On 13 April, Ukrainian sources say they struck the Russian cruiser RFS Moskva with two Neptune anti-ship missiles in the Black Sea. The Russian Ministry of Defense subsequently admitted there was a fire on board, crew being evacuated and ultimately the ship had sunk under tow. Here we look at the background and implications of this action.
The Black Sea Fleet flagship
Moskva was a 12,500-ton cruiser built in Mykolaiv, Ukraine for the Soviet Navy in the late 1970s. She was conceived essentially to lead surface action groups as a ‘carrier killer’ intended to attack NATO carrier strike groups in the open ocean. In this role, her primary armament was 16 very heavy supersonic anti-ship missiles. She was one of three Slava class cruisers completed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. (A fourth uncompleted hulk still languishes in Mykolaiv). Her sisters, RFS Marshal Ustinov of the Northern Fleet and RFS Varyag of the Pacific Fleet were sent to the Mediterranean in preparation for the invasion of Ukraine in an effort to deter any NATO surface units that may attempt to intervene.
The Slava class are very handsome ships and to the casual observer, their obvious heavy armament appears to exude power. When they entered service they were certainly formidable, but 40 years later they have not received significant modernisation and their weapon and sensor fit is very outdated. Russia’s over-reaching naval ambition is not matched by its limited warship construction capacity which was further damaged by the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 where marine engines and other critical components for its navy were manufactured. There was no hope of replacing the Slava class with modern cruisers and Moskva completed a refit in 2020 that was supposed to extend her in service until 2040. (Had she not suffered this premature demise, she would have been a 61-year-old museum piece when finally retired).
The Slava class have three layers of air defence that theoretically should be capable of dealing with multiple missile attacks. 64 S-300F (NATO reporting name Grumble) area air defence missiles are carried in VLS cells amidships. 2 OSA-MA point defence missile systems (NATO reporting name Gecko) are mounted on the stern. The final layer comprises a total of 6 x AK-630 CIWS (6-barrelled 30mm Gatling guns). None of these systems could be described as modern. The distinctive dome-shaped 3R41 Volna fire control radar for the S-300F has only a 180º field of view and is antiquated when compared with Western equivalents.
At this stage, it cannot be said with total certainty that the destruction of the cruiser was caused by missiles but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. Notably, Ukrainian military sources claimed with some detail they had mounted a missile attack on the Moskva some considerable time before the Russians admitted the ship had “suffered a fire”. According to the Ukrainians, the attack was carried out using two domestically-produced Neptune missiles and a Turkish-made Bayraktar UAV to “distract” the radar operators. The Bayraktar may have been used to provide targeting information but its role in deception would be hard to quantify. The weather conditions at the time were not especially favorable, thought to be sea state 3 with wave heights that produce clutter on legacy radars, potentially reducing the ability to detect sea-skimming missiles.
RFS Moskva was seen leaving Sevatapol (with her pennant number painted out) on 10th April after presumably returning for a brief resupply stop. Since the war began, Black Sea fleet units have been observed by OSINT sources operating in a predictable pattern off the coast of Odesa and near to Snake Island. Moskva was involved in the infamous shelling of Snake Island on 24 Feb when the defenders politely declined when offered the option to surrender by the invaders. Besides availability for gunfire support, Moskva’s role may have been acting as a command ship for operations in the Black Sea as well as providing air defence to assault ships loitering off the coast. A measure of complacency may have crept into Russian naval operations, given that after 48 days of war, the Ukrainians had not succeeded with a successful anti-ship missile attack on them.
The RK-360MC Neptune is based on the Russian Kh-35U missile (NATO reporting name Kyak) and has been in development by the Luch Design Bureau since 2013, first successfully tested in 2018. Deliveries of the system intended for coastal defence, were only made in 2021 and there has obviously been limited time to fully train with the weapon. The claimed attack on the frigate RFS Admiral Essen on 4th April may have been one of the first attempts to use the Neptune in combat. The system has a range of up to about 280 km and used an active radar seeker head for guidance. Either the UAV, coastal radar or possibly targeting data supplied by NATO may have been used to pinpoint the position of the cruiser before the Neptunes were launched. Should the location of the target be known very accurately before launch, then the missile can be programmed to fly an indirect course, using waypoints and only activating the radar for the terminal phase of the attack in order to minimise detection time by enemy electronic countermeasures systems.
There are obviously no reliable details about what happened if and when the missiles struck the cruiser, but both Russian and Ukrainian sources agree there was a large fire and explosions. Given the circumstances, it would seem unlikely that this was a random accident, although such catastrophes are not unheard of in the Russian military. A few warships have suffered serious (peacetime) fires at sea but it’s unheard of for the ship to sink as a result. What seems more plausible is that two modern sea-skimming missiles either evaded detection and/or defensive systems and struck the ship, causing fires and detonating munitions on board. The 16 P-1000 Vulkan missiles loaded with rocket fuel and 1000 kg warheads that line the sides of the Slava class appear vulnerable to secondary detonation even if struck by splinters. The large magazine for the 64 S-300F missiles behind the funnels, an early example of a vertical launch system, could also represent a major explosive risk if penetrated by a sea skimmer.
The sinking of the flagship and largest ship in the Black Sea fleet, named after Russia’s capital city, represents more than just the loss of a military asset. This is a symbolic defeat that the Russian state propaganda will have difficulty explaining away. It is probable that many sailors died, potentially the biggest single casualty inflicted by Ukraine in the war so far. In historic terms, Moskva’s sinking equals the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano as the largest warships lost in combat since the second world war.
While Putin may not care much about the deaths of several thousand of his men on the battlefield, losing major warships that cannot be replaced starts to have broader strategic implications. The Russian army has already proved more inept and vulnerable than many analysts believed it to be before the war. The destruction of the cruiser casts doubts on the capability of the navy and further undermines the perception of overall Russian strength.
A large surface combatant would be expected to be able to protect itself from an attack by two relatively small, subsonic missiles but effective defence requires constant vigilance by a trained and motivated crew, as well as capable equipment that is constantly maintained. There is always an element of luck that may play a part, but it seems likely Moskva’s destruction was down to poor performance, poor equipment or a combination of both.
With the Bosphorus closed, there is no possibility of replacing the Moskva with one of her two sister ships. The Navy will be forced to operate much further from the southern coast of Ukraine where it can have less influence and this is the final nail in the coffin of any ambition to mount an amphibious assault. Naval commanders will feel less secure in operations, crews more nervous and further damage done to the fragile morale of Russian participants in an increasingly desperate war.
There might be some sympathy for ordinary Russian sailors trying to survive the horrors of a burning ship but it must be remembered they are reaping what they have sown, part of an invasion force that has committed large-scale war crimes in Ukraine including murder, rape, looting, and forced deportation of civilians. Attacks by cruise missiles, including those launched from naval platforms, have been used against civilian targets including hospitals. Further destruction of the Black Sea fleet can only help the Ukrainian cause and help put an end to Putin’s war as soon as possible.