During the 1980s, the modernization of the four Iowa class battleships symbolized the US military buildup of the era. The aging battleships were refurbished, modernized and placed back in active service as counterweights to the Russian Kirov class battlecruisers that were in service at the time. The age of the dreadnought had returned for a brief period.
By 1990, with the Cold War ending and defense spending being slashed, the decision was made to decommission the four Iowa class battleships and place them back in mothballs. New Jersey and Iowa went first and after serving in Operation Desert Storm, Wisconsin and Missouri followed. All four are now museum ships. The Russians also removed a portion of its Kirov battlecruisers from service. Of the original four, two are retired, another is undergoing being refitted, and one remains operational. Now, over thirty years after the first Iowa class battleship was recommissioned, history appears ready to repeat itself in a sense.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking a page from the Reagan Military Modernization playbook. As part of the government’s effort to revitalize the Russian navy, the two Kirov’s that have not been retired will be modernized with new surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, close-in-weapons systems and electronics. The Pyotr Velikiy, currently operational, will begin refurbishment first in 2019 and rejoin the fleet in 2022. Once Velikiy’s modernization is complete, the Admiral Nakhimov, currently undergoing a less extensive refit, is slated to enter the yard.
Modernizing the Russian Navy has been a priority of Vladimir Putin since the Kursk disaster. The loss of the submarine and 118 sailors fifteen years ago typified the decline of the once powerful Russian fleet. A master military modernization plan was drawn up but left unexecuted because of unfavorable economic conditions. A decade later, with revenue from high oil and gas prices overflowing Moscow’s coffers, work finally began on modernizing Russia’s armed forces. Unfortunately, the navy’s share of the modernization funds is now in peril because of western sanctions and lower petroleum prices. There has been some progress with regards to the addition of limited numbers of new, modern warships to the fleet, but not at the rate Moscow had envisioned. The buying power of the ruble has been sliced in half by the current recession. The new Maritime Doctrine signed by Vladimir Putin in August is centered on a renewed Russian fleet.
It remains to be seen if the modernization of the Kirov class battlecruisers moves along on schedule or not. If economic conditions improve, the likelihood increases. On the other side of the coin, if the current economic situation remains stagnant, the battlecruisers could wind up being scrapped altogether.