The sinking of the Russian guided missile cruiser Moskva is both a reminder of the past and a marker for the future. It harkens back to a lesson learned forty years ago. It was in 1982, in the waters around the Falkland Islands, that the ability of anti-ship missiles to destroy modern warships was brought home to much of the world. It was a shock for many to see a not-first-rate military run by the oppressive Argentinian Junta being able to destroy a number of the newest British warships during the Falklands War. Most notably the destroyer HMS Sheffield, which had been commissioned only seven years before, was destroyed after being hit by only one French-made Exocet missile.
In the years since, two things happened to lessen the impact of the loss of the Sheffield – until the destruction of the much larger and more powerful Moskva reminded the public of the vulnerability of surface vessels to anti-ship missiles. Firstly, naval combat moved away from state-to-state war as the focus shifted to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. Secondly, the seas were dominated by the United States Navy at its hegemonic best, with such a deep technological and systems superiority that no other power could think about challenging it. When you fight enemies that can’t fire back, like the Russia Air Force did in Syria, it gives a rather one-sided picture of the vulnerabilities that may lie in store when you are confronted with an enemy who can.
Now, however, as we enter a new period of great power competition and militaries around the world upgrade their systems, the vulnerability of the surface ship has exploded once again onto the front pages. That is almost certainly a good thing. The Moskvawas not some auxiliary warship on the fringes of action. It was the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the pride of the Russian Navy. Almost three times as large as the Sheffield, the Moskva had recently been modernised and was equipped with the most advance protective systems Russia can provide. Still, this powerful vessel was destroyed by two home grown Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles, which had never been fired in anger before this war and were being operated by a military with little or no maritime expertise.
Maybe the most intense naval discussion of the last few years has involved the rise of China as a maritime power. Both the (ruled illegal) longstanding claim of China to sovereignty over the islands and waters of the South China Sea, and the status of Taiwan’s independence from China has brought the idea of naval confrontation in the region to the fore.
On the one hand, we have signs of significant Chinese investment in amphibious landing capabilities – to supposedly be able to invade Taiwan at a moment of Chinese choosing. There was even speculation at the start of the Ukraine war that China might take advantage of the chaos to try such an assault.
On the other hand, to confront Chinese power projection into the waters of the South China Sea, the US Navy regularly sails its largest and most powerful warships, its aircraft carriers, into harm’s way. Recently, the UK has also got in on the act, dispatching the pride of its fleet, the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, through the South China Sea in 2021. A sign, perhaps, of its willingness to commit British naval power to any war in the area.
However, were there to be a large naval war in the waters around China and Taiwan, the result would almost certainly be carnage, brought on by the huge numbers of anti-ship missiles that everyone in the region possesses. Taiwan and China have both been mass producing new anti-ship missiles for years. Each could overwhelm the defensive capabilities of most surface ships that would sail in the contested waters. Other regional powers, from Japan to Vietnam, have upgraded their capabilities as well, and are promising to more investment in the future.
Instead of being confronted by anti-ship capabilities controlled by an Argentinian Junta or a small, inexperienced Ukrainian military, ships at war in the waters of Asia would face walls of anti-ship missiles – not just the two fired at Moskva,or the one at the Sheffield. If China was rash enough to attempt an amphibious landing on Taiwan, or the US (or UK) decided in time of war to sail carrier battlegroups into waters in range of volleys of anti-ship missiles, the results would lead to devastating losses on the attacking sides.
And this is not a bad thing. If the Ukrainian war teaches us anything, it is that war is almost always a rash choice. Don’t underestimate your opponent, and don’t assume your systems will all work that well. The Moskva therefore is a lesson from which we should all learn.
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