Soviet General Andrian Danilevich once said, “If the military art could be reduced to arithmetic, we would not need any wars.” The emerging developments in the Black Sea conflict, where the far superior Russian Black Sea fleet has been undermined by Ukrainian asymmetric measures, testifies to the validity of this quote. When Russia launched the offensive in Ukraine, its superiority on the naval front was well acknowledged. Excluding a few gun boats and an obsolete Krivak class frigate, the Ukrainian navy had no warship at its disposal. The Russian Black Sea fleet, led by its flag ship missile cruiser the Moskva, successfully imposed a naval blockade of Ukraine in the opening days of conflict. Similarly, the deployment of other two Slava class cruisers in Mediterranean served as deterrent against possible naval intervention by any other nation.
The Moskva missile cruiser came to the limelight when it assisted in capturing the strategically important Snake Island located close to Ukraine’s port city of Odessa. Armed with sixteen P-1000 Vulkan long range supersonic cruise missiles, equipped with an anti-submarine warfare suite, and protected by a multilayer air defence system, the 12,000 tonnes cruiser was a physical manifestation of its class name, Slava – meaning ‘glory’ in the Russian language. However, the Russian glory soon failed to live up to its reputation. In contrast, Ukrainian forces skilfully used the limited options at their disposal and explored new military means to optimize the efficiency of their asymmetric tactics.
On 14th April 2022, the Moskva was hit by a pair of shore-based Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship Missiles (AShMs). The ship’s superstructure middle section caught fire which eventually led to sinking of ship. The available information suggests that the Moskva, which was operating less than 100 kms away from Ukrainian coast, was caught off-guard and was unable to respond in a timely manner, primarily due to technological incompatibility with modern threats. The Moskva recently underwent sustainable overhaul for ensuring the ship’s operational continuation, but the sensors and weapons of the warship were not upgraded. The technological vulnerability of the cruiser was effectively exploited by Ukraine which relied on a variety of sensory systems for precise targeting of the warship.
The cruiser was initially detected and tracked by the United States Navy’s P-8A Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), which was patrolling in proximity of Black Sea. Equipped with a 200 nautical miles ranged AN/APY-10 radar, the P-8A MPA has stand-off intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability which allows aircraft to operate at a safe distance from potential threats. Later, a Bayraktar TB-02 drone also provided over the horizon (OTH) sensor coverage to precisely locate the cruiser. Neptune missile, though subsonic in speed, is a sea skimming missile capable of travelling close to the sea surface. This capability allows the missile to avoid a ship’s radar detection till the terminal phase. These are the reasons that despite having a triple-layered air defence system comprising long-range S-300F SAMs, short range Osa-MA SAMs, and six AK-630 CIWS (close in weapon systems), Moskva was still unable to intercept the upcoming missiles.
Since WWII, the Moskva is the largest ship to have sunk during combat. This has established new benchmarks as to how emerging technologies can effectively be employed in naval warfare to achieve promising results, despite force disparity. The Moskva’s demise has exposed the vulnerabilities of out-dated naval strategies and has illustrated new lessons for navies around the globe. In brief, five such lessons can be identified.
First, air power plays a paramount role in naval warfare. Combat aircrafts can establish a protective envelope over naval assets to counter aerial and surface borne threats. Similarly, Maritime Patrol Aircrafts (MPA) with stand-off ISR capabilities act as a force multiplier by augmenting the performance of all tiers of military assets by providing superior situation awareness. Without appropriate air cover, naval surface and submerged assets will remain vulnerable to enemy action.
Second, drone technology offers vast applications in the naval domain. Drones, when operated in conjunction with traditional weapons systems in a network centric environment can act as reliable alternative to manned aircrafts for extending the sensor and strike coverage of any naval force. Being unmanned aircrafts with very low RCS, drones can be used in operations which are too risky for manned systems to execute. Beside unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) also offer vast naval applications.
Third, sea skimming missiles, even at subsonic speed, pose a significant threat to any naval surface vessels. Even the land-based anti-ship missiles, when operated with suitable sensor support, can establish potent sea-denial envelopes in near-shore waters. With technological advancement, anti-ship missiles (AShMs) are getting smarter and smaller in size, enabling their integration in smaller and more agile vessels. Unlike heavy, supersonic or long range missiles, these cheaper missiles can be mass deployed and can be used to saturate even modern air defences.
Four, modern sensors and combat management systems are required to confidently counter modern naval threats. The proliferation of drones, the incorporation of stealth technology, and widening usage of electronic warfare (EW) necessitate integration of a wider range of modern sensor suites in the naval domain within a network centric environment to achieve superior situation awareness and attain combat synergy. The advantage in situation awareness ensures enhanced survivability, and if this advantage is coupled with weapons with superior range and precision, the ‘look first and kill first’ capability can be achieved.
And finally, from the asymmetric threat perspective, the Moskva’s sinking is a wakeup call for global navies as the tactics being employed by Ukraine can easily be adopted by militant organizations. Surface vessels, both civilian and military, have remained vulnerable to militant attacks, particularly near the shores or at maritime choke points. For example, the possession of anti-ship missiles of varying types in the hands of non-state hostile actors is a well-established fact. In the recent past, these missiles have been used to target Israeli and Saudi warships, and even civilian cargo vessels. Similarly, the usage of drones for surveillance and targeting by militant organizations is also a known phenomenon. With advancement of technology, more capable weapons with extended range and accuracy are proliferating within hostile non-state actors. This necessitates an emphasis on force protection and other maritime assets.
The sinking of a large missile cruiser against shore-based missiles proves that navies with limited size and capability can deliver a major blow to a much larger adversary. Instead of large tonnage force build-ups, modern naval requirements can more effectively be fulfilled by smart, agile, and networked units which are operationally flexible, readily available, and can undertake standoff targeting with precision. The proliferation of drone technology and artificial intelligence in the naval domain is opening new dimensions in naval warfare. In a nutshell, the conflict in the Black Sea conflict proves that the navies still relying on conservative ways will be outclassed by the ones experimenting with new ideas.