The Soviet Navy emerged from World War II a tiny force, possessed of a few ancient battleships and numerous smaller, obsolete craft. Geography has not been kind to Russian maritime endeavours, as the Black and Baltic Seas are easily choked off, the Russian Far East is distant from the industrial base, and the far north is both often choked with ice and very far from conventional shipping lanes. Nonetheless, naval power was considered important by Stalin, and the Soviet Navy became a formidable force in the 1950s and 1960s. The Soviet Navy differed in important ways from the USN, however, as the Soviets never fully adopted a Mahanian outlook on naval power. Rather than pursue the construction of a few large capital ships designed to attack and destroy their Western counterparts, Russian efforts focused on submarines, patrol boats, destroyers, and cruisers. As the Soviet SSBN force developed, naval doctrine began to concentrate on the problem of defending Russian submarine patrol areas from US submarines, surface combatants, and aircraft carriers. Thus, even the Soviet aircraft carriers designed late in the Cold War focused on defensive fighter squadrons rather than on strike aircraft.
The Kirov class represented something of a break from this philosophy. Designed in the early 1970s, the Kirovs were the largest class of surface combatants built anywhere in the world since the end of the Second World War. Yuri Andropov, fourth ship in the class, was laid down in 1986. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War led to neglect of the Soviet (then Russian) Navy, and the ship was not completed until 1996, when it entered service as Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great). Pyotr Velikiy displaces 26000 tons, can make 32 knots, and carries a main armamament of 20 P-700 Granit surface-to-surface missiles. Pyotr Velikiy is powered by a nuclear reactor, allowing her to maintain top speed for considerable distances. The ship also carries significant anti-air and anti-submarine armamaments.
Pyotr Velikiy is capable of carrying out multiple operations. Her surface armament (the P-700 is a large, heavy missile) makes her a danger to US carrier battle groups. Pyotr Velikiy can also defend Russian naval task forces, as well as SSBN patrol areas. The very size of the Kirovs disturbed the US Navy, and strengthened the hand of elements desiring to reactivate the four Iowa class battleships, three of which had been in reserve since the 1950s. As surface combatants the Kirovs were no match for the larger, more heavily armed, and more heavily armored Iowas (indeed, the Kirovs had little if any armor) and it’s unclear that even a P-700 missile could do much damage to USS Iowa, a ship designed to resist 16″ shells. However, the anti-air and anti-submarine capabilities of the Kirovs were much greater than that of the Iowas, making them more flexible ships.
Pyotr Velikiy has had a spotty career since her commissioning. As Russia really has little need for a deep water Navy, funds have been scarce. All three of Pyotr Velikiy’s sisters have been decommissioned, although one is about to be recommissioned. Named flagship of the Northern Fleet upon completion, she has participated in several notable exercises. In 2000 she was the designated target ship for RFS Kursk, the submarine that exploded and sank with all hands. An exercise off Iceland in 2004 was designed to simulate an attack on a US carrier battlegroup, and involved Pyotr Velikiy, the carrier Kuznetsov, and several other major assets. Because of mechanical problems, PV remained stationary off the Iceland coast for the duration of the simulation. It was later decided that the exercise went so badly that, in order to minimize embarassment in the future, the Russian Navy should exercise as little as possible.
Perhaps most disturbing, in 2004 the chief of the Russian Navy said that Pyotr Velikiy could “explode at any moment”, a troubling statement at any time, but particularly when made in reference to a nuclear powered battlecruiser. Admiral Koroyedov later withdrew the statement, and it has since been argued that the statement was more about internal Russian Navy politics than about the actual state of Pyotr Velikiy. In any case, Pyotr Velikiy remains in service as the flagship of the Northern Fleet. Although not technically a battleship, she serves a similar symbolic purpose to the dreadnoughts of the early twentieth century, and her sisters helped spur the reactivation of the Iowa class. At 26000 tons, she is likely to be the last large surface combatant constructed by any navy for a very long time.
(Images courtesy of FAS)