Once news broke that Ukraine had sunk Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva, naval analysts sprang into action. The event poses a crucial question to many observers, including the US Navy: how was a large, well-defended warship sunk by two rather small anti-ship cruise missiles?
Based on what is known to the public, it came down to a combination of good Ukrainian tactics and poor Russian naval design resulting in the loss of the ship.
Apparently, during stormy weather (which may have diminished the ship’s sensor capability) on the evening of April 13, Ukraine launched two locally-made Neptune anti-ship missiles which struck the Moskva, causing its shipwreck the next day. According to a video released by Russia, it is possible that there was a significant loss of life – out of a crew of 500, only 120 were present at a ceremony a few days after the sinking.
Subsequently, the US Department of Defense reported that Russian naval forces had moved away from the Ukrainian coast. However, with Russia having a mix of 20 cruise missile warships, amphibious landing ships and minesweepers still operating in the region, the threat has not yet disappeared.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that the attack was successful because Ukraine had used a drone to distract Moskva’s air defenses. Built in 1979, the Soviet-era warship was equipped with an array of defenses and sensors, but its more capable air search radar, essential for defending against this type of attack, can only cover a limited amount of airspace. In all likelihood, the Moskva crew was following the drone as the Neptune missiles struck from its blind side. Yet even after such a strike, such a large ship and its crew should have been able to save it.
It is clear from photos before the sinking of the Moskva that she suffered extensive fire damage from missile strikes near weapons stored above deck. Secondary explosions from these weapons caused the crew to abandon ship rather than attempt to save her. Importantly, Soviet planners designed the Moskva to be able to launch its weapons in a saturation attack on American carriers – ship survival was not a major concern.
The incident gives us several key insights into our own navy, including some details we can glean regarding our naval adversary, China.
1. Damage Control
Both the US and Chinese navies design their warships similarly: with weapons primarily below decks, an approach that allows for more effective damage control. Effective damage control depends on the crew fighting onboard fires and stopping flooding. However, little is known about Russian and Chinese skills in damage control. For the US Navy, some recent incidents involving severe damage to its warships where the ship ultimately survived indicate a high degree of skill – look, for example, at the collision of the US submarine Connecticut with an uncharted seamount .
2. Ship Defenses
The lack of 360 degree defenses proved key in the loss of the old Moskva. In 2016, the US destroyer Mason defended itself and two other warships against cruise missile attacks in the Red Sea by Houthi rebels. Key was Mason’s Aegis radar system, which provides 360-degree coverage and layered long-range, point defenses – a design that modern Chinese destroyers adopt. Unlike the US Navy, there are no incidents or attempted attacks against Chinese warships against which to gauge their performance.
That said, combat experience at sea is irreplaceable and has profoundly influenced the specifications to which the US Navy builds its ships, often at great cost. The so-called military spec or “mil-spec” is often derived from lessons learned in the blood of World War II, the tanker wars of the 1980s, and even recent collisions in 2017 by destroyers McCain and Fitzgerald.
Additional military spec costs include things like redundancy in critical systems, the addition of watertight compartments to mitigate flooding, and numerous firefighting appliances throughout the ship.
If the sinking of the Moskva testifies to the ingenuity of the Ukrainian armed forces, it also recalls the perils at sea and the cost of the failure of the investments necessary to constitute a competent and powerful naval force.
Unfortunately, based on the administration’s latest budget proposal, which is retiring far more ships than it is bringing into service, the Biden administration seems determined to pursue a path that will erode our navy’s ability to deter an enemy like China.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal