Warship Vulnerability: Lessons from the Moskva Sinking

Warship Vulnerability: Lessons from the Moskva Sinking

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17 May 22

By the Editor – Time to learn lessons – not just the Russian Navy, but in the West can we say our Navies haven’t tended towards complacency since we were last fully exposed during Op CORPORATE (Falkland’s War) four decades ago?  The author argues capability must be test on, and judged against, the anvil of real conflict, and the nuances that proffers, rather than be based on more theoretical risk assessment consequent of ‘fighting in the lab’.

With the Moskva sinking now ‘old news’ and the maritime component of the war in Ukraine in the background again (for now), below are some thoughts on what this sinking might mean to warship operations from here on. Will this totemic maritime action change the way Western navies operate, particularly when in constrained areas or inside the range of weapons more sophisticated than those that took out the Russian flagship?

To answer the question above, some context on what the Moskva did (or didn’t do) to defend herself is required. Anti-ship missile defence (ASMD) is the group term for the largely defensive activities that protect you from attacks of this sort. ASMD is about making it difficult for the enemy to detect your location and then if that fails, and you are fired at, increasing your odds of defeating the missile in-flight. How the ship is built, how it operates, with whom, and then what it does when fired at are all part of this collective.

Many of the first group of measures are an integral part of ship design, such as minimising radar cross section (the reason modern ships have a largely covered upper deck) and reducing your infrared signature to give two examples. In the case of the Moskva, she is an old design – the corners and right angles from the weapons stowed on her upper deck alone would provide a radar cross section to rival a modern carrier. A stealth ship such as a Type 45 or the US Navy’s Zumwalt will have a much smaller signature. Minus one for the Moskva from build.

Layered defence is an integral part of ASMD; intelligence gathering, surveillance and strike aircraft, electronic warfare, radars, other ships (possibly autonomous ones in the future) and then your own weapon systems form overlapping rings around a ship, all of which need to be penetrated if the ship is to be hit. The RN normally categorizes the ships in the middle of the rings as either High Value or Mission Essential Units. The distinction isn’t important in this case; you could argue Moskva was both. What matters is that operating that close to land, in a war, it’s almost unthinkable that no protective frigate would be assigned to ‘goal-keep’ the flagship. Of course, this assumes one was available. More on resources later. For now, another minus mark to the Moskva.

To be fired at, the enemy has to know where you are. That ships move is a simple yet essential part of the carrier versus airfield debate. How you can be targeted, and how this can be either confused or defeated is an interesting debate in its own right; the simplicity of which is often exaggerated by the anti-carrier crowd. Either way, ASMD involves manoeuvring as unpredictably as possible thus making it harder to detect and target you. The Moskva’s operating routine prior to being hit was amazingly predictable. From port visit periodicity to repeatedly patrolling the same area, almost anyone with a laptop could have had a go at targeting. Add a US P8 and a drone to that and she was well and truly marked. It’s almost inconceivable, given all this, that they wouldn’t have known they were being targeted as the attack was building. Minus another.

The minute that drone appeared, they should have been at the highest state of readiness – what the RN would call ‘Action Stations’ – everyone up, engines at immediate notice or running, every sensor on, every station and weapon crewed. The drone should have been tracked and assessed within seconds with actions thereafter ranging from ‘do nothing’ and continue to ‘track to engage’. Again, this decision-making process is routine and takes seconds. Even if it had been declared hostile and the decision made to destroy it, given the readiness they should have been at, this would only add a few more seconds. So how it distracted them to the point of missing an incoming sea-skimmer from the known threat direction is therefore another mystery. Minus another.

The final part, when missiles are in the air, sees things heat up very quickly. At this point, ASMD is about minimising your signature(s) (depending on what’s been fired and what type of seeker head it has, if any) and then deploying a sequence of ‘soft kill’ measures (chaff) and ‘hard kill’ measures (missiles and guns – lasers in the future) to destroy whatever it is that’s been fired at you. Get the choreography of this right and the likelihood of being hit decreases, although never to zero.

Assuming it was two Neptune missiles fired, they are a subsonic, active weapon which, whilst new, are not cutting edge. They’re slow and don’t carry any of the really clever stuff that many Russian missiles have to make them harder to shoot down. Much was made of the fact that they’re sea skimming and therefore difficult to detect. In principle, this is true, but not that much more difficult. Again, it depends on the capability of your kit and how much attention you are paying.

The active part means that at some point in its flight, it will turn on a seeker head that will then look for whatever it was fired at and lock on to it. Even if you’ve missed every indicator up to that point, the spike caused by seeker head locking-on will be detected by your electronic warfare desk who then blow a whistle and yell the type of threat and its bearing across the ops room. You’re not going to miss that. But even if that’s your first indication, then a subsonic missile at 12 miles gives you just over a minute to get what’s left of your ASMD measures in place.

As mentioned above, there are two parts now, soft kill and hard kill. Soft kill is the use of decoys to either ‘confuse’ the targeting unit, ‘distract’ the missile in flight onto an imaginary target, or ‘seduce’ the missile away from you once its seeker head has locked on. It doesn’t appear that the Moskva had the requisite soft kill systems onboard to achieve this last stage. In other words, they needed to get chaff away before the missile locked on. Once it did, they had no soft kill measures that would work (assumption). Minus another mark.

So now you’re down to hard kill only – your point defence missile systems (PDMS) and close in weapons systems (CIWS). Your odds of defeating the threat have now reduced, sometimes a lot. However, you know exactly how to sequence these so that the chance of success against the particular missile is optimised. You manoeuvre hard to present the part of the ship that has the lowest radar cross section whilst opening your weapon arcs on the incoming target. This gets quite lively, particularly if there is another threat around, such as a fighter jet or a submarine because the manoeuvres required to defeat them are different. Here, the captain earns his pay as it’s his job to prioritise. With the Moskva, however, it was only one threat type, going relatively slowly and from one direction. I hesitate to use the word easy, but in terms of RN training, this would be week one.

To summarise the Moskva engagement, she was operating inside known enemy missile range, on a predictable patrol line with no other ships providing layered defence – this much is known. What happened after the missiles were fired is less clear but if the outer layers of defence were absent, it’s reasonable to assume that some of the elements required to defeat them in flight were too. Any ship can have an off day or be unlucky, and there is precedent which shows that the first serious anti-ship attack often catches people by surprise. In this instance though, despite being at war and operating inside known enemy threat envelopes, all the signs point to the Moskva being poorly postured to both detect then defeat the attack.

Contrast this with last year’s Carrier Strike Group (CSG21) deployment. Long before they sailed, a full threat assessment of any potential adversaries was conducted including a forensic examination of what weapons they’ve got, how many, what ranges, speeds, accuracy etc. This is accompanied by an intelligence analysis of the context and therefore likelihood of use. This determines, in broad handfuls, where the carrier would operate and what assets were required to provide layered defence. All this will be constantly updated on route to the area of operations and the specific threats trained against over and over.

By the time you get to where you’re going, you have a detailed knowledge of where best to put your ship(s) to achieve the mission whilst knowing where you are on the risk continuum from low (warship operations by definition are never zero) to high (either adjust the mission or ensure higher command have acknowledged the risk). However, and this is a huge however, this doesn’t mean the RN’s carriers will forever operate in the perfect posture – resource constraints won’t allow it. The effort required to make CSG21 such a success is being felt. It’s likely that HMS Prince of Wales’s upcoming deployment to the Mediterranean will be a bit…thin, and that’s just the elements that are known about such as aviation. What about ammunition, for example? It was just over 10 years ago that HMS Westminster was sent to the Mediterranean to carry out some really punchy tasking off Libya armed with nothing more than steely resolve and some orders from the security services explaining why they were there and not off the south coast of the UK conducting training anymore. This is an important point, although not necessarily a lesson from Moskva, more a general one about the speed with which that conflict escalated. One of the great strengths of our Navy is its ability to re-task mid-deployment, born of hundreds of years of practice. Going armed for the task you think you are heading to is a dangerous principle, even more so now. If it’s because you have no choice, then alarm bells should be ringing.

More applicable as a direct lesson from the Moskva is ‘how do you now manage your assets when you are geographically obliged to operate in an area where the threat would otherwise be unacceptably high?’. The Gulf is an example where ships have been operating in a semi-predictable manner for years now, often without layers of defence in place and always well inside the range of multiple weapon systems, some of which are designed specifically to defeat your ASMD measures. Does the reality of the Moskva sinking change this metric in the mind of the planners who routinely send their ships there? Operating in the Indo-Pacific at least offers room to manoeuvre, albeit less so inside the South China Sea (given the range of the systems at play there), but you do at least have the option to withdraw if things escalate.

Another immediate concern raised by the Moskva is the RN’s recent decision to retire Harpoon; an ageing and limited anti-ship weapon system for many reasons that are not for discussion here. What the Moskva shows is the danger associated with saying that because of its shortcomings, the RN can afford to do without it – or worse, to trade it to pave the way for some far away concept. This is less to do with the lethality of the weapon and more to do with the planning constraints having it presents to your enemy. If you’re a surface warfare planner, you put a range ring round the opposition ships and shore batteries. Sometimes the ring is crude; based on the manufacturer’s declared range, sometimes it’s refined by intelligence. Either way, it’s there on the chart, and it effects how you plan. Take that system away such that you can now operate with impunity in the vicinity of those ships and the metric shifts. Would Harpoon work against one of the latest Chinese warships? The decision to take it out of service would have been based on many things but one of them would have been that the answer was ‘no’. What Moskva has shown as that these things are never certain.

As nuanced procurement decisions get further from the operators and closer to the decision makers the inevitable process of compression means that complex situations are often simplified to the point of becoming binary: “we don’t need that missile because against this ship it won’t work”, “we don’t need this class of mine-hunter because automated vessels are better”, “we don’t need submarines anymore because technology has rendered the oceans transparent” etc. This binary representation of a nuanced situation is what I call ‘fighting in a lab’ where everything works exactly how it should. Unfortunately, wars are not fought there, as the Moskva has shown. It’s why the decision to gap the Navy anti-ship missile capability is flawed, even if it is old and not very good.

Hypersonic weapons don’t fundamentally alter any of this, they just change where you find yourself on the risk continuum and therefore how and where you should operate. Similar to the way the “Harpoon would never hit anything” argument has just been disproved, it’s way too simplistic to say that hypersonics have rendered carriers obsolete. Risky, yes, but then so was/is operating warships in the vicinity of ballistic, supersonic, subsonic missiles and cannon before them. It is simply not possible to say that the risk is now so high that they are redundant.

To summarise, the Moskva was poorly postured on many levels to defend herself against a known and unsophisticated threat. Are RN ships similarly vulnerable when operating in harms way – ‘much less so’ if the layers are in place, ‘not far off’ if they are not, or the attack is a surprise. Does operating inside more sophisticated weapons envelopes render larger warships vulnerable to the point of being useless – ‘absolutely not’ (which is why navies are still building them). And besides, the whole point of warships is to operate in a way that prevents the missile from being fired in the first place. With this comes a degree of risk that is as old as navies. However, in the current resource constrained environment, the Moskva has shown what happens if you ignore, or are forced to ignore, this risk.