Early Wednesday morning, the Russian navy cruiser Moskva was mortally damaged around 60 miles off the Ukrainian coast near Odessa.
The 612-foot, Slava-class guided-missile cruiser was the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and the main protector of the dozen-ship amphibious flotilla the Kremlin has assembled for Russia’s wider war on Ukraine.
That flotilla so far has played no major role in the fighting that sharply escalated starting on the night of Feb. 23. And it’s not hard to see why. Ukraine’s missiles have made the Ukrainian littoral a very dangerous place for Russian warships.
It might not be so dangerous if the Russian fleet had adequate at-sea air cover. But a lack of aerial protection for decades has vexed Russian sailors.
Officials in Kyiv claimed their forces hit Moskva with a pair of locally made Neptune anti-ship missiles. Officials in Moscow insisted the cruiser was on fire because of an onboard accident.
In any event, 12 hours later Moskva sank in heavy seas while under tow back to her homeport of Sevastopol, in Russian-occupied Crimea. The Kremlin reported the cruiser’s 500-man crew already had abandoned ship.
Circumstantial evidence strongly indicates the Ukrainians are telling the truth about their attack on Moskva. According to the U.S. Defense Department, on Thursday morning, the surviving warships of the Russian Baltic Fleet—smaller frigates and corvettes—sailed south, away from Odessa, putting an additional 20 miles between them and any Ukrainian missile batteries along the coast.
They appeared to be retreating from a problem that the Russian navy, and the Soviet navy before that, long had struggled with: how to protect the fleet from sea-skimming missiles.
The miniaturization of seekers, autopilots and rocket engines in the 1960s and ’70s brought on a revolution in naval warfare. The world’s leading navies introduced anti-ship cruise missiles that could fly at subsonic speed just above the waves out to a distance of a hundred miles or more—and strike ships right at the waterline, where any damage is likely to be catastrophic.
Fleets at the same time mulled how to defend against the enemy’s own anti-ship missiles, or ASMs. The problem got a lot more urgent in 1982, as naval leaders all over the world watched the Argentine military sink seven British ships, two by way of Exocet anti-ship missiles.
Soviet naval thinkers concluded their fleet needed better defenses—and fast. “Soviet authors agree unanimously on some methods of improving anti-ship missile defense, but not on others,” Floyd Kennedy concluded in a 1985 article for Naval War College Review in the United States.
“Electronic warfare had no detractors,” Kennedy wrote. “Automation of the collection, processing and dissemination of information and self-defense weaponry was similarly popular.”
In other words, it was non-controversial that Soviet—later Russian—warships should have jammers to interfere with enemy ASMs’ seekers plus guns and missiles to shoot down any ASMs that get past the jammers.
Moving forward, Soviet naval architects dutifully added those systems to all major surface warships. Moskva, which commissioned in 1982, was heavily armed with 64 S-300 long-range air-defense missiles for area protection and 40 Osa short-range missiles for aerial self-defense, plus a bevy of guns. She also had Rum Tub and Side Globe jammers.
We don’t know how well-maintained those systems were aboard Moskva nor how trained, motivated and alert their operators were at 1 in the morning when the alleged Neptune strike occurred.
Regardless, assuming the Ukrainians are telling the truth, all those missiles and jammers clearly were inadequate — the 17-foot Neptunes got through. Moskva burned then sank.
Soviet thinkers anticipated the inadequacy of shipboard defenses. Warships should have air cover to guard against enemy cruise missiles, they explained. Airborne early-warning aircraft could spot missiles shortly after launch, while fighters could to shoot them down at a safe distance.
Naval air cover can be land-based, of course. And the Russian navy keeps a squadron of twin-engine Su-30 fighters in Crimea allegedly for the purpose of protecting the fleet. But those Su-30s have been pretty busy bombing Ukrainian troops and civilians on land. We know this because the Ukrainians have shot down at least one of them.
That air cover apparently was lacking off the coast of Odessa on Wednesday morning. If there were Russian planes overhead, they came and went unnoted and played no meaningful role in the short, decisive engagement.
Some Soviet writers in the 1980s urged the fleet to consider an alternative means of throwing an aerial umbrella over vulnerable ships: build, equip and deploy aircraft carriers. That is to say, do what the Americans, British and French long have done.
“Judging by the literature, the 1990s’ fleet air-defense system of the Soviet navy will include a multitude of new systems,” including “a big-deck carrier with long-range fighters and AEW airplanes embarked,” Kennedy wrote.
The Soviets laid the keel of their first full-size aircraft carrier, the future Admiral Kuznetsov, in 1982. She commissioned in 1991, just in time for the Soviet Union to collapse around her.
The crude, inefficient Kuznetsov would be the Russian fleet’s first—and so far only—flattop. She’s still in service, although she rarely deploys. And when she does, she’s prone to lose airplanes and crew members to crashes and fires.
Kuznetsov is in overhaul and could not protect Moskva on Wednesday. A lesson the Soviet learned 40 years ago went unheeded, and the Ukrainians apparently were able to sink one of the Russians’ biggest warships with two tiny missiles.