Are Warships Becoming Sitting Ducks Due to the Rapid Advancements of Anti-ship Missiles?

The sinking of the Moskva was a major blow to Russia... But also a time to reflect on the role of surface warships in modern warfare.
Russian cruiser Moskva

Currently, warships are particularly vulnerable to missile attacks due to rapid advancements in anti-ship missile technology. Meanwhile, ship’s anti-missile defenses are failing to catch up. The sinking of the Moskva is just another example of this.

And while the Russian armed forces haven’t exactly been a paragon of sophisticated military strategies and modern defensive systems, it cannot be ruled out that contemporary warships are much more exposed to the latest anti-ship weapons.

Are warships still an effective tool of war, or are they simply costly weapons? What are the lessons to be learned by the world’s navies?

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The sinking of the Moskva

The Moskva was the Russian flagship cruiser of the Black Sea. But, two Ukrainian Neptune missiles caused an explosion that ended up in the sinking of the Moskva, showing the weakness of warships today. 

It was a significant blow to the Russian Navy but a warning sign to the other military powers that must adapt their strategies to modern warfare and prevent a naval loss like this.

However, it’s tough to evaluate all modern warships based on the specific case of the Moskva. 

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The Russian warship wasn’t sufficiently modernized… and, given the operating conditions of the Russian Navy, it is likely that its crew members weren’t adequately trained and lacked proper defense mechanisms.

Actually, US intelligence reports stated that the Moskva was crewed by recruits who didn’t have sufficient naval experience to cope with attacks of this magnitude.

The sailors weren’t at their battle stations, the ship’s defenses were technologically deficient, and the crew didn’t have the tools needed to control the fire that broke out inside the ship.

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Consequently, the sinking of the Moskva was partially due to the incompetence of the Russian navy leaders and lack of maintenance (even the most important ship of the Russian navy, the Admiral Kuznetsov is deteriorating rapidly).

Are modern warships obsolete?

Sinking of the Moskva Warships Underway for First East Coast Cruiser
Warships Underway for First East Coast Cruiser by Jesse Marquez. Public Domain.

Generally speaking, a warship in tip-top condition with a competent crew should withstand two Neptune missile strikes. 

Neptune cruise missile
Neptune cruise missile by Адміністрація. Licensed under CC by 4.0.

Modern warships should be able to prevent attacks of this kind by regularly verifying that all their defensive weapons are working correctly especially in times of war when all crew is on a constant high alert.

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For example, the US Navy operates weapons such as the phalanx system or Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) that shoots down the enemy missiles before they hit the warship.

Although they are not impenetrable, they shouldn’t fail, as happened during the Ukrainian attack and the subsequent sinking of the Moskva.

This is not the first time a Russian defensive system failed to operate during the war in Ukraine. Tanks like the T-80 or T-90, which are supposed to have active protection systems performed relatively poorly in recent months, and they ended up being destroyed too.

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So, the sinking of the Moskva is probably due to poor preparation for actual combat scenarios, obsolete technology, and unreliable defensive systems with poor maintenance.

…but there are some measures to take

Enterprise Carrier Strike Group
Enterprise Carrier Strike Group by Alex R Forster. Public Domain

The cost-benefit of destroying warships with cruise missiles is quite high because missiles like the Neptunes cost $40 million when a warship like the Moskva costs around $720 million.

So, having top-notch anti-ship missile weapons is a good idea. But this is not enough… warships in the 21st century should be escorted by manned or unmanned vessels to add another layer of protection.

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For warships, fighting alone isn’t the ideal situation. That’s why modern navies rely on a fleet that can defend air, surface, and subsurface areas with manned and unmanned vessels with highly skilled personnel and modern technology to stop attacks from any front or prevent them altogether.

This strategy is similar to the one of the carrier strike group.

Aircraft carriers are defended by cruisers, frigates, and submarines to make them less vulnerable to attack… And they have an almost invincible defensive system in case the additional protection layers fail.

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Warships are not obsolete but they need more protection from the modern warfare threats

Today’s warship must be prepared for the challenges posed by anti-ship weapons. Having a pretty reliable defensive system and a fleet of manned or unmanned ships protecting warships can make the difference between life and death.

Unfortunately, the Moskva’s crew wasn’t sufficiently trained, and its defensive system didn’t respond in time to the attack… as a result, many sailors lost their lives, and the Russian Armed Forces were humiliated once again.


Featured image credit: Russian cruiser Moskva by Ministry of Defence. Licensed under CC by 4.0

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