After refitting and modernization, those ships will considerably enhance Russian Navy
Few weeks ago Russian media circulated information about potential revival of two Project 1144 heavy nuclear-powered guided missile cruisers. In this connection a number of comments were published discussing practicability of such decision. The matter of usefulness of those ships for Russian Navy was also considered.
BCGN Admiral Ushakov (Kirov) – the first one in Orlan-class. (Photo by FAS and Independent Military Review archives)
I would like to give my personal opinion on this matter and to start from known events of the latter half of XX century.
When Nikita Khrushchev sent ballistic missiles R-12 and R-14 to Cuba at request of Fidel Castro, the US declared a blockade of the Island of Freedom. Moscow could not find another response but send there six newest Project 641 submarines. The Americans started to play cat and mouse with them. Exploders had being dropped around Soviet subs and finally they had to surface at gunpoint of US destroyers.
What if our merchant ships were screened by trio of nuclear-powered cruisers escorted by same amount of Project 70 antiaircraft cruisers and 6-9 Project 68-bis gun cruisers?
Think it's a crazy fancy? Could Soviets get nuclear cruisers in the end of 1962? That's just the point, they could...
... Work on Project 63 nuclear-powered cruisers started according to the order of Council of ministers dated June 1957. Technical project of a cruiser (standard displacement – 15-16 thousand tonnes, full speed – 32 knots) was completed in 1958. Laying down the lead ship was planned at shipyard No.189 in Leningrad with estimated delivery term of 1961. According to the plan, shipyards No.189 and No. 144 were supposed to construct seven NP cruisers during 1961-1964.
Several armament variants were considered; in particular, those cruisers were planned to be armed with P-20 cruise missiles (18-24 CM). Besides, it was supposed to install four coupled Volna SAM systems, six coupled 76-mm anti-aircraft machineguns and two RBU-2500 ASW rocket launchers on each cruiser. An antisubmarine helicopter was in the plan as well.
P-20 cruise missile had being developed at Ilyushin Design Bureau since April 1956. Roughly speaking, it constituted a ducted jet engine tube. All missile equipment was placed in ring cells beaded on this engine. The CM length was about 21 meters; wingspan was 7.25 meters; airframe max diameter was about 2 meters; launch weight of P-20 CM with boosters was 27-30 tonnes; warhead payload with type 46 charge was about 3 tonnes; charge yield – 1-3 megatons; flight range – 3,000 km approx; cruising altitude – 24-30 km; velocity – 3,200 kph; circular error probable with stellar monitoring – 0.5 km, without stellar monitoring – 10 km.
Interception of P-20 missile presents certain difficulties even now; imagine it had been launched from 200 km against a city at US East Coast. Undoubtedly, late 1962 the Americans were beyond a capability to intercept that missile.
Unfortunately, on the insistence of Khrushchev the Council of ministers issued an order dated December 3, 1958 to shut down works on Project 63 nuclear-powered cruisers. The motivation was simple: "Unresolved problem of air defense in ocean".
No doubt, the Americans could really scupper Soviet squadron of Projects 63, 70 and 68-bis cruisers. However, 45 P-20 missiles would have been launched with 100 percent probability; and than, after reload, 18 missiles more with 60–90 percent probability. Thus, Yankees would have been under strike of 45-63 megaton warheads, i.e. fire power of the three Project 63 NP cruisers was much the same to firepower of all R-12 and R-14 missiles delivered at Cuba.
BCGN Pyotr Veliky (Kuibyshev) – is the only Orlan-class cruiser which is currently in service (Photo by FAS and Independent Military Review archives)
Obviously, the Americans would never run such a venture and Soviet ships would easily reach Cuba ignoring "quarantine". And of course the agreement with the US would be signed on much more favorable terms.
By the way, massed attack of US aviation on Soviet nuclear cruiser in 1960-1980 would instigate all-out nuclear war. In such situation the effectiveness of a cruiser's AD system was a small matter – not for the crew, of course, but for grand strategy. And the cruiser remaining on high alert might surely launch all its nuclear missiles against enemy ships and cities before its wreckage. Ship's SAMs with the same warheads could be useful as well.
At present, in limited nuclear war all armament of a modern cruiser or destroyer (missiles Uran, Fort, Kinzhal, Osa and Vodopad) might be replaced by just one gun, for example, 203-mm Pion gun. I do not mean upgraded SPG but ship gun designed in 1976. At that time its rate of fire was 15 shots per minute; now by improving barrel cooling and feed systems it could be 20 or even 25 shots per minute.
203-mm rocket assisted projectiles with special charges are capable to destroy land and sea surface targets at the range up to 60 km. Guided missiles both with conventional and nuclear warheads are capable to hit aircrafts and cruise missiles at distance up to 40 km. Same range is quite enough to defeat submarines. Acceptable miss of diving shell loaded with nuc warhead against a sub may be 1 km and more.
However, neither Moscow nor Washington is eager to initiate all-out or limited nuclear war. But local conventional wars have not stopped for even a day since 60-ies.
Project 1144 nuclear-powered cruisers constitute an excellent platform for all types of naval arms – of course, after modernization. Let's speak about "long hand" – 3M10 Granat nearsonic cruise missile and newest Meteorit and Bolid stratospheric missiles with velocity about 3,000 kph. With its conventional "long hand" Russia can "force into peace" any non-nuclear country worldwide – for instance, to destroy bases of Somali pirates by cruise missiles.
Nuclear-powered ELINT ship Ural was turned to be a military detention. (Photo by FAS and Independent Military Review archives)
As long as Project 1144 cruisers have missile silos for S-300 air defense system, they could be refitted for S-400 missiles designed for BM defense. Thus, nuclear-powered cruisers could become the first maritime component of Russian BMD system. The latter fact is critical as Russian borders had moved hundreds km east and look like in XVI century.
Finally, some prospective arms like laser guns could be placed on nuclear-powered cruisers.
Speaking about overhaul cost of our nuclear cruisers, one should consider that their utilization is comparable to repair costs. Actually, the ships may be put into service even after incomplete reactivation, if needed. By the way, the Americans did that in 60-ies, having deployed battleships Iowa built in 1943. Notice, they operated successfully hitting targets both by obsolete 406-mm guns and "long hand" – Tomahawk cruise missiles.
In my opinion, revival of nuclear-powered cruisers should become not only Navy's primary objective but the whole country's concern.