Moskva Sinking — Lessons

"It requires a significant potential positive impact to risk a several billion-dollar ship near land"

The Russian cruiser Slava/Moskva sank recently while under tow for repairs due to a fire and ammunition explosion (confirmed by various Russian reports).  Reports vary whether the fire was caused by Ukraine missiles or some accidental mishap on board the ship.  As I’ve cautioned, drawing specific lessons from this conflict, where we have almost no reliable information, is a worse than pointless exercise.  However, regardless of the details, there are some general lessons and reminders we can take from this.

Loss of Inventory – When the Moskva sank, it took its entire weapons inventory to the bottom with it.  This is, historically, exactly what happens when a ship sinks.  Very few ships are sunk with their weapon magazines depleted.  They’re almost invariably sunk with most of the weapons/munitions still aboard.  This should give pause to those who want to arm ships with 100, 200, 1000 VLS cells in a misguided notion that more is better.  This should, specifically, serve as a caution to the notion of arsenal ships.

Even the Navy’s vision of the large unmanned surface vessel (LUSV) which is envisioned as remote weapons ‘barge’ has to be questioned especially since it is defenseless.  While the plans do not seem to call for ridiculous numbers of VLS cells, we simply cannot afford to put inventories of million or multi-million dollar missiles at risk on defenseless ships.

Obsolescence – The Moskva was a 1980’s era ship with 1960-70’s era sensors and weapon/sensor updates had been minimal, if any.  This is yet another example of, and argument against, ships with designed service lives over 15-20 years.  Upgrades rarely happen and, in the US Navy, the ships are retired early, anyway.  We need to save money on the initial design by foregoing ‘future proofing’ and, instead, just design for around a 15 year life so that our ships will always be new.  This bypasses both the maintenance issues – which the Navy is ignoring, anyway – and the obsolescence issue.

Escorts – High value ships need escorts and this incident dramatically reinforced that lesson.  To be fair, we don’t know what escorts, if any, the Moskva had but they clearly weren’t effective.  Ideally, the escorts provide layers of anti-air protection.  Worst case, it is the job of the escorts to take the hits instead of the high value ships.  Details are lacking but it appears that Moskva was lacking any kind of close, co-ordinated defensive escort.  Our peacetime practice of 2-3 escorts for a carrier is insanity and violates the ‘train like you fight, fight like you train’ wisdom.

There are reports that the Moskva may have been distracted by the presence of a Ukrainian UAV(s).  If true, this is yet another responsibility of the escorts.  Any UAV should have been shot down long before it became a concern of the Moskva.

Proximity to Land – It is a bit of a mystery why Moskva was, apparently, in close proximity to land, operating somewhere southeast of Odessa.  The ship has no dedicated land attack weapons.  The AK-130 (130 mm, 5.1”) gun is capable of providing limited fire support but there are no indications that’s what Moskva was doing.  It’s possible the ship was supporting an amphibious assault force.  Regardless, the closer to land, the greater the risk.  It requires a significant potential positive impact to risk a several billion dollar ship near land.  We need to carefully evaluate our [non-existent] CONOPS to see whether we can justify risking ships near land.  Alternatively, we need to stop the endless trend of ever more expensive and risk-averse ship construction and return to smaller, cheaper, single function ships that we are willing to risk near land.

Armor – No large ship should be sunk by one or two anti-ship missiles especially not something on the order of a Harpoon.  Armor may not totally stop an attacking weapon but it is guaranteed to reduce the damage done by depleting the kinetic energy (hence, depth of penetration) of the weapon and confining the explosion and damage to a more limited internal area.  All ships need internal and external armor, appropriate for their size and function.  This is not an option.  We cannot build multi-billion dollar ships and then leave them virtually unprotected.  The Burkes, for example, cost a couple billion dollars each and have one CIWS, no SeaRAM, and no armor.  They’re one-hit kills waiting to happen.

Damage Control – We have no information about the damage control circumstances other than the fact that the crew was evacuated early on.  This does, however, emphasize that damage control is vital.  Saving a badly damaged ship for eventual repair is still far cheaper and faster than having to build a several billion dollar replacement and needing several years to do it.  As has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout history, the number one factor in successful damage control is bodies … lots and lots of bodies to do the exhausting manual labor of damage control.  This is a lesson the Navy has long since abandoned and forgotten with their emphasis on business case inspired minimal manning.  Minimal manning will cost us ships in combat.  We not only need to drop the entire minimal manning concept idiocy, we need to go in the opposite direction and over-man ships with damage control and casualty attrition needs in mind.


These lessons and reminders are timeless and don’t really require the specifics of the Moskva incident to be seen or understood.  The incident merely serves as an illustration of the principles.  The US Navy has clearly forgotten most of what it ever knew about naval combat and perhaps this incident can serve to rekindle interest on the Navy’s part in understanding the lessons of naval combat.

The Navy has publicly stated that they expect war with China in the next 8 years.  We have got to start applying these lessons yesterday if we expect to successfully fight a naval war tomorrow.

1 Comment
  1. Oscar Peterson says

    Good analysis.

    Navy Matters is a great site.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.