The Sinking Of The Moskva: Lessons Not Learned From Previous Wars


Warships: the most powerful, the most expensive, and the most vulnerable machines ever created.

War is a business. This business is driven by changing trends and new technology, but it is also a seasonal business. Sometimes war factories run full blast; sometimes they are on vacation. When a war is near, the military starts to wake up. But it often stumbles around a bit before it can find its footing. While everyone was sleeping, tastes may have changed. Old menu items may not be as appealing, or something new may be in or out of fashion.

During WWII big warships were very popular. True, Battleships lost their appeal and Aircraft Carriers replaced them as the most valuable (and deadly) thing afloat. But after that war, the new Cold War had new favorites. Nuclear weapons, nuclear submarines, ballistic missiles, supersonic jets, computers, and satellites. Even later, when the U.S.S.R. collapsed it even made sense for the new Russia (and their old client nations) to destroy their immense stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Spy wars and even Cyberwarefare was in!

There were big clashes between the US and Russia, but it was largely proxy wars for the US and fights with much smaller and less developed nations for Russia. Recently Russia has been rattling its saber and rolling out a new generation of hypersonic missiles and updated nukes, but these work best to threaten Western Europe and America. If Russia wants to invade a border nation, we’re going back to troops, tanks, and maybe a few warships.

This brings us to Ukraine. Here, we see something close to Russia’s best effort, against a far smaller but technologically competent nation. In 2014 Russia ran over Ukraine before they knew what hit them. And before the West could agree on a defense plan. The Russians never really left. The fighting never really stopped. But aggression dropped to a point where both sides could largely leave the fighting to local forces, with some technical and weapons support.

Now, Russia has moved in a significant part of its army, tanks, ships, and air support. Given the massive infusion of Russian equipment and personnel, the West has been surprised at how little progress the Russians have made. Surprise turned to shock when Ukrainian forces destroyed Russia’s Black Sea Flag Ship, the Moskva. This is (theoretically) a big, capable, tough world-class warship. On paper, it is impossible for Ukraine to sink the Moskva. They don’t have a weapon that can do the job. Yet, the Moskva is dead, and it was killed by a Ukrainian manufactured missile. In the media, Russian cannot even bring itself to say that Ukrainians were responsible, preferring to leave the impression that it was a combination of chance and incompetence. What happened?

Lesson One – Asymetic war is the new normal: Militaries build battleships to fight battleships and tanks to fight tanks. But if the enemy doesn’t have battleships or tanks, they get desperate and use whatever they have. Technology has given us a lot of ways to inexpensively destroy expensive enemy equipment (missiles, drones, bazookas). A $6,000 hand help missile can destroy a $5 million helicopter (and the crew). A richer, more powerful opponent can make war too expensive for a more powerful nation. The sinking of the Moskva may be the highest asymmetric cost ever, with a billion-dollar ship sunk by a few thousand dollars worth of missiles.

Of course, losing a big warship was nothing new. In 1982s, the US and Argentina fought an undeclared war over some barely occupied islands off the coast of Argentina. The UK decided to end this nonsense with an overwhelming response, sending a fleet of modern ships to the area. The US announced that the antiquated Argentinian Navy was neutralized. And then on May 2, the UK lost its first ship since WWII, the HMS Sheffield. It was struck by a French Exocet missile.

The Sheffield’s superior electronic defenses supposedly made it invulnerable to missile attacks, and the Argentinians didn’t have any missiles that could reach it. Does any of this sound familiar? Well, the Argentine forces knew that the Exocet could not hit the Sheffield even if it was launched from a jet. But a desperate military might use an untested in-air refueling system to get a bit more range. Back on the Sheffield, the crew had been repeatedly told that no missiles can reach them. When all of the alarms designed to warn them of incoming missiles started to go off, that crew might be only mildly curious if something was wrong with the system or if it was a drill. No action was taken, the ship was hit, it caught fire, and then it sank.

Lesson Two – Pride and boredom can sink ships: If you didn’t believe that your giant warship will protect you, you would probably try to escape the ship every chance you got. But if you do believe it is safe, after a few weeks of RED ALERT drills, your attention drifts, and your efficiency falls. You don’t follow safety procedures, you leave fireproof doors open, etc. Without a shooting war against a near-peer opponent, procedures tend to be sloppy, equipment is not maintained, and catastrophic “accidents” happen frequently when a real war arrives. And world-class militaries make inexcusable mistakes.

Warships are the world’s most complex machines. Each has thousands of smaller systems, millions of parts, and thousands (or tens of thousands) of technicians and sailors who operate and maintain these machines. The failure of just one system (or technician) can lead to disaster. This is why warships have (or are supposed to have) redundant and overlapping systems.

For example, the Moskva had multiple radar systems that would identify threats while they were more than 100 miles away. And, Russian Satellites, other ships, etc. should have an eye on incoming threats. Once a threat has been identified, we move from detection to defense… long-range anti-missiles (100+ miles). short-range anti-missiles (20 miles), and high-speed guns (under 5 miles). But satellite images show that NONE of these weapons were fired, or even pointed at the two incoming missiles.

After defense systems, we have damage control. Since WWI, warships are divided into watertight compartments that prevent or slow the spread of damage (incoming seawater, spreading fires). Clearly, this failed. As did the pumps that address flooding, and the fire suppression system. The Moskva Should have easily survived multiple missile hits. Yet, the Moskva still sank.

Lesson Three – Systems fail when technicians don’t understand or perform their duties: The Moskva sank too quickly. Normally, when a ship is flooding on one side, you seal off and flood compartments on the other side to keep the ship upright. It might save the ship, but it can also slow the rate of sinking. That didn’t happen. Rather than all of the system failing, it appears that the crew got off of the ship the minute it was damaged. That hints at a massive lack of morale and training. Presumably, the crew of a powerful warship parked many miles from Ukraine is at least as good or better than the morale of the troops fighting in Ukraine. Untrained troops with low morale fight poorly and quickly abandon their nation’s military assets.

Supplies and resources can be as important as soldiers in winning a war. As WWII progressed, Germany and Japan were running out of resources. New ships weren’t built as well as older ships and spare parts were hard to come by. Technical training was cut short to get more recruits into planes, ships, and front lines. Practice (fire drills, shooting practice, etc.) virtually disappeared because any meaningful practice meant using resources.

For decades, equipment shortages, low pay for the military, canceled military programs, general corruption, and little training have been common complaints in Russia. This produces equipment that falls apart when used, empty warehouses that are supposed to be full of spare parts, and perhaps warships with fire-fighting equipment that doesn’t work. Big corporations sell the government state-of-the-art firefighting equipment that doesn’t work, while entrepreneurial crew members sell off fire extinguishers and any other equipment they can find.

Lesson 4 – Underfunded militaries often underperform: Without proper funding, equipment, and morale a military’s ability to fight or even defend itself rapidly degrades. When demoralized soldiers no longer care about the outcome of a war, attention shifts to complaining about their low pay and schemes to stealing whatever they can to supplement that pay. Troops perform their duties poorly while hollowing out the effectiveness of their own forces. Russia is not alone in this vicious cycle of military degradation, but they have a long tradition of military corruption and mismanagement.

The 20th Century was the century of the Big Warship. The bigger and more powerful the ship, the more that a nation touts its power and invincibility. National pride was invested in Flagships. That pride was very helpful in justifying the enormous cost of building and operating these behemoths, especially in peacetime when it’s more difficult to justify these costs. In War, especially the early days of a war, these ships were targets for every enemy fleet admiral, submarine captain, and fighter pilot. The California, Flagship of the US Pacific Fleet, was sunk at Pearl Harbor. The Hood, Flagship of the Northern Fleet, was disintegrated by a direct hit. The Yamato, the most gigantic Battleship ever built, hid away from battle until the final days of the war, fearful of the political consequences if it entered a battle, and could not claim a massive victory.

After each ship’s destruction, there were major political consequences. While the Sheffield was not a Flagship, nor was it the most powerful ship in the UK navy, it was a new and greatly hyped type of destroyer. Even more importantly, it was a weapon that the UK was actively selling to other nations. The UK was in the middle of selling a large number of these destroyers when the Sheffield was sunk. The officers and crew of the Sheffield made many mistakes and some exhibited court marshall level incompetence. However, due to those pending sales, no one was put on trial, and the facts of the case were sealed for 30 years.

Lesson Five – War is always political: Battles can be won and wars lost if you lose control over the information your citizens recieve. Since WWI, when developed nations started to have developed mass media, public opinion matters. In the face of a major military loss, nations lie and do their best to minimize the loss. Russia admits that the Moscka sank. They focus on fire and the weather. Even using incompetence as an excuse may be better than admitting to a substandard ship, untrained crew, or a more effective than expected enemy.

Mark Twain once said that it is untrue that history repeats, but… he added… sometimes it rhymes! Russia is making its own unique combination of bad decisions and uninformed strategies. Big tanks and Big ships are Big targets for modern asymmetric warfare. Ukrainian doesn’t have a lot of high-value military targets, and Russia keeps moving its high-value targets into the range of advanced Ukrainian weapons. That doesn’t mean that Ukraine will have an easy job, but it does mean that young Russian soldiers are going to pay the price for every foot of Ukrainian soil they take.

What do you think? Will Russia stop and think about its strategy, or does Russian pride (and fear of informing Putin) stand in the way of logic? Let us know your opinion!

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