Streetwise Professor

April 15, 2022

It Sank

Filed under: History,Military,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 3:10 pm

In a rather amazing development, the Russian cruiser Moskva was hit by two Ukrainian Neptune surface-to-surface missiles, caught fire, and experienced a major munitions explosions. It subsequently sank, allegedly while under tow, although that is according to the Russian side which (as will be seen) was even more deceptive during this incident than it has been in the rest of the war–which is saying something..

Perhaps some latter day Larry King can get Putin on his show and ask him what happened to the Moskva:

Somehow I doubt Putin would be so smug now.

Would that the sinking of two major combatants provide the bookends to Putin’s malign reign.

This episode was even murkier than the rest of the war. The Ukrainians almost immediately claimed that they had struck the ship. The Russians merely acknowledged that it had experienced a severe fire and an ammunition explosion, but that the entire crew had been evacuated.

These things did not hang together. Fires and explosions sufficient to sink a ship with no casualties? Or had the crew failed so miserably in fighting fires that the captain ordered abandon ship before the fires triggered the ammunition explosion? And if there was no missile, what could have caused such a devastating fire, and the failure of the crew to be able to control it?

The missiles that allegedly hit the Moskva are powerful, but not that powerful. Far smaller ships, e.g., the USS Stark, a frigate that displaced about 1/3rd of the Moskva, was hit by an Exocet (which had a bigger warhead than the Neptunes) and survived–though only after heroic efforts by the crew (as an exhibit at the UNSA Museum documents). The HMS Sheffield, which was only slightly larger than the Stark, was hit by Exocets. It eventually sank under tow, but only after several days. The bigger Moskva should have been able to absorb these hits.

Perhaps they were very lucky hits. But hits devastating enough to put such a large ship in mortal danger would have almost certainly killed large numbers.

My guess is that Russian damage control was very poor. Damage control is a war winner, and a force multiplier. It was the US Navy’s saving grace throughout WWII in the Pacific, and has also proved invaluable in later conflicts, e.g., the fires on the carriers Oriskany, Forrestal, and Enterprise during Vietnam. (When I was at Navy we had to watch a film about the Forrestal fire as part of our education on the importance of damage control. Pretty sobering watching.) If Russian damage control was poor, either due to bad training, bad doctrine, or bad equipment (e.g., DC gear being stolen, or not maintained) that would explain fires getting out of control and forcing abandonment of the ship, and a subsequent explosion.

There is also the issue of whether the ship should have been struck in the first place. Apparently its primary role in the Ukraine war was to provide air surveillance and defense for other Russian fleet units operating in the Black Sea. It had a rather extensive suite of long range and short range air defenses, including point defense systems that are intended to take out threats like the Neptunes. So why did it fail so spectacularly to defend itself?

One story circulating is that the ship was “distracted” by several Turkish made drones. Really? That shouldn’t happen. If true, that smacks of lack of situational awareness and target fixation. Or a smug confidence that the Ukrainians had nothing that could hit them. It also suggests that the drones have taken up residence in Russian heads.

The US contributed to the fog of war. Initially the US said that it could not confirm that missiles had struck the ship, or that it was in a sinking condition, or had sunk. Then today the US said yes, it was able to confirm that Ukrainian missiles had taken it out.

I find this purported ignorance to be implausible. The Black Sea has to be blanketed with US surveillance and reconnaissance assets, in space, in the sky, on land, and in the ether. The US is likely sucking up visual, photographic, and electronic information (radar emissions, communications intercepts) at a prodigious rate. The very fact that the Moskva’s electronic emissions would have largely disappeared when it was in extremis would have been one clue that it was hors du combat. And no doubt all all Russian fleet radio transmissions were sucked up and analyzed in near real time. It’s plausible that the US Navy was more informed about developments than the Russian.

This would explain the pains to which the American went to appear mystified by what was happening with the Moskva. “Hey, we can’t see nothin’. Big mystery to us!” In reality the US sees a lot. A lot. Ex ante and ex post. Those ex ante observations, if provided to Ukraine, could have made possible a strike that Ukraine could not have carried out on its own.

And here’s another thing. The Moskva was hit relatively far offshore–approximately 100 kilometers, or well over the horizon. Over-the-horizon target acquisition is not easy. (This might be another reason the Moskva felt secure.) Did the Ukrainians have the requisite targeting capability, or did a little birdie tell them? That is, one very plausible hypothesis is that the US fed Ukraine the necessary targeting information, again relying on the extensive array of sensors upon which the US can call.

If Ukrainian assets targeted the Moskva, that would only raise other issues. Why didn’t Russia take them out over the past 6 plus weeks? Again, US doctrine prioritizes going after the eyes. It’s a lot easier fighting a blind enemy.

What are the broader implications of this sinking. It is unlikely to have a first order effect on the fighting. It does make an amphibious assault less likely, but I always thought that was a remote prospect in any event.

Its main impact is most likely psychological. A fillip for Ukraine, a humiliation for Russia. And in particular humiliation for one specific Russian–Vladimir Putin. No doubt this will stoke even further his incandescent rage against the Ukrainians–and his own military. It will represent yet another ignominious defeat in a litany of ignominious defeats to be avenged. That bodes ill for any prospect of seeing this war end soon.

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  1. Does Kiev have any missiles that could reach Moscow? Perhaps that would be a step too far?

    Comment by dearieme — April 16, 2022 @ 5:24 am

  2. The Beeb reported yesterday that a Russian MP on Russian TV, wailing like a banshee, shrieked that the sinking of the Moskva constituted grounds for a declaration of war.

    You have got to love Russian propaganda:
    1. There is no war in Ukraine;
    2. Ukrainian missiles did not hit the ship – it caught fire by itself;
    3. ??
    4. This constitutes grounds for declaration of war against Ukraine.

    Comment by Ingvar — April 16, 2022 @ 5:44 am

  3. Perhaps the psych impact will be all-the-greater because of the sunk ship’s name. “We just sunk Moscow!”

    Comment by Bill Pearson — April 16, 2022 @ 8:03 am

  4. The US’s reticence regarding this attack is telling, particularly given the concentration of NATO ISR effort (Rivet Joint etc plus their associated tanking support, which routinely show up virtual tracking websites) along the very eastern of Romania in the days preceding. My thought at the time was that they were trying to get a handle on the situation around Kherson and the Donbas beyond. Oh, and the fact the US Navy deployed six EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft to Germany a few weeks back. As you know, I’m not one for conspiracies, but why these particular aircraft, given the USAF is positively replete with EW assets? Maybe because they’ve dedicated kit aimed at spoofing/jamming Russian naval assets?? Intrigue upon intrigue.

    Of course, the Russian internet has already put 2 and 2 together but, bizarrely, their leadership have decided not to go there for whatever reason, instead blaming dodgy ammunition, the weather, and, particularly touchingly for the relatives of the crew, planned obsolescence (re a Tweet from RT). Oh, and they’ve upgraded their faux outrage over western weapons supplies from ‘concerned’ to ‘warning of consequences’. Ooo, scary or what? My takeaway from all of this: Putin is desperate to avoid bringing NATO into the fray.

    You note that it may have been a lucky strike by the Ukrainians, but my money is on Moskva’s crappy legacy design. You don’t need to be a naval architect to figure out that putting 4 socking great surface-to-surface missiles, complete with rocket boosters, along each deckside is a bad idea (it’s almost as though they purposely design their kit to explode whenever it’s struck, just like their shi*tty tanks). And a quick glance at the location of the ship’s point defenses (CIWS) shows yet more muddled thinking, them being set back from the deck edge thus limiting their field of fire. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they were positioned thus for aesthetic reasons.

    PS Me and a couple of randos on Twitter speculated exactly such an attack profile earlier this week i.e. busying the air picture and then sneaking a couple of ASMs in while the crew was distracted. Does it mean we can claim a share of the million Dollar bounty (assuming it was Dead or Alive)?

    Comment by David Mercer — April 16, 2022 @ 9:30 am

  5. If such missiles can hit moving objects like a ship can they hit stationary objects such as bridges?

    I get the feeling that this war is subject to a lot of restraint I don’t understand. Or is it incompetence that just looks like restraint?

    Comment by dearieme — April 16, 2022 @ 11:23 am


    with pictures

    Comment by elmer — April 16, 2022 @ 11:41 am

  7. @dearieme, dropping bridges is multiples harder than warships. Warships are filled with fuel, ammo, tight spaces and burnable metals. Bridges, not so much. Look up the Paul Doumer Bridge over the Red River, NVN. Hundreds of bombing sorties, nothing until PGMs

    Comment by The Pilot — April 17, 2022 @ 9:16 am

  8. Thanks, Pilot, but the Moskva was sunk by guided munitions, was it not? And if you catch your bridge with a Russian army convoy on it you even have your fuel, explosives and so on.

    Comment by dearieme — April 17, 2022 @ 3:11 pm

  9. moskwa meets Kursk again

    Comment by Joaco Duerr — April 18, 2022 @ 5:56 am

  10. The big difference between USH damage control and IJN damage control in 191-45 was that in the former case, literally everyone had a damage control station/role, while in the latter there were damage control parties who were supposed to deal with it. The obvious problem with this approach is that when the initial damage affects something like munitions or fuel, there’s an excellent chance the damage control party will arrive just in time to include themselves in the secondary explosions that are so often a feature of fire near aviation fuel. Another drawback is that when the damage is in an area the damage control team can’t easily get to, because damage. It then gets irremediably worse before anyone can do anything because those nearby don’t know what to do and those who do can’t get there.

    Had I to guess, I would say that the loss of a major warship was, as is quite often the case, the result of not just one balls-up (like having faulty ex post damage control procedures), but probably several, all working together. If you look at any large ship loss – Titanic vs the iceberg, three British battlecruisers at Jutland, four Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway – or indeed any major military screwup (Little Big Horn, Isandlwana), it’s never just one thing going wrong that triggers disaster, it’s a whole string. And whole strings don’t fix easily.

    Comment by Green As Grass — April 20, 2022 @ 4:14 am

  11. @Green as Grass. The theory of “normal accidents” (often applied to nuclear power disasters, air crashes, etc.) is based on the idea that such catastrophes are the result of the interaction of multiple factors in tightly coupled systems.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 20, 2022 @ 10:58 am

  12. @dearieme and @The Pilot. PGMs have made it easier, but not easy to drop bridges. It’s amazing how much ordnance the allies expended trying to destroy bridges to isolate the Normandy theater, and how little success they had. The Germans launched many sorties to try to bring down the Remagen Bridge. In VN, attacks on the Thanh Hóa Bridge with early model PGMs (Walleyes) failed to bring it down. Later attacks with the “Fat Albert” version of Walleye did some damage, and eventually 2000 lb. laser guided bombs finally dropped the main span. As @The Pilot can no doubt attest, “linear targets” (bridges, roads, railroad lines) can be a bitch.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 20, 2022 @ 11:03 am

  13. In WW2 the RAF had success against bridges with their “tallboy” and “grand slam” bombs. The idea was that they penetrate soft earth and then explodeth the bomb, shaketh the local earthquake, tumbleth the bridge.

    Why on earth didn’t the US use the idea in Vietnam?

    Comment by dearieme — April 20, 2022 @ 11:54 am

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