The Russian navy for nearly a decade has been trying to double, from one to two, its active fleet of huge, nuclear-powered battlecruisers.
It’s not going well. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which starved Russian shipyards of funding and forced the navy to lay up three of its four Kirov-class battlecruisers, still is wreaking havoc on fleet planning.
Since at least 2013, the Russian navy has been trying to refurbish and upgrade Admiral Nakhimov, the third-in-class of the 827-foot Kirovs. If and when Admiral Nakhimov is ready, she’ll join her younger sister Pyotr Velikiy in service with the Northern Fleet.
Two older Kirovs, laid up for decades, could head for the breakers this year.
Late last year there was reason to believe work on the cruise-missile-armed Admiral Nakhimov would wrap up in a couple of years. In August, workers at Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk floated the 35-year-old vessel out to the yard’s embankment.
The floating-out was an important milestone in the billion-dollar effort to repair and modernize Admiral Nakhimov with new electronics, the latest Oniks cruise missile and fresh nuclear fuel.
With two Kirovs in the fleet, Moscow should be able to deploy one of them at any given time. The biggest surface combatants in the world, the Kirovs—products of the ambitious Project Orlan—could escort Russia’s aircraft carrier and amphibious ships or form the core of powerful surface action groups including destroyers, frigates and corvettes.
Floating out to the embankment was a big step forward for the more than $1 billion effort to restore Admiral Nakhimov. The fleet expected to take delivery of the updated cruiser in 2022.
Just eight months later, there’s bad news. Delivery has slipped to the right to 2023 at the earliest. That chill you feel is coming from veteran shipyard workers who, more than two decades ago, spent years trying to restore the oldest Kirov before Moscow canceled the effort. Any delay could be a bad omen for Admiral Nakhimov.
“The main problem with the Admiral Nakhimov as well as with all the Orlan project cruisers—four built, two of them retired—is the nuclear-powered engines, which use highly enriched uranium,” said Pavel Luzin, an independent expert on the Russian military.”
Russian industry lacks the capacity and expertise to produce reliable gas-turbine engines for large ships. Ukraine does have the capacity and expertise, but for obvious reasons related to the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, Kiev has blocked exports.
That means workers more or less must make do with the major machinery—engines in particular—that’s already aboard the old Kirovs. That machinery dates to the 1980s. “Briefly speaking, these engines create a lot of problems,” Luzin said. “That’s why Russia has been able to maintain only one cruiser, Pyotr Velikiy, since the late 1990s.”
Delays with Admiral Nakhimov have knock-on effects. Pyotr Velikiy herself is in need of repair and modernization, but industry only has the capacity to work on one cruiser at a time.
The plan is for Pyotr Velikiy to enter the yard as Admiral Nakhimov leaves it. As long as Admiral Nakhimov is stuck at the embankment, Pyotr Velikiy must wait. The longer she waits, the worse her condition gets.
Even if the shipyard can complete the work on Admiral Nakhimov, the day fast is approaching when giant warships will become little more than a memory in the Russian navy. Consider the condition of Admiral Kuznetsov, Moscow’s sole aircraft carrier.
As the big, old ships rust away, newer and smaller ones will take their places. “Frigates and corvettes—they are the biggest types of warships that Russia is capable of producing in the face of the engine challenge,” Luzin explained.
But those smaller ships lack the endurance of their larger forebears. “Without cruisers and guided-missile destroyers, Russian capabilities for power-projection overseas is limited.”