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Lessons from the Moskva: Russia failed to adapt to modern warfare

Ukraine’s ability to hit the flagship Russian cruiser Moskva and send it to the bottom of the Black Sea was widely seen as a major event in the annals of naval history, one that prompted serious reflection both in countries that rely on navies to project power and countries that worry about defending themselves from attack by sea.

What is the state of anti-access denial strategies among the major world powers? Are the Neptune missiles used to sink the Moskva cheap and abundant enough to render a modern navy useless? How will the world’s navies adjust after watching a small country embarrass a much larger nation with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council?

The April 14 sinking of the Moskva occurred right in the middle of a two-week Easter break in Washington, DC, which means it might be weeks before Pentagon officials are asked directly by lawmakers how America’s Navy needs to adjust.

But in this first week since Russia lost a flagship named after its capital in front of the whole world, a consensus seems to be forming around a few basic ideas:

Yes, the presence of anti-access denial missiles are a threat to any modern navy. But the sinking of the Moskva is more likely due to Russia’s inexperience projecting naval power with a primitive fleet, and less likely to be a sign that naval warfare has changed forever.

Anti-access denial systems are a real threat to ships

Ukraine hit the Moskva with two Neptune anti-ship missiles when the ship was about 37 miles offshore, well within their 175-mile range.

Ukraine had just implemented the Neptune system a year earlier, and in many ways the strike is the formal introduction of a system that many nations have put in place already.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told BreakingDefense that “weaker parties can still pose an asymmetric threat to stronger naval adversaries” with these sorts of weapons.

More directly for the United States, these systems raise questions about what warfare would look like if we went up against our most likely adversary, China, by sailing into the South China Sea. Koh says anti-ship missiles are “relatively inexpensive” and that China has its share of these tools.

Alessio Patalano, a professor of war and strategy in East Asia and King’s College, London, summed it up by saying “sea denial is a real thing… and it can be done relatively cheaply.”

Navies do have countermeasures

But the wide availability and affordability of these missiles is not a one-way street that only benefits America’s adversaries. The U.S. can also use these weapons to put up a deterrent to China’s fleet, and these missiles can be defeated by more advanced equipment and training.

Koh notes that China has a larger fleet and therefore would be just as susceptible to these missiles in a showdown at sea against the U.S.

“The PLA Navy is also steadily building principal surface combatants, and if the US military is able to enhance its anti-ship arsenal then a counter-threat can be posed to the Chinese in the same manner,” he said.

A related factor is access to these weapons by U.S. allies, which would level the playing field for U.S. forces. The website War on the Rocks says that “rapidly maximizing the quantity and survivability of Taiwan’s long-range anti-ship missile inventory could seriously challenge People’s Liberation Army Navy operations near the island.

The Taipei Times reported that Taiwan’s officials are encouraged by Ukraine’s sinking of the Moskva, and are acting accordingly. Taiwan is buying 100 ground-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles and is estimating that it would need to take out 70 percent of China’s attacking fleet to thwart it.

Jerry Hendrix, a retired U.S. Navy captain, told BreakingDefense that U.S. ships are much more equipped than Russia’s ageing fleet to spot and destroy incoming missiles.

“The U.S. Navy’s Aegis Combat System… has been persistently upgraded for decades to adapt to new threats,” he said. “Our Aegis platforms have been designed, and then upgraded, and modified specifically looking everywhere from the surface to ballistic missile trajectories, which are coming down nearly vertically.”

Training time on this equipment is also key, and some analysts say U.S. Sailors have put in the time to mitigate the threat.

Russia’s naval failure

These factors are prompting most analysts to blame the Moskva on Russia’s broad failure to understand the nature of the naval fight it started with Ukraine.

Russia sailed into the Black Sea with the wrong ship and the wrong tactics and faced a ubiquitous defense system that it seemingly failed to anticipate.

The Moskva itself was an old ship that had precisely the wrong kind of asset to drive close to a shoreline armed with Neptune missiles. Hendrix noted that the Soviet-designed ship stored its offensive weaponry above the deck, which means they could quickly take on damage and explode once the ship was hit.

“I don’t think that we can understate just the inherent poor design of the Slava class or for that matter, the Kirov class, or the Udaloys that came out at this time,” Hendrix said. “This particular design of ship that the Russians or the Soviet Union invested in significantly really sets itself up for the sort of cascade failure.”

By contrast, U.S. Navy ships store offensive munitions below deck, which protects them more from incoming fire.

Russia also did a lot less to keep their ships updated with equipment to detect and deter incoming missiles. Patalano said the Moskva fought when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and hasn’t been upgraded since.

Tactics and training were other areas where Russia failed. Several analysts said the sailed far too close to shore without any kind of defense system. Patalano said the Moskva had a “limited point defense system” and had “no real business so close to shore; it clearly underestimated the op risk.”

The website said the Moskva’s crew didn’t appear to be ready for any encounter.

“It should have been able to defend against the Neptune,” wrote New Defense and National Security Editor Brend Eastwood. “The Russian vessel had dozens of surface-to-air missiles that should have destroyed the incoming Ukrainian bogeys. If it was an onboard fire as the Russians have claimed, the sailors should have been able to put it out.”

Japanese news outlet Nikkei Asia quoted a U.S. naval analyst who summed up the situation by saying the sinking of the Moskva showed a “failure of imagination” that Ukraine could fight back, a failure of the ship’s defense systems and a failure of damage control after the hit.

“It doesn’t teach us a single thing about surface ships,” he said of Russia’s failure.

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