(Washington, D.C.) The Russian Navy is upgunning, modernizing and revamping some of its massive, yet somewhat antiquated Cold War era battle cruisers by adding advanced interceptor missiles, close-in ship defenses, upgraded, ship-integrated longer range air defenses and even hypersonic weapons.
Modernizing The Admiral Nakhimov
Arming a battle cruiser with hypersonic missiles would be a substantial step forward when it comes to changing and upgrading the offensive firepower of the 1980s-era Russian battlecruiser Admiral Nakhimov. An interesting article in Forbes magazine says the Russian ship is “almost as large as the Iowa-class” battlecruisers and would well become the “most powerful surface combatant in the world.”
What might make it so powerful? Depending upon the scope of the upgrades, and particularly the extent to which they increasingly incorporate high-speed computer processing, long-range sensor networking and new “fire control.” Should these systems be brought into the modern era, then an upgraded heavily armed ship would indeed present a massive threat to U.S. and NATO forces.
The Admiral Nakimov is being upgraded with ship-tailored Fort M missiles, an upgrade to Russia’s S-300 type anti-aircraft defenses, land-attack missiles, AK 192 guns, close-in defenses and new anti-submarine weapons.
The large Russian battlecruiser is also armed with a host of additional weapons, according to the Forbes report, which says the Admiral Nakimow’s “carrier killer” missiles include 20 large Granite supersonic missiles.
The ship is also armed with 40 9K33 Osa short-range missiles and as many as 96 S-300 long range missiles. Also of significant importance, the ship is armed with a Kashtan close-in weapons system, armed with Gatling guns and eighth 9M322 short range missiles.
Comparisons to U.S. Navy Destroyers
All of this raises interesting questions about how these kinds of armaments might compare against heavily armed U.S. Navy destroyers. Can these interceptor missiles, both short and long range, rival the SM-3 and SM-6 medium and closer in weapons forming the U.S. Navy’s layered defense system.
Could the Russian battlecruisers upgrade long-range missile rival the U.S. Tomahawks?
Is the Russian CIWS comparable to the U.S. Navy’s upgraded weapon which fire a Phalanx area-weapon to take out incoming small boats, drones, explosives or other kinds of close-in threats. As part of an integrated system of defenses, many Navy ships are also armed with deck-launched interceptor missiles for medium to short range attacks, such as SeaRAM and Rolling Airfram Missiles.
Finally, both a U.S. Navy destroyer and an upgraded Russian battlecruiser would operate with drones and helicopters able to conduct reconnaissance, hunt submarines and even lead forward attacks on the ocean.
While a Navy destroyer would be smaller than a large, modernized Russian battlecruiser, its high tech weaponry may give it a distinct advantage in any kind of open or “blue-water” maritime warfare engagement. This would likely depend upon the performance and relative technological capacity of the upgraded weapons.
The U.S. has been massively upgrading Tomahawks, SM-6 missiles, CIWS and SeaRAMs with extended range, an ability to hit moving targets at sea and new generation of guidance systems, so it would be critical to have an understanding of the state of relative sophistication of these Russian weapons and, perhaps to an even larger degree, how well are they networked with other ships, drones or even submarines coming to the surface for wifi connectivity.
Should Russia truly be arming its upgraded 1980s battle cruiser, the Admiral Nakimow, with up to 60 hypersonic missiles, then many NATO countries and the U.S. could face a massive and potentially unparalleled threat.
An Forbes article from last year says the ship will be armed with the 3M22 Zircon hypersonic missiles, weapons smaller and much faster than the ship’s legacy P-700 Granite missiles. This means, the report describes, that three Zircon hypersonic missiles could be carried for each Granite, arming the ship with a total of 60 missiles.
This kind of hypersonic attack volume could overwhelm and potentially destroy surface ships, enemy coastal defenses and even fortified inland targets with a salvo of hypersonic strikes at one time.
Ship-fired hypersonics offer a tactical proximity not available to standard conventional ground forces, given the speed with which they travel. At first thought, for instance, this kind of sea-launched weapon would seem very well positioned to overwhelm or attack NATO countries along or near the Black Sea such as Albania.
Even upgraded air-defenses are likely to have considerable trouble defending against that kind of attack, as pretty much most available defenses would likely be fully overwhelmed by large numbers of incoming hypersonic missiles traveling more than five times the speed of sound. This kind of threat is likely something considered extremely dangerous, as a volley of hypersonic missile attacks from the ocean could, for instance, take out air defenses to quickly open up an air corridor for a follow-on aerial attack.
Extending thinking about this kind of scenario, it would not just be areas along the black sea at risk, as large battlecruisers of this kind would be positioned for long-range travel into locations quite far from Russian shores. Could this kind of attack pose a risk to the continental United States? That might be possible.
So how could this be defended? While there are likely many kinds of defenses against hypersonic missiles being fast-tracked, there does not appear to be anything available now that might operate with an ability to stop this kind of attack.
Would ship-armed interceptor missiles be fast enough? That may not be clear. This is most likely one reason the Pentagon is fast-tracking a large number of hypersonic weapons programs and moving quickly with testing.
Not only could this introduce the notion of a hypersonic, high-speed “interceptor” to stop hypersonic attacks, but it would certainly function as a deterrent by ensuring the promise of a massive similar hypersonic counterattack against the aggressor.
Also, hypersonic missiles are known to operate at very long ranges, however it may not be clear just how far they can travel when fired from a ship. Nonetheless, one potential defensive strategy might be to simply hold the battlecruiser itself at risk of massive counterattack by tracking its path from the air with satellites, drones and even attack aircraft.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.