The Kirov-class cruisers are a class of very large missile-armed cruisers built by the Soviet Union (and one more later, by Russia) between 1980 and 1998. These ships are the largest surface combatants put to sea since the 1940s, being longer than a South Dakota-class battleship at 847 feet and more massive than any previous cruiser (not including battlecruisers like Gneisenau and Alaska) at 26000 tons full-load displacement. The visual appearance of the ships is distinctive, with a long, flat foredeck, a sharply raked bow and a large, pyramid-shaped central superstructure desending into a tiered rear deck.

Their unusual size has led to some debate as to what the ships should be classified as. Various sources have listed them as cruisers, battlecruisers and in one case, even battleships. The Russians, for their part, generally referred to them as RKRs, Raketny Kreyser (sometimes Atomniy Raketny Kreyser) - literally, rocket cruiser, or nuclear rocket cruiser (referring to the ship's nuclear engines, not the fact that her missiles can be armed with nuclear warheads, which they can). However, even this is not entirely clear-cut, as a few Russian sources have used the designation BRKR, Bolshoy Raketny Kreyser, large rocket cruiser, and the US Navy has alternated between using the hull type designators CGN (guided missile cruiser, nuclear) and CBGN (guided missile large cruiser/battlecruiser, nuclear). Most naval analysts seem to refer to them as missile cruisers, though the battlecruiser designation does persist in many documents.

The Kirovs employ an unusual CONAS (Combined Nuclear And Steam) propulsion system, combining two nuclear reactors with oil-fired superheaters. They have near-unlimited endurance when running on nuclear power, and a maximum speed thus powered of 25 knots. When the oil-fired secondaries are engaged, the Kirovs can make nearly 36 knots. This propulsion arrangement required the large central superstructure to be modified to enclose the smoke funnel, creating a distinctive, pyramid-like appearance. All four vessels are equipped with a flight deck and a belowdecks hangar for five Ka-27 Helix helicopters, usually a mix of missile-targeting and ASW versions. (This is distinct from US doctrine, where the SH-60B Seahawk performs both roles, plus ASuW.) Initial western appraisals of the design assumed that the Yakovlev Yak-38 Forger could operate from the flight deck, as well - and in fact, the flight decks of Admiral Nakhimov and Pyotr Velikhy do have heat-resistant cladding - but the plane has never actually been observed landing on the deck of a Kirov.

The weapons fit is equally distinctive. All units of the class carry 20 angled semi-vertical launchers for SS-N-19 Shipwreck (AKA P-700 Granit) anti-ship missiles. A total of 20 Shipwreck rounds are carried. They also have ten 533mm torpedo tubes, used against both submarines and surface ships. The other armaments, consisting of short-ranged, medium-range and long-range SAMs, anti-sub missiles, ASW rocket launchers, naval guns and point-defense systems, vary between the four units of the class.

RFS Admiral Ushakov

The first unit of the class, Kirov, renamed Admiral Ushakov after the fall of the USSR, was armed with two retractable twin-arm launchers for SA-N-4 Gecko SAMs, two AK-100 100mm dual-purpose guns and eight AK-630 30mm gatling guns for anti-missile defense. Her primary air defense system consists of 12 vertical launchers for SA-N-6 Grumble (navalized SA-10 Grumble) missiles, each fed by a rotary magazine for a total of 96 rounds. She also had two cylinder launchers for SS-N-14 Silex ASW missiles forward of the Grumble launchers, and was the only one of the four ships thus equipped. While the SS-N-14 is available in an anti-ship version, it is improbable that Ushakov carried this type, since it had a dedicated anti-ship missile battery, and the SA-N-6 has an anti-ship mode as well. She carried two RBU-1000 ASW rocket launcher mounts and one RBU-6000, as well. Ushakov's torpedo tubes are of the trainable quintuple variety, sited behind armored shutters in the hull, similar to the arrangement on the aviation cruiser Moskva.

RFS Admiral Lazarev

The second unit, Frunze, later renamed Admiral Lazarev, was intended to be built to the same specifications as Ushakov, however, during construction, several changes were made to her armament. First, the SS-N-14 launchers were deleted, their long-range ASW role being replaced by SS-N-15 Starfish missiles fired from the torpedo tubes. Like Silex, Starfish also has an ASuW mode, but unlike the earlier missile, it is possible to reconfigure an SS-N-15 round on the fly. SS-N-14 required configuration at the factory for one mission or the other. Lazarev's other major armament change was the removal of the two 100mm guns, which were replaced with a single twin-barreled AK-130 130mm dual-purpose gun. This gave Lazarev superior firepower versus ships and land targets, and allowed the use of a laser-guided artillery shell. In Lazarev and later units, the in-hull trainable torpedo tubes have been replaced by fixed tubes behind shutters in the superstructure, similar to the arrangement on the Neustrashimy class frigate.

RFS Admiral Nakhimov

Kalinin, the third unit, renamed as Admiral Nakhimov received still further weapons upgrades. Her SA-N-4 launchers were modified to fire the OSA-MA missile, an improved version of the Gecko, and the AK-630 point defense guns were removed. In their place were mounted six CADS-N-1 CIWS, which consist of a box launcher for SA-N-11 Grisom missiles and two 30mm gatling guns each. This is similar to the land-based Tunguska air-defense vehicle, using the same missiles but replacing the single-barreled cannons with more formidable gatling versions. The CADS-N-1 system is regarded as far superior to the AK-630 versus both missiles, boats and aircraft, and the OSA-MA has anti-missile capability as well. Additionally, she was fitted with four sets of octuple vertical launchers (containing 48 missiles each) for the more capable SA-N-9 Gauntlet (Kinzhal, a navalized version of the SA-15 Gauntlet with a larger warhead) missile system, carrying a total of 192 rounds. Gauntlet has nearly twice the range, speed and warhead of Gecko, and has a useful surface-attack mode. It has also intercepted missile drones duplicating the flight characteristics of the US Harpoon and Standard, and the Chinese Silkworm in tests. She was built with the same single RBU-6000 ASW rocket installation as Ushakov and Lazarev, but received 2 RBU-12000 launchers with UDAV-1 fire control during her last yard availability. Lazarev and Nakhimov may be equipped with the slightly newer Favorit variant of the SA-N-6 missile, which has terminal infrared guidance, though this is not known for certain. Further, she may have been refitted with SS-NX-26 Yakhont anti-ship missiles replacing the SS-N-19 system during her last refit, but this has not been confirmed. Otherwise, Nakhimov was configured identically to Lazarev.

RFS Pyotr Velikhy

The fourth and final unit, Pyotr Velikhy, originally ordered as Yuri Andropov but renamed prior to launch, has still more armament revisions. First, the RBU-6000 rocket launcher was replaced with two of the newer RBU-12000 models with the UDAV-1 ASW/anti-torpedo fire control system. Finally, the primary air defense weapon has been switched to the SA-N-20 Triumf (NATO reporting name Gargoyle) missile and new guidance radars, an improved version of SA-N-6 with a larger warhead and a secondary active-radar seeker, plus an initial inertial guidance mode with midcourse updates. This makes the ship more resilient against massed attacks intended to saturate the guidance radars, and gives the missile an over-the-horizon antiship mode. The SA-N-20 installation is visually identical to the Grumble installation, with 12 vertical-launch hatches. However, the exact missile capacity is not known with certainty, but since the land-based S-400 is nearly identical to the S-300PMU, it is suspected that the naval version is very similar as well. (I originally had a comment here that confused the Gargoyle system with the Gladiator/Giant system which has two different missiles. Moral - always double-check!)

Of the four units, only Nakhimov and Pyotr Velikhy remain in service, the Nakhimov having been reactivated only recently. Ushakov has been laid up since the early 1990s, inoperable due to a reactor accident. As of mid-2006 it was stricken from the active list and its name transferred to a Sovremenny class destroyer. Lazarev was decommissioned in 1997, but remains in storage awaiting funding for a complete overhaul to update her to the same configuration as Admiral Nakhimov. This is a recent development, illustrating Russia's shift away from their strategic nuclear arsenal and toward their tactical, conventional-armed forces. A fifth unit, Dzherzhinsky (later renamed Kuznetsov), was planned, but was cancelled prior to construction. The possibility of building another Kirov-class unit has been considered, possibly with all-conventional drive and an additional 130mm gun (these tentative drawings also suggest two more CADS-N-1 mounts and additional VLS and fire control radars for SA-N-9 instead of the Gecko bins), but such plans have been shelved for now in favor of maintaining the existing two units, and potentially reactivating the Lazarev.

General Characteristics, Kirov-class heavy missile cruiser (Project 1144 Orlan)

  • Hull designator: CGN - missile cruiser, nuclear (US/NATO). ARKR - nuclear rocket cruiser (atomniy raketny kreyser. USSR/Russia)
  • Number: 2 in service, 1 in decommissioned, 1 awaiting scrapping
  • Displacement: 24,000 tons
  • Length: 258 m (847 ft)
  • Beam: 28.0 m (91 ft)
  • Draft: 9.0 m (29.52 ft)
  • Propulsion: 2 KN-3 pressurized water reactors, two inline boilers, CONAS configuration. 2 geared steam turbines, 2 shafts, controllable pitch propellers.
  • Speed: 35.4 knots (full power). 25 knots (nuclear). 20 knots (conventional).
  • Range: Practically infinite at 25 knots (nuclear). 1000 nmi at maximum power. *
  • Surface-to-surface missiles: 20x SS-N-19 Shipwreck (P-700 Granit). Possibly 36x SS-NX-26 Yakhont in Admiral Nakhimov.
  • Anti-air missiles: 12x VLS (96 rounds) SA-N-6 Grumble. 12x VLS (probably 96, maybe 128 rounds, actual number uncertain) SA-N-20 Gargoyle in Pyotr Velikhy only. 2x (44 rounds) SA-N-4 Gecko. 2x eight-launcher clusters of octuple VLS for SA-N-9 Gauntlet and two four-launcher complexes(192 ready rounds, possibly up to 192 reserve rounds) in Nakhimov, Pyotr Velikhy. 6x (48 ready 192 reserve rounds) SA-N-11 Grisom in Nakhimov, Pyotr Velikhy as part of CADS-N-1.
  • ASW missiles: SS-N-15 Starfish nuclear or conventional. Can be fired from torpedo tubes, typical number carried unknown. SS-N-14 Silex (14 rounds) in Ushakov only.
  • Torpedoes: 10x (2 quin) 533mm trainable torpedo tubes, ASW or ASuW.
  • ASW rocket launchers: 1x RBU-6000, 2x RBU-1000. 2x RBU-12000 with UDAV-1 fire control in Admiral Nakhimov and Pyotr Velikhy only, in lieu of RBU-6000.
  • Guns: 1x twin AK-130 130mm/70 with laser-guided shells and Kite Screech radar director in all units except Ushakov. 2x AK-100 100mm/60 full-auto in Ushakov only. 8x AK-630 Gatling in Ushakov, Lazarev. 12x GSh-6-30 (six twin) in Nakhimov, Pyotr Velikhy as part of the CADS-N-1 Kashtan point-defense system. Varying numbers of 12.7mm or 14.5mm HMG.
  • Aircraft: 3-5x Ka-27 Helix ASW or missile targeting helo. (number varies, may be 5 only on two newest units) 1-2x Yak-38 Forger in lieu of 2 helos (unconfirmed).
  • Crew: approximately 800.

*I'm a bit skeptical of this figure, as it would mean that the Kirov carries less than one day's worth of fuel for the conventional booster engines, which seems improbable for such a large ship. More likely there's a missing zero in here.

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