It was the blub blub blub heard ’round the world. On April 15, Russia acknowledged the missile cruiser Moskva, its Black Sea flagship, had sunk while being towed back to port, having been crippled by explosions and ensuing fires. Ukraine claimed that it had hit the ship with two R-360 Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles. Russia disputed the claim, however, the Pentagon corroborates Ukraine’s version.
Russia’s denials notwithstanding, the incident has profound implications, not just for Russia’s war of aggression on its neighbor, but also for the way global naval forces operate and the risks they take.
It’s been 40 years since a ship comparable in size to the 611-meter Moskva was sunk by a hostile force. In 1982, Argentine light cruiser ARA General Belgrano was torpedoed by the Royal Navy submarine Conqueror during the 10-day Falklands War. The last time the world saw hostile ship sinkings and naval warfare on a broader scale was in World War II. Since then, the U.S. and other world powers have been developing and maintaining navies that are hardened and equipped for war, but likely to spend their entire service lives without seeing a peer sea battle.
Moskva’s problematic set-up
How Moskva fared contains lessons on ship design as well as fleet employment, said Jerry Hendrix, a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute and a retired Navy captain.
Moskva was rendered ineffective by a deck fire made more damaging when it reached the ship’s above-deck missile tubes. The Slava-class cruiser design incorporates 16 launchers for the P-500 Bazalt supersonic cruise missile situated on each side of the ship’s superstructure. Those unprotected missiles can have the effect of friendly fire under the right circumstances.
“Because [the launch tubes] are above deck, it makes them extremely vulnerable to damage and to fragmentation, and then causing damage to its own ship if the ship is hit first,” Hendrix told Sandboxx.
“If the ship does not fire off all of its missiles before it is hit… that missile then has congruences where it cooks off other missiles around it, and the ship virtually self-destructs because of the way it was designed,” he added.
By comparison, the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers house their missile tubes below deck. That allows the crew to flood the magazines in case of a fire. This renders the missiles safe in their housings and prevents a disastrous chain reaction, Hendrix explained.
Nonetheless, Hendrix said, the U.S. should heed the lessons of the Moskva and look for opportunities to move external armaments inside the skin of their warships. The Boeing-made, over-the-horizon Harpoon missile, for example, can be housed in above-deck launchers. It has been deployed in that configuration aboard a littoral combat ship and in some older surface ships.
Operating opposite hostile shores
Perhaps more significantly, Moskva’s sinking highlights the necessity of distributed operations in a world where peer and near-peer naval conflict is a real possibility.
Named for Russia’s capital city, Moskva was too much ship for the mission it was given in the Black Sea, Hendrix said. That underscores the value of smaller ships and right-sized missions over bold show-of-force displays.
“One of the things that we often say is, never send a cruiser to do what a frigate is supposed to do. This is a frigate mission; the Black Sea is a constrained water space. And really, there’s not an anti-ship cruise missile mission here,” Hendrix added. “So why is the Moskva in the Black Sea at this point in time? It’s more about prestige. And so, because [the Russians] risked their prestige, they have lost their prestige with this.”
As the U.S. Navy moves forward with plans to build at least 20 new Constellation-class frigates, the successor to the beleaguered LCS, Hendrix suggests that it should also think about operating in a distributed manner. Navy and Marine Corps leaders have for years promoted the concept of Distributed Maritime Operations and Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations as a way to be more effective across a vast operating area such as the Pacific. Traditionally, though, the Navy deploys with carrier strike groups composed of five or six surface ships clustered around a flattop for defense.
“We’re having a very strong conversation now […] about how we disaggregate our force, spread it out across a broad ocean area, not all concentrated together, and then be able to quickly aggregate together to give sort of a compressed pulse of lethality,” Hendrix said. “So we’re working [on] these types of issues. But it’s all based upon the idea that the enemy is going to have a lot of these anti-ship cruise missiles ashore, and it’s going to be very hard to operate anywhere near them.”
Related: The Navy Wants to Decommission 24 ships. Are Plans for a Mega-Fleet Dead?
Things are getting worse for Russia
For Russia, the Moskva’s sinking is the latest in a series of strategic setbacks: The deputy commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Captain 1st Rank Andrei Nikolayevich Paly, was reportedly killed in combat in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in March. Ukrainian officials say seven Russian generals have been killed in the fighting, though not all deaths are confirmed. After a lengthy assault on Kyiv, Russian troops withdrew from the city earlier this month without having gained control of it.
“I think that the military in Russia is increasingly looking at this as they’re being bled out,” Hendrix said. “The Slava class is a major capital asset – it’s a large portion of their navy and their budget. So I think that there’s going to be increased pressure inside the Russian military to re-examine this war and how it’s being executed.”
Even the specific loss of the Moskva is significant: early in the conflict, Russian naval forces had attacked Ukraine’s Snake Island which was defended by a few dozen Ukrainian troops. In a recorded exchange, a Ukrainian border guard refused to surrender, saying, “Russian warship, go f— yourself.”
That ship was Moskva.
While the article is full of errors, as others have pointed out, what cannot be ignored however is that above water ships are sitting ducks in a peer-to-peer conflict in modern naval warfare.
I don’t care about all the mumbo jumbo about how good American anti-missile systems are, they can be overwhelmed easily; not only that but as several war games have shown where a single Swedish diesel electric sub took out a US carrier without ever being detected coming or going, ships are setting ducks against subs as well. If you have a two-prong attack with undetected subs and an overwhelming number of missiles coming in, a carrier fleet could easily be destroyed or at the very least put out of combat operation.
Anti-missile systems are not anywhere near perfect, even engineers that design this stuff will tell you that; they even admit that the Phalanx system is a last ditch effort that will involve luck to hit a single incoming missile not alone hundreds! The engineers that design this stuff, and navy admirals, have all said that it would only take 250 missiles, this is without any torpedoes added to the mix, to take a carrier fleet out of action. If our own guys know this, you can bet our adversaries know it as well!
We need to seriously rethink how we go forth in a modern era of naval warfare, this isn’t WW2 era anymore, and yet we’re still thinking like it is. I think we should put those 20 new Constellation frigates on hold and think up a new way to spend that money more wisely on how to make ships that would make them invisible, such as a bunch of submarines that can surface quickly and launch a bunch drones and or cruise missiles, then submerge and relocate quickly instead of wasting money on vulnerable above water ships.
Emerging AI technology is going to put surface ships at a far greater risk than even current technology in torpedoes, missiles and drones can do, another reason to reconsider what our future navy is going to look like.
Steve McFarland says
Everybody missed the main point why Moskva was sunk. A Russian posted document about the radar system on Telegram and the radar is directional only. Not 360 degrees. Ukraine had to wait for the correct ship angle to lunch. While Moskva was distracted by drone. It was hit. This is a know flaw in the ship radar system.
Yvan Schmidt says
She also listed the vessel as being 611m (instead of feet), meaning she is by far the largest naval vessel ever sunk by enemy fire, just over 2,000 feet long! Even the IJN Yamato was a little under 900 feet long.
Yvan Schmidt says
The author appears not to understand the role that the Moskva was playing. It wasn’t there to sink ships (Ukraine only had one vessel worth firing Moskva’s cruise missiles at, and Ukraine scuttled it a few days into the war to avoid it being captured).
Beyond the possibility of limited gun support for an assault on Odessa, the Moskva was a floating command and control center AND it was a massive floating anti-air base. It was carrying a built-in S-300 system (the “F” or “Fort” naval version) with 64 missiles. It has an effective range of 90 km, meaning that even from 40 km off shore, it could cover 100 km of Southern Ukraine for land forces, in addition to covering all Russian naval vessels in the theater of operations..
That it was hit by two cruise missiles should be hugely embarrassing to the Russian Navy, since in addition to the 64 missile S-300 system it also carried 40 Osa SAMs and had six CIWSs!
Kevin Jones says
General Belgrano was a USN CL, 6″ guns, when it was given to the Argentine Reina as surplus. Light cruiser all the way, in spite of the tonnage. Look at the Washington and London Naval Treaties of the pre-WWII
Rob H. says
This article is full of errors. In addition to those already mentioned, it doesn’t have 16 launchers per side, it has 16 total. 8 per side.
Falklands War was not a 10 day war – began with the invasion on April 2nd, ended with Argentinian surrender June 14, 1982 ~ 11 weeks
i would argue that a 12000 cruiser like the belgrano is not a light cruiser
The classification of cruisers was based on their guns, not tonnage. Heavy Cruisers (CA) had 8″ main batteries. Light cruisers (CL) had 6″ main batteries. Battle cruisers were essentially heavy cruisers with battleship guns (11″ and up). Battleships were armored to defend against like-armed opponents. Cruisers did not have the extensive armor, as they were designed for a variety of missions and needed the speed associated with a more efficient hull. The Iowa-class battleships were the only class of battleships that were designed with cruiser speed.
The German Scharnhorst and Bismarck class battleships had speeds exceeding 30kts, and did the French Richelieu Class and the British Vanguard class battleships putting them all firmly in the cruiser “speed” category as well.
As for classification, the USN distinguished cruisers by their design features, having double bottoms and sides and a complete deck under the main deck. Battleships had triple bottoms and sides as well as a second complete deck. Additionally, battleships had much more extensive underwater protection systems.
Not a biggie but, I think you have mistaken the length of the Moskva, she’s is 611 feet not meters