The Lessons of the Sinking of Moskva for Canadians

By Dr. Rob Huebert, 20 April 2022

The ramifications of the sinking of Moskva on April 13 will be felt for a long time. This is the first sinking of a large warship in battle since the 1982 Falkland War. There have been some successful attacks that damaged American warships since 1982, but none were sunk. For Canada the lessons are clear. We need warships that have the best weapon and defensive systems that are available, and we need women and men that are trained to the highest levels possible. This is not cheap nor is it easy.

The attack that sunk Moskva occurred with an accuracy and speed that prevented the Russian crew from being able to mount any effective defence. Beyond knowing that the ship was sunk, there is not much known with any high degree of confidence. Widespread reports suggest that the Ukrainians used a missile known as a R-360 Neptune. This is a subsonic antiship cruise missile which is based on an earlier Soviet design know as a Kh-35. The Neptune has a reported speed of 300 kilometres per hour. Nevertheless, it is a new missile that the Ukrainians introduced in early 2021 to their forces.

In order for the attack to succeed, the Ukrainians needed to do at least two things. First, they needed to be able to pinpoint the position of Moskva. Such a target at sea that is moving is very hard to locate with the accuracy needed to achieve a direct hit. The ship was beyond visual range of the coast and the attack occurred at night, yet the Ukrainians were able to hit it. This suggests that they were using a system that directed the missiles to the ship probably using a means of locating the ship position that then sent that information to the missiles, all very difficult tasks. Second, the Ukrainians had to neutralize the defensive systems that Moskva carried to protect itself. These can be systems that directly engage any incoming missiles or aircrafts, or they can be measures that misdirect the attacking forces. None of the Russian systems were able to protect the ship. Some stories have emerged to suggest that the Ukrainians used drones to confuse the Russians systems, and this then allowed the missiles to successfully find the target and hit it.

There are 3 lessons for Canada. Canada is about to begin the construction of its new generation of major warship – commonly referred to as the Canadian Surface Combatant. The sinking of Moskva should make clear to all Canadians the challenges that any modern warship now faces. The Neptune is a modern missile, but both the Chinese and Russians are developing much more capable and even more deadly missiles. Some are known as hypersonic and can travel much faster -- 5-20 times the speed of sound -- and can maneuver. Open-source materials suggest that is almost impossible to stop these missiles once they are launched, so you need to locate and destroy the delivery systems before they are launched. This is very hard to do. Such challenges are only part of the reason why it is so difficult to build a modern warship and why they are so expensive as means of defending itself are developed.

The second lesson is that that Canada will need warships that can fight with its closest and strongest allies. Because of the speed and accuracy of the new missiles Canada will never have ability to independently maintain 360º surveillance around its own ships. It will always need to operate within the protective screen of friends and allies in any hostile environment but making its contribution. But to do so in a meaningful fashion will require the most advanced communication systems possible so it can always achieve a shared awareness of the environment no matter the conditions. It will also mean a very high level of continual training to ensure that the reaction time needed to defend Canadian ships is kept as good as possible and this comes only with constant training, on its own and with friends and allies.

The last lesson and most important lesson comes from examining the sinking of Moskva with the context of the recent Budget Speech. Deputy Prime Minister Freeland spoke in very stark terms when she delivered it. First, she made clear that as long as Vladimir Putin remained in power, Canada and all democracies were threatened and he needed to be “vanquished.” Second, she also made it clear that all the world dictators a similar threat and that “(w)e know that freedom does not come for free, and that peace is guaranteed only by our willingness to fight for it.” She was obviously including China. If she is right, then Canada can expect to find itself in a war to defend itself from these threats from both Russia and China. After seeing how fast Moskva was destroyed, a fight with the Chinese navy – which is numerically the largest in the world – will require we send vessels that are equipped with the very best weapons and defensive system possible, operated by women and men with the highest level of training.

The sinking of Moskva shows us what the women and men of the Royal Canadian Navy will face. The words of Freeland tell us why we will need the ships. It is time that we build the ships as soon as we can. And we need to build and operate the best that they can be. This will not be easier or cheap but it is necessary.

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