The sinking of the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet Moscow added to the embarrassment and humiliation of the Russian military and, of course, the author of the thoughtless invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin.
It reinforced the appearance of the inadequacies and incompetence of an army accustomed to intimidating with physical presence and brute force anyone who dared stand up to it.
With all the prestige and reputation that Moscow represented, its apparent loss is staggering to naval analysts.
How could this have happened following the impact of two cruise missiles? Here are my thoughts.
My background (from many years ago) that informs my opinions is that I served 6 years on active duty in the US Navy. As a midshipman, one of the semester courses taught was the fundamentals of naval engineering. As a student and later as a midshipman instructor, I gained academic knowledge of ship architecture, damage control and stability. When I was assigned to a ship, I received basic training in shipboard firefighting, watertight integrity and damage control.
I hypothesize that the Russian Navy has similar policies and doctrine to the US Navy with respect to safeguarding their ships’ watertightness and maintaining states of readiness consistent with the operational environment.
Warships en route establish what are known as material readiness conditions that determine the degree of watertight integrity. This is accomplished by closing doors and hatches between watertight compartments below the main deck (watertight when doors/hatchways are closed). The higher the combat damage potential, the higher the readiness, and the more doors and hatches are closed. The US Navy has 3 readiness requirements. These are, in ascending order XRAY, YOKE and ZEBRA, not to be interchanged with the NATO alphanumerics XRay, Yankee and Zulu. Each door/hatch has a plate with the letter X, Y or Z to indicate under what conditions they must be closed. The XRAY condition is activated when a ship is in port in peacetime. YOKE is activated when en route and ZEBRA is activated whenever Headquarters or Maximum Combat Readiness is declared.
I don’t know if the Moscow and other Russian Navy ships use similar readiness conditions, but I’m pretty sure they have a similar, if not identical, system. This means that the Moscow commander was responsible for determining if his ship was in danger of attack and maintaining a state of headquarters readiness. Setting Headquarters/Material State ZEBRA or the Russian equivalent is a strict and inconvenient state for the crew as the doors must be opened and immediately closed to move around the ship. It is entirely possible that this condition was not applied consistently throughout the vessel, which would allow catastrophic flooding of spaces below the waterline in the event of a hull rupture. If the Moskva if command did not consider the possibility of a land-based cruise missile attack and consistently enforce the highest readiness requirement, that would have been a serious oversight.
Once the missiles hit, depending on their point of impact, major fires and flooding could have resulted. Fire is the bane of all sailors and the use of firefighting water can aggravate flooding and the resulting degradation of stability. Exploding munitions and reported fires suggest the rocket engines may have ignited. Rocket engine fires are very difficult to control because they have their own oxygen source and cannot be extinguished with CO2 or without using large amounts of water. A hit near the waterline would cause a massive flood that might not have been able to be controlled. Maintaining a high state of readiness, i.e. all hatches and doors closed, might have helped control internal flooding, but it is unclear whether it was in place.
A ship’s hull that is compromised at or below the waterline is very difficult to right or even move without help from other ships. In stormy weather this would be next to impossible. Ships rarely descend upright. At some point, stability is so compromised that they list heavily and usually capsize.
Survival at sea depends on following strict damage control protocols, assistance from other ships, and the heroic and professional action of the surviving crew. I suspect that one or more of them were MIA on the Moscow.