Saturday, 16 April 2022

Neptune’s Wrath: The Flagship Moskva’s Demise

By Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer

There's little denying at this point that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been an unmitigated military and economical disaster. What was meant to be a quick operation with the aim of surrounding and seize Kyiv and Eastern Ukraine, forcing Western powers to the negotiation table over the future status of the country, has now turned into a bloody war of attrition in the East that Russia is not in a position to sustain. Russia's offensive has laid bare a host of problems with Russian military leadership, tactics and equipment, together culminating in a catastrophe that will surely be analysed for years to come.
In its latest costly and highly embarassing incident, the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet lost its flagship, the Slava-class guided missile cruiser the Moskva, in yet unspecified circumstances. The current most likely scenario appears that the cruiser was hit by two shore-launched RK-360MT Neptune anti-ship missiles (AShMs), resulting in a munitions fire that could not be contained, leading to the gradual destruction of the ship and its eventual sinking. The other competing theory offered by Russian officials is of an ammunitions explosion, triggered by unknown causes. [1] Most of the crew appears to have been safely evacuated some time after the vessel was hit, with Russian state media claims that the ship was moving back to Sevastopol harbour for repairs merely hiding the disaster that was unfolding.

To Ukraine, the sinking of the Moskva is an astonishing feat and offers a significant morale boost. Along with the corvette Vasily Bykov (which was earlier incorrectly claimed sunk by Ukraine), the Moskva played an important role in the seizure of Snake Island, which gave rise to the popular anti-Russian mantra "Русский военный корабль, иди нахуй!" (Russian warship, go fuck yourself). Nonetheless, and contrary to popular conception, the actual military implications of the loss of the Moskva on the Ukraine War is nihil. Although the cruiser's 16 550km-ranged P-500 AShMs and 64 90km-ranged surface-to-air missiles of the S-300F (a naval version of the S-300P) look daunting on paper, whatever remains of the Ukrainian Navy is confined to ports, and the Ukrainian Air Force does not operate in this area at such altitudes against which the S-300Fs can be effectively brought to bear.

The guided-missile cruiser Moskva in better days.

One Ukrainian asset that is said to have played a role in the Moskva's demise is the Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial combat vehicle (UCAV). Though the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) has already claimed more TB2s destroyed than were in Ukraine's inventory (including the additional sixteen examples received in March 2022), unofficial Russian reports indicated that a Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 was used as a distraction, with the crew of the Moskva vessel focused on the drone rather than the two incoming AShMs. [2]

Though it makes for a compelling tale, this narrative is almost certain to be false. Not only are the radars and their operators onboard a warship like the Moskva more than capable of detecting and tracking more than just a single target, and would in fact do so virtually automatically so long as they were operating, but if they were in fact tracking a drone then situational awareness should have been at at a higher level than if the attack had occurred out of the blue. If the sinking was indeed caused by the impact of two AShMs, then a scenario in which either the radars of the vessel simply did not detect them (or detected them too late), and the six AK-630 close-in-weapons systems (CIWS) proved incapable of protecting the ship appears significantly more likely. In this context it should be noted that no reports thus far have explicitely mentioned the number of AShMs supposedly launched (as opposed to the number that impacted), so that a scenario in which the Moskva's defences were overwhelmed by a well-planned volley of missiles is not out of the question.

The Moskva pictured shortly before it sank.

While large contingents of military analysts still remain baffled by the ineffectiveness of supposedly advanced Russian military equipment, there has in fact been an ongoing trend of Russian military hardware proving unable to hack it on modern battlefields. Though the Ukrainian conflict has exposed this secret to the wider public, the first truly telling conflict was Nagorno-Karabakh's forty-four day war of 2020, in which many of Russia's most modern EW and SAM systems proved little capable against UCAVs and small loitering munitions. [3] [4] There's no reason to suggest this would be any different with radar and SAM systems onboard Russian navy ships when confronted with modern AShMs.

The AShMs claimed to have been responsible for its sinking, the brand-new RK-360MT Neptune, are of indigenous Ukrainian make but based heavily on the Soviet Kh-35 AShM. These missiles employ a variety of techniques to increase the possibility of a successful strike and make timely detection unlikely. For one, flying just metres above the surface of the sea while using inertial navigation until the final approach (thus ensuring its radar signals are not detected by the target), they can be very hard to pick up by radar and harder still to accurately engage. Modern AShMs can have many other tricks up their sleeve however, and though it is unknown whether the Neptune possesses such capabilities many modern AShMs can have programmable routes so that their final impact can be precisely coordinated, overwhelming defences by attacking from multiple directions at the same time.

Though such missiles can be very difficult to defeat, it must also be stressed that the Kh-35 and Neptune are in fact fairly light AShMs flying at subsonic speeds, with the Neptune having a maximum range of 280 kilometres. Not only does the Moskva much outsize the target they were designed for, but a modern battlegroup operating on alert in an active warzone should have been able to if not prevent such an attack from happening at all, then at least limit the damage that could be inflicted. Certainly, the fact that the Moskva is thought to have operated less than a 100 kilometres from Ukrainian-held coastal areas must have made it a juicy target. [5] As it happened, the Moskva's heavy armament may well have contributed to its demise, with its massive cruise missiles and other plentiful explosive armament fuelling uncontrollable fires after initial impact.

All that is not to say the TB2 story is entirely false. Indeed, just a day before the Moskva's sinking the Russian MoD posted a video which it claimed showed a Bayraktar TB2 being engaged by the Russian frigate Admiral Essen over the Black Sea. [6] In another incident hitherto unreported on, the Ukrainian Navy employed one of its TB2s against a Russian Navy vessel with the MAM-L munitions impacting the ship causing very little damage (due to the low weight of their warhead). A more sensible use-case for these drones is in locating enemy ships in the Black Sea and relaying their location to ground-based assets such as coastal defence missile systems (CDS). Their WESCAM MX-15D FLIR turret can spot a target the size of the Moskva at least 100km away in good weather. Weather conditions at the time of the attack might have reduced that range forcing the TB2 to fly in the range of the Moskva's S-300F SAM systems. Although many assume that entering the engagement envelope of a SAM system means certain destruction, especially for an asset like the TB2, this is certainly not the case. For the Ukraine Navy specifically, its TB2s have conducted many of their missions well within the range of Russia's S-400s stationed at Crimea, with the dreaded system apparently failing to secure kills.

A Bayraktar TB2 belonging to the Ukrainian Navy. Note the WESCAM MX-15D FLIR turret under the fuselage.

Coastal defence missile systems are a relatively new capability for Ukraine's Armed Forces, and the country has focused on building up such a capability through the introduction of the indigenous RK-360MT Neptune AShM. Unfortunately for Ukraine, it was expected to introduce its first operational Neptune CDS complex only in April 2022, with the advent war and Russia's intensive efforts at neutralising Ukraine's military industry understandably complicating (yet at the same time necessitating) its introduction. Less intensive efforts seem to have gone into actually hunting down prized assets like the Neptune, with the Russian MoD's arrogance apparently preventing it from identifying true threats and dealing with it. For example, rather than striking the TB2's ground control stations on day one of the war (which, amazingly, Ukraine took no effort to hide), it ignored them, allowing their safe removal and subsequent proper hiding even though Russia could have paralysed Ukraine's UCAV operations on day one.
Though Ukraine only operates a prototype battery with just a few systems and missiles, these might have been reinforced with everything that was already ready for the first operational battery about to enter service. Whether this includes the system's surface search radar (a Ukrainian version of the Monolit radar) is uncertain; it is possible they simply cobbled together one for the first production systems on the new chassis and attached it to the existing battery. If such a radar was not yet available however, then the TB2 that was reportedly at the scene may well have had the task of scouting for targets, proving itself a very effective means of picking up on naval targets in coastal areas.

A launching complex of the Neptune AShM CDS.

Immediately after the incident, which appears to have occurred as early as the 13th of April, reports surfaced that the Moskva was under tow to Sevastopol port. These were later confirmed by Russian officials, claiming that a fire had triggered the detonation of onboard munitions severely damaging the ship, which was supposedly fully evacuated. [7] A day later, the Russian MoD confirmed that the ship had sunk, apparently while under tow in stormy conditions. In the meantime, reports also surfaced that a Turkish ship had saved 54 Russian sailors shortly before the vessel had gone down. [8] Given that the crew complement of the Moskva numbered 510 souls, the loss of life in this incident, whichever version of events is to be believed, could be extremely severe. However, if the Russian MoD's narrative is the truth, then it certainly is a curious coincidence that just a day later it also claimed to have struck a factory in Kyiv responsible for manufacturing and repairing Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. [9]

The catastrophic saga of Russia's attempt at subduing its neighbour must have not only astonished those following the offensive, but also Russia itself. Once thought to be amongst the most powerful armies of the world, the biggest enemy of the Russian Armed Forces turned out not to be NATO, but the Russian government itself. The incompetence, corruption and complete denial of reality so deeply embedded in its way of governing not only contributed to dragging yet another country into a senseless war, but also appears to have eliminated the Russian Armed Forces as an effective fighting force. In this sense, the sinking of the cruiser Moskva, though a seemingly isolated event, is a symptom of far larger problems. Ukraine might derive little direct military benefits from it (though a boost to morale of this kind is perhaps one most beneficial events any military can enjoy), these problems are certain to continue to hamper any Russian attempts to win the conflict militarily. Whether the Russian political and military leadership is capable of eventually tackling these problems to some degree is unknown, but their ability to do so will likely be the single largest determinant in the outcome of Russia's war of brutality.

[1] Cruiser Moskva retains buoyancy, explosions of ammunition stopped — Defense Ministry
[3] The Conqueror of Karabakh: The Bayraktar TB2
[4] The Fight For Nagorno-Karabakh: Documenting Losses On The Sides Of Armenia And Azerbaijan
[7] Fire breaks out onboard Moskva missile cruiser, crew evacuated — defense ministry
[8] Ukraine braces for revenge attacks from Russia after Moskva sinking