return to service in 2024-2025, the Pyotr Veliky was expected to enter a similar refurbishment at that time. However, according to an unnamed Navy source widely cited by Russian state media, the Pyotr Veliky will instead be decommissioned when the Admiral Nakhimov returns to service – leaving the Navy with just one Kirov Class ship. 

Further cuts to the fleet of Kirov Class battlecruisers come as part of a long line of cuts to Russia’s ocean going surface fleet, with the country having laid down no new destroyer or cruiser sized ships for its Navy since the Soviet era and steadily reduced numbers in favour of a brown and green water fleet of smaller frigates and corvettes. Major advances in missile capabilities, most notably the development of the Zicron hypersonic cruise missile as well as the surface to surface variants of the Kalibr missile, allow ships to engage targets across very long ranges without moving far from Russian coasts. This was first demonstrated when frigates and corvettes in the Black Sea used Kalibr missiles to strike insurgent targets in Syria in 2015. It is expected that the sole remaining Kirov Class battlecruiser will be deployed under the Northern Fleet, reflecting the Russian Navy’s prioritisation of the Arctic region as it emerges as both a key trade route and as a centre for geopolitical competition with the Western Bloc. The Northern Fleet also positions the warship to make the greatest contributions to Russia’s strategic missile defences. 

As the world’s only nuclear powered surface combatants Kirov Class ships have significant advantages in terms of endurance, allowing them to remain at sea for months if required if resupplied by air. They can also cruise at full speed for significantly longer than other cruiser or destroyer classes. Regarding the capabilities of modernised Kirov Class battlecruisers, the CEO of the Severnoye Design Bureau Andrei Dyachkov claimed in April 2021: “The high modernisation potential integrated in these ships upon their designing helped carry out certain works and outfit the Admiral Nakhimov with the most advanced weapons, which makes it the world’s strongest surface combat ship.” The advanced capabilities which the Admiral Nakhimov will field when returned to service has made the retirement of its newer sister ship highly surprising to many observers of the Russian Navy’s modernisation.

As well as new sensors and electronics, the Nakhimov will integrate a navalised variant of the S-400 air defence system with a 400km engagement range, with 96 cells allocated to its surface to air missiles – equivalent to the firepower of three full battalions of land based S-400 systems. This will be supplemented by a navalised variant of the S-350 medium ranged air defence system. Its 20 launch cells for massive P-700 Granit cruise missiles will be replaced by 80 launch cells for P-800, Kalibr and Zicron cruise missiles, for a total of 176 launch cells for large missiles. This provides the cruiser class with by far the greatest firepower of any surface combatant in the world, although still less proportional to its size than some newer ships like the Chinese Type 055 Class. A number of factors such as the cost of modernising the Admiral Nakhimov, the nuclear powered ships’ high operational costs, and a refocusing of budgets towards other areas of the armed forces due to the new geopolitical realities Russia has faced from 2022, may all be responsible for the decision to cut the fleet of Kirov Class cruisers, with the exact cause remaining uncertain.