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The Soviet Navy - Surface ships

Written by Sakhal

It was habitual in the classification made on books to place the Soviet warships of the size of cruisers in the same row than the American CG (guided-missile cruiser). However, none of those Soviet ships had been designed for providing an area of defense to other ships. In fact, the aircraft carriers of the Kiev and Moskva classes had their own capability of air defense and hence they could be considered as self-sufficient for their own escort. Albeit the largest part of Soviet cruisers were equipped with a twin system of surface-to-air missiles these weapons were conceived for their own defense, and were the direct result of the practical lack of a Soviet carrier-borne air force.


Three Soviet warships in the Mediterranean. From left to right, a Kara-class cruiser, a Kashin-class destroyer and a Kynda-class cruiser.

The tactical organization of the Soviet Navy had nothing to envy to that developed by the members of the NATO as result of their experiences during the Second World War, but it had its origin in the Soviet belief that the next war would be a nuclear one. The attack naval force, which was based in a strict division of tasks (aircraft in the aircraft carriers, air defense in the cruisers and anti-submarine warfare in the destroyers) would be vulnerable to a nuclear attack. Because of that, all and each one of the Soviet cruisers were designed to carry out operations with independence and provided with their own anti-aircraft defense system. The importance of this, and of the formidable range of the equipment of electronic countermeasures installed in the Soviet cruisers, grew up with the later conception of advanced deployment. Independent operations were justified, also, due to the centralized command system that the Soviet used. While the ships which constituted an attack naval force were situated at certain distances from each other, the Soviet units operating independently, even if they were involved in the same mission (such as, for example, an attack with anti-ship missiles against a surface force of the NATO), would have to be strictly coordinated by a land-based commander, who would be the only person with a complete vision of the tactical situation.

Missile cruisers

The Soviet Navy divided its large surface ships into two categories: one of anti-ship role and another one of anti-submarine role. The missile cruisers (RKR), which were distant from the concept of air defense, were conceived for the defense of the outer perimeter of the Soviet maritime space against the forces of western aircraft carriers. The four ships of the Kynda class were armed with two quadruple launchers for SS-N-3 missiles (which were also incorporated to the first SSGN) with eight reloads. Albeit they had an anti-aircraft missile launcher in the prow, they relied much more in the land-based aircraft for their own defense and for the data of a target and the mid-course guidance system.


A cruiser of the Kynda class. Note the bulky SS-N-3 launcher placed between the aft radar and the cannon turrets.

In the subsequent Kresta class the number of launchers for surface-to-surface missiles were divided by two and besides the reloads were abandoned, due to the difficulties of management. But, in compensation, they carried their own helicopters for the direction of missiles towards the target and had anti-aircraft missile launchers in the prow and in the stern. The RKR operated with all the Soviet fleets which could keep contact with the aircraft carriers of the NATO. The Northern Fleet had three Kresta, the Pacific Fleet had one Kresta and two Kynda and the other two Kynda served in the Black Sea and in the Mediterranean Sea.

Large anti-submarine ships

The other category of cruisers was that of large anti-submarine ships (BPK), which replaced the RKR in the shipyards in the late 1960s when the Polaris submarines of the NATO began to constitute a more serious threat than the very aircraft carriers. The first BPK were, in fact, a transformation of the RKR of the Kresta class, and they were denominated Kresta II. The main changes were the substitution of the anti-ship missiles by two quadruple anti-submarine missile launchers, the substitution of the Ka-25 "Hormone" anti-submarine helicopters by another version of helicopters for the correction of the course of missiles toward the target and the adoption of a more powerful sonar. They were also fitted with and advanced anti-aircraft missile system.


The missile cruisers of the Kresta II class had a powerful anti-aircraft and anti-submarine armament.

At least seven of the cruisers of the Kresta II class served in the Northern Fleet and another two probably in the Pacific Fleet. The main area of operations of these units was the Norwegian Sea, where they would have been entrusted the custody of the ports of the SSBN, where they should have effectuated anti-submarine operations in open waters where it were thought that their presence could be useful, and where they should have deployed as forward as possible toward the Greenland-Iceland-Great Britain belt, to provide support for the Soviet attack submarines which could have attempted to cross the barrier.

Increased air defense

The other BPK was the Kara class, which appeared shortly after the Kresta II and was built parallely to it. The bigger difference between both vessels lay in that the Kara featured a higher number of air defense systems and a gas turbine propulsion system, which could entail a lesser operational range. As the bulk of the ships of this class was in service in the Black Sea Fleet (two units were transferred to the Pacific along with the aircraft carrier Minsk in 1979) it seemed probable that the changes in design reflected the existence of a larger western aerial threat in the theater of the Mediterranean Sea.


The strongly armed missile cruiser of the Kara class.

Albeit the "Hormone" helicopter carried by the Soviet BPK was comparable to western models, the lesser number of anti-submarine missiles that the BPK carried in comparison with the counterparts of the NATO entailed an evident weakness. It was also unclear whether the capability of the Soviet sonars was good enough to take advantage of the superior operational range that the SS-N-14 missile had in comparison with western models.

The nuclear cruiser Kirov

In the early 1980s the most recent acquisition of the Soviet surface fleet was the nuclear-powered cruiser Kirov. With a displacement twice than that of the American CGN (nuclear-powered missile cruisers), she was a formidable ship equipped with a great diversity of weapon systems, among which there were twenty vertical launchers for surface-to-surface missiles and a large number of vertical launchers for anti-aircraft missiles, as well as anti-submarine missiles and helicopters. This cruiser had been clearly designed to operate under a hostile aerial environment, as it could be the Greenland-Iceland-Great Britain belt. In this area, the Kirov could have used her multiple anti-aircraft missiles against the attacking aircraft, her surface-to-surface missiles against the surface ships and her anti-submarine missiles against the patrol submarines of the NATO.

Because of this, the Kirov was a logical conclusion of the Soviet philosophy relative to cruisers, this is, the incorporation of the power of an attack naval force into a single ship. A different matter would be whether such a valuable ship would have been risked in the Greenland-Iceland-Great Britain belt, if the American aircraft carriers remained intact. Indeed, in that case the carrier-borne attack aircraft could have constituted a great threat for the Kirov, since they could have been able to saturate her defenses by means of massive waves and this without counting on the western submarines and surface ships, which would have enjoyed an adequate aerial cover.


The cruiser Kirov photographed shortly after being completed.


The cruiser Kirov photographed shortly after being completed.


In 1989 the Soviet Union launched the fourth unit of 28000 metric tonnes of the nuclear-powered missile cruiser of the Kirov class, armed with twenty SS-N-19 surface-to-surface missiles with an operational range of 500 kilometers as part of her comprehensive weapon equipment. The photograph shows the Frunze, second unit of the class.

The oldest destroyers of the Soviet Navy during the Cold War era were those of the Skoryy and Kotlin classes, of which few exemplars remained in service on the early 1980s. These ships held the traditional Soviet classification of destroyers (EM). The newest ships, however, were designated similarly to cruisers (RKR and BPK), which indicated a function analogous to that of those.


The destroyers of the Skoryy class were developed during the immediate post-war years.


The destroyers of the Kotlin class were the last conventional ones built on the Soviet Union and, albeit obsolete, they were still seen in maneuvers during the 1980s.

The fourteen destroyers of the Kashin class and the eight of the Kanin class held the BPK (anti-submarine cruiser) denomination which was applied to the missile cruisers of the classes Kresta II and Kara. However, this type of destroyers was not specifically designed for an anti-submarine role. The Kashin class was probably conceived to serve as companion of the missile cruisers of the Kynda class, to grant a complementary anti-aircraft and anti-submarine protection. These destroyers/cruisers were fitted with anti-aircraft systems placed in the prow and in the stern, two anti-aircraft twin cannon mountings and four anti-submarine mortars. They had a small stern sonar but not anti-submarine helicopters nor missiles. The Kanin class was the result of the conversion of the missile destroyers of the Krupny class, which preceded the Kynda class. The large SS-N-1 "Scrubber" surface-to-surface missile was replaced by one anti-aircraft missile launcher and three anti-submarine mortars. The Kanin class incorporated as well a sonar in the prow, granting a similar capability to that of the Kashin class. Nine destroyers of the Kotlin class suffered similar modifications.


A destroyer of the Kanin class. Eight units of the Krupny class were reconverted into this newer model.


The destroyers of the Kashin class were the first Soviet large warships propelled by gas turbines. In this photograph they are clearly visible the fore 76-millimeter twin cannon mounting and the SA-N-1 launcher.


Superstructure of a Kashin-class destroyer. They are visible an anti-submarine mortar and the Big Net and Head Net C radar antennas (the first units had two Head Net A antennas).

General-purpose destroyers

Albeit holding the same classification (BPK) than the larger anti-submarine cruisers, the Kashin and Kanin should be seen as second-row classes regarding those. Their obsolescent anti-aircraft systems and lesser endurance rendered them less suitable than cruisers to operate in a hostile environment. They were neither particularly well equipped for anti-submarine warfare, with their short-range mortars and obsolescent sonars. Because of that they were used mainly as general-purpose destroyers, to carry out a wide range of tasks. The Kanin class, which was a rather acceptable conversion, served in the Northern and Baltic fleets, while the largest part of units of the Kashin class served in the Black Sea and Pacific fleets. The version of the Kotlin class with a modified anti-aircraft system was in service with the four fleets, and even one unit was transferred to the Polish Navy, being in that time the only large surface ship owned by allies of the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact.

In the early 1970s, five destroyers of the Kashin class and three older of the Kildin class were modified, for being fitted with four SS-N-2 surface-to-surface missiles. In the early 1980s they had been reclassified as large missile ships (BRK). This transformation seemed to have been motivated by the desire of equipping some Soviet destroyers for specific tracking tasks of the aircraft carrier forces of the NATO. Their high speed would allow them to maneuver around those naval forces, and in the event of war they would have attempted to fire their missiles against the aircraft carriers and then quickly escape. The Kashin class was particularly well prepared for this role, due to their gas-turbine propulsion system which would allow fast forward accelerations.

The tactic of exposing lesser units against units of such high value as aircraft carriers was simple and effective. Moreover, it was almost certain that the American aircraft carriers located within the operational range of the Soviet Navy would be in the sea in the event of a crisis. As it could be expected, all of the modernized destroyers of the Kildin class and the largest part of those of the Kashin class operated with the Black Sea Fleet, and they were often seen in the vicinity of the aircraft carriers of the United States 6th Fleet. The other ships operated with the Northern and Baltic Fleets, where they would probably perform the same tracking role in the event of maneuvers of the NATO in the Norwegian Sea during a situation of crisis.


During the 1980s the Soviet shipyards released a completely new generation of cruisers and destroyers armed with missiles, such as this one of the Sovremennyy class, necessary for an increasingly effective fleet.

Anti-submarine capability

The destroyers of the Krivak class, which succeeded those of the Kashin class, initially received the BPK denomination. However, in the early 1980s they had been reclassified as SKR (patrol ships). This fact caused some surprise in the West, for the Krivak possessed an anti-submarine capability superior than that of any other Soviet destroyer class. They had a quadruple launcher for anti-submarine missiles and a large sonar in the prow, besides the mortars already used in the Kashin and Kanin classes. On the other hand, they had not been equipped with anti-aircraft missile systems and because of this they would face a higher risk in the open sea, where they could suffer attacks from aircraft armed with missiles which exceeded their possibilities of defense. The small number of anti-submarine missiles which they could carry, along with their relatively low endurance, could have been reasons which justified to relegate the Krivak class to the SKR category.


The destroyers of the Krivak I class, with a displacement of 3900 tonnes, were ships of very good prestations.

The main role of the Krivak class was almost certainly to protect the outer belt of the Soviet anti-submarine defenses. Anti-submarine hunt operations carried out by a flotilla of ships, probably in cooperation with anti-submarine patrol aircraft and helicopters operating from cruisers, would allow them to take advantage of the long range of their SS-N-14 missiles. The ships of the Krivak class were in service in the four Soviet fleets. In the Baltic Fleet they replaced the larger surface units, releasing the cruisers for service in the Northern Fleet. On the other hand, they would bear the main weight in the escort of hypothetical Soviet amphibious operations launched against the German Democratic Republic or Denmark.


The numerous corvettes of the Petya and Mirka classes were also classified as SKR. They were much less capable ships than those of the Krivak class, designed for defending the inner area of the Soviet defensive barrier, as well as for carrying out general escort tasks in the nearest territorial waters. With little capacity of endurance and permanence in the sea, they were armed solely with anti-submarine mortars and target-seeking torpedoes, as well as 76-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons. These ships had to rely in numbers rather than sophistication to be able to fulfill their tasks successfully. Surprisingly, no unit of this type existed in the fleets of the allies of the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact.


A frigate of the Petya I class, with a displacement of 1500 tonnes. In the early 1980s more than fifty units were in service and the model was still in production, existing at least three different versions.

Until circa 1980 the only ships of the escort category which served along with the most modern warships were the obsolescent ships of the Riga class. However, in that time it was seen the development of a new model for exportation, the Koni class. In the early 1980s two units of this type were in service with East Germany. Still, it was quite apparent that the number of models and units, as well as their sophistication regarding navigation and armament systems, was very inferior to that of their counterparts from the western countries which were members of the NATO. However, the Soviet yearly production pace was rather high and seemed to compensate with quantity the lesser quality.

Destroyers and frigates of the Warsaw Pact, circa 1980

- BPK: 14 Kashin, 8 Kanin and 8 Kotlin (SAM upgrade, + 1 in Poland)

- BKR: 5 Kashin and 4 Kildin

- SKR: 26 Krivak, 36 Petya, 18 Mirka and 2 Koni (+ 1 in East Germany)

The traditional accent which the Soviet Union has always put in the coastal defense - a philosophy derivative of its position of maritime inferiority and of its necessity of securing the flanks of its ground forces - led the Soviet Navy to be that which possessed the largest number of attack and patrol light boats in active service in the world.

Light naval forces can be divided into three different categories: missile-launching boats, torpedo boats and patrol boats. Within these three large categories differences may exist regarding the displacement, according to the distance at which the ship must operate away from her base, as well as differences in the hull, the propulsion system and the armament, according to the areas of operation, the technological advances and the changes in the philosophy regarding the armament. The largest part of these units operated in the Baltic Sea and in the Black Sea, where their number was multiplied due to presence of ships with the same characteristics belonging to the allied members of the Warsaw Pact.

These ships were deployed in a way almost identical to that of amphibious and minelaying forces, and their mission was closely linked to the activities of these other two types of vessels. Along with minelayers and minesweepers, the light naval forces would be entrusted with the protection of the maritime communication lines, the coastal patrol and the anti-submarine defense in the zones of approximation to ports, as well as the defense against amphibious landing operations of the NATO against the flanks of the ground armies of the Warsaw Pact. For offensive operations, the fast attack units would operate alongside the amphibious forces of the Warsaw Pact, preventing any attempt from surface units of the NATO of harassing the landing, while the larger patrol ships would give support and anti-submarine protection. The offensive operations against the enemy surface units and against the maritime communication lines of the NATO would be carried out only under a strong aerial coverage or under the darkness of the night.

Soviet fast patrol boats (FPB)

The Soviet tactical doctrine contemplated the combined operations of missile-launching light boats and fast patrol torpedo boats. Around 1980, the basic missile-launching boat was still represented by the Osa class, of which around 120 operational units existed in the Soviet Navy. The missile with which these ships were armed, the SS-N-2 "Styx", demonstrated to be relatively ineffective against other FPB in the war of Middle Orient of 1973, but a modified version of it continued being incorporated to the newest missile-launching boats, which led to think that the systems for target seeking and for resistance against enemy electronic countermeasures had been improved.

The Shershen class of torpedo boats dates back from the same period than the Osa class, but it was equipped with four anti-ship 533-millimeter torpedoes instead of missiles. In an attack against an enemy convoy or against an amphibious force, the Osa would fire their missiles against the escort ships, while the Shershen should complete the destruction of the escort ships and attack the cargo ships. Both the Osa and the Shershen were equipped with short-range anti-aircraft cannons, and hence they would be vulnerable to both aerial and FPB attacks from the NATO, whose boats were armed with more sophisticated missiles and heavier cannons. Because of this, the protection of these units relied a lot on their speed and maneuverability. Around 1980, both the Osa and the Shershen were being replaced by hydrofoils, which are faster and more effective.

The hydrofoils of the Sarancha class were armed with the anti-ship missile SS-N-9, whose range was 60 nautical miles (111 kilometers), but the units of the Matka class returned to the utilization of the SS-N-2. This fact could be caused in part by the doubts about the effectiveness of a larger missile against the FPB of the NATO, and in part by the problems caused by the mid-course guidance. However, it could have been also the result of the Soviet concern about the weakness of the artillery of their oldest FPB in comparison with the new units of West Germany and Denmark, for the Matka class was equipped with a new 3-inch (76-millimeter) single mounting, to compensate their lesser equipment of missiles. Other proofs of these considerations could be detected as well in the Turya class, the hydrofoil which was replacing the Shershen class, which was armed with a 2.2-inch (57-millimeter) twin mounting in the stern.

Larger missile-launching boats

Besides the fast patrol boats (FPB), the Soviet had the larger missile-launching boats of the Nanuchka and Tarantul classes. The first one was armed with six SS-N-9 long-range missiles, and it could be regarded as the successor of the older missile-launching ships of the Krupny and Kildin classes. These boats were too slow to operate alongside the FPB, but they were better equipped for anti-aircraft defense. The Nanuchka class seemed to have been designed to counter the incursions of enemy surface units in the Soviet maritime space and its units were in service mainly in the Mediterranean Sea. They had a good capability of attack considering their small size, but they were inadequate for operations under bad weather conditions. The newer Tarantul class was faster and it returned to the utilization of the SS-N-2 missile, along with the 3-inch cannon, which suggested that these ships could be used as command posts for a flotilla of FPB.

Patrol boats

The Soviet Navy used two types of patrol boats. The Poti and its successor, the Grisha, were classes of large boats equipped with a strong armament of torpedoes and anti-submarine mortars (with multiple rocket launchers). Their mission would be to patrol the waters nearby to the Soviet ports and besides they could carry out escort missions. The Stenka, on the other hand, was a class of fast patrol boats which could use their fast speed to approach a contact which had been detected in the proximity of a Soviet port and which was suspicious of being an enemy submarine. These boats were armed with target-seeking torpedoes. The patrol boats of most recent construction, those of the Pauk class, used the same design and the same hull than the missile-launching boats of the Tarantul class, but they were armed with a single 76-millimeter cannon, target-seeking torpedoes and two anti-submarine mortars. They were probably intended to replace the obsolescent Poti class.

All of the allied members of the Warsaw Pact used a coastal defense system identical to that of the Soviet Union. Many of the ships, especially the missile-launching ones, were also of Soviet origin. Poland and East Germany used their own torpedo boats and small patrol boats.


Corvette of the Grisha II class, equipped with twelve MBU 2500A anti-submarine rocket launchers and four 21-inch (533-millimeter) torpedoes. These small ships provided a solution for the necessity of having a large number of anti-submarine vessels in the coastal waters.


The East Germany Navy had fourteen patrol boats of the Hai class. In the event of war, all of them would serve in the Baltic Sea.

Fast patrol boats of the Soviet Union, circa 1980

Type Number of units Class Main armament
Missile FPB 2 Tarantul 4 x SS-N-2
Missile FPB 18 Nanuchka 6 x SS-N-9
Missile FPB 3 Sarancha (H) 4 x SS-N-9
Missile FPB 7 Matka (H) 2 x SS-N-2
Missile FPB 120 Osa 4 x SS-N-2
Torpedo FPB 30 Turya (H) 4 x TT
Torpedo FPB 40 Shershen 4 x TT
Anti-submarine FPB 38 Grisha 2 x MBU / 2 x TT
Anti-submarine FPB 64 Poti 2 x MBU / 2-4 x TT
Anti-submarine FPB 70 Stenka 4 x TT

(H): Hydrofoil

Fast patrol boats of the allied members of the Warsaw Pact, circa 1980

Country Missile FPB Torpedo FPB Anti-submarine FPB
East Germany 13 50 14
Poland 13 10 13
Bulgaria 4 6 9
Romania 5 52 30

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The Soviet Navy - Aircraft carriers

The Soviet Navy - Submarines

The Soviet Navy - SLBM

Categories: Ships - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2020-10-04

Article updated: 0000-00-00

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