The sinking of the Russian flagship, the Slava class destroyer Moskva as well as a number of successful hits on smaller crafts and auxiliaries by Ukrainian forces have captured the imagination of analysts, military planners and veterans far and wide. Whilst these incidents do indeed throw up vital lessons to be learnt and applied – there is an unfortunate deluge of shallow, biased, and incomplete arguments being pushed in the wake of these incidents. As a professional military establishment, it would behove the Indian Armed Forces to assess what were the underlying causes for these Russian tactical failures and address the shortcomings without any delays.
While the scope of lessons to be learnt from the ongoing conflict in Europe are immense, this article is limited to a few of the ‘big truths about modern naval warfare’ which need to be understood and applied in the Indian context.
The evolution of technology in the last two decades has significantly altered the way militaries can collect and collate information, locate targets, and deliver ordnance. The huge impact of unmanned aerial platforms – ranging from handheld commercial versions to large weaponised aircrafts – is one of the significant changes. Another is the immense visibility afforded to neutrals and civilians through commercial satellite imagery, which allows enthusiasts around the world to scour vast areas online and locate/identify naval platforms, albeit with some time delay – which has become a significant source of information during this conflict. These factors, among others, have resulted in a ubiquitous all-dimensional threat to naval forces, particularly those operating in proximity of hostile shores.
Traditionally, all naval ‘mission groups’ are designed to be capable of achieving their objective while being able to neutralise the anticipated threats in their area of operations. This continues to remain true even with the technological changes described above. There are two aspects about the sinking of the Moskva which need to be understood in this context. Firstly, the ship was deployed in an area within which a credible threat of enemy missile attacks existed. It should, therefore, have been continuously prepared to counter such threats. However, a wide reading of open-source analyses of the Moskva’s condition after being hit reveals some glaring shortcomings – sensors and weapons not in an optimum state of readiness, failure to detect and neutralise incoming aerial threats, and inability of the crew to undertake effective damage control, among others. Global commentators have commented extensively on the poor training levels of Russian sailors and soldiers, stemming from the conscription system – which may well have been an underlying contributor to this failure. Moreover, through extended deployments in contested, high-risk waters, maritime forces must sustain high levels of readiness and alertness effectively – which seems to have been compromised from the Moskva’s reported equipment state. At the very least, units undertaking such missions must be complemented by other similarly capable platforms or alternative assets to provide domain-specific protection/ support. Shore-based air defence could also be considered, but this has immense limitations – which will be touched upon later.
The next and possibly more egregious aspect is the routine and predictable deployment pattern Moskva was following for several days before she was attacked. The ship’s position was regularly identified on commercial satellite imagery by OSINT enthusiasts, and her regular movement pattern became clear to one and all! As a result, the actual location and targeting of the ship by Ukraine was hugely simplified, and the outcome was disastrous.
Such deployments are called ‘Zero PIM’ in naval parlance and are a strict no-no for planners! Deep introspection would be required by the staff which planned this deployment because the loss of the Moskva was largely attributable to them. Furthermore, in order to deploy platforms in such contested areas, it is essential that they be empowered with well-trained and cohesive crews who are experienced and prepared to work tirelessly for extended durations to provide the high levels of offensive and defensive readiness, externally and internally, which are imperative to mission success.
Maritime forces will be always deployed in harm’s way – that is their mandate, and no ship, submarine or aircraft will ever shy of such tasking. The key to success is in correctly ‘assessing and then addressing’ the risk. In modern naval warfare, task forces cannot be deployed near hostile shores without adequate air defence, including counter-drone capabilities. It is, therefore, imperative that forces be packaged for readiness in all dimensions, with particular emphasis on the air threat, which is evolving more rapidly at present. Realistic use of jointness in such ‘packaging’ would allow more effective missions to be planned and executed. The unfolding events of the Russia-Ukraine conflict may have provided vital insights in this aspect as well.
The events in and around Snake Island in the Black Sea have huge lessons for effective use of airpower in the maritime domain. The island claimed by Ukraine lies 35 km off its coast. For the Russians, the island is about 200 km from Crimea and 500 km from the mainland. As no known Russian air effort is operating from Crimea at present, it would be safe to say that any air support for operations in the vicinity of Snake Island was flying from a base over 500 km away.
Over the preceding few weeks, multiple small craft and patrol boats of the Russian federation operating in the vicinity of Snake Island had been successfully targeted by Ukrainian weaponised drones. Notably, a ship in the process of landing anti-aircraft missiles for the defence of the island was bombed when tied up at the jetty. Similarly, a helicopter transferring troops onto the island was also reportedly destroyed similarly. Ukraine’s shore-based strike aircraft have bombed Russian forces which had been landed successfully on the island. All this underscores that there was inadequate control over the airspace in the region.
Doctrinally, the Russian missions in and around Snake Island qualify loosely as ‘amphibious operations. One of the imperatives for such tasking is achieving a ‘Favourable Air Situation’ or FAS. Basically, this may be understood as a condition in which the airspace in the vicinity of one’s operations cannot be used by the enemy to launch attacks (or denied to the enemy to defend herself). Normally, FAS is achieved by using a combination of surface-based anti-air systems and air interceptor aircraft. The readiness level and ineffective employment of the first have already been identified as a significant cause of attrition. The latter, however, needs a better understanding.
The Russian Air Force is significantly larger and more capable than Ukraine’s. However, it was not able to provide any measure of effective air support to these operations, even for the short period while critical weapons and personnel were being landed on the island. Again, analysis reveals two possible reasons. First, the Air Force was not ‘asked’ to help – which would be an inexplicable failure in joint warfighting. Secondly, and more likely, the ranges involved limited the ability of shore-based aircraft to provide sustained cover. This was compounded by the sinking of the Moskva which was possibly the main platform providing aerial surveillance in the region.
Simply put, Russian shore-based interceptor aircraft could neither see their enemies nor stick around long enough to neutralise them! The defensive cover they provided was at best sporadic, which left gaps for the Ukrainians to exploit. The significantly greater degree of FAS which could have been provided to Russian naval forces in the Black Sea, if any carrier-based fighter aircraft had been available ‘in theatre’, is another related aspect for consideration.
A former Indian Naval Chief had remarked ‘in the navy, we need air power here and now!’… and the losses at Snake Island underscore this reality. The Indian Navy has always had a huge appreciation for the immense advantages which offensive airpower, flying from peninsular India or the island territories, can yield against an adversary. It, however, also recognises that such effects can be sustained for short periods only, particularly in the critical areas of the IOR, where the Navy will be required to operate for extended periods, to protect vital national interests.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has also been a stark reminder of losses in the war. Attrition is inherent to the nature of armed conflict – a fact which seemed to be getting forgotten in recent years. In the past two months, there have been innumerable losses to tanks, armoured vehicles, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and ships. Both sides have seen losses across these categories, at a scale which has not been witnessed in recent memory. Some voices have immediately been raised about ‘death of the tank’ or ‘death of the large ship’, all of which demonstrate a lack of honest analytical application. Platforms which go into battle have always suffered attrition, from the day of the horse and elephant – to modern stealth bombers. These ‘new’ arguments are almost always based on the fact that long-range weapons can now target these platforms so easily that they are becoming too vulnerable to be effective.
Surprisingly, the people making these assertions seem to ignore the truth that Russia has reportedly fired significantly more precision-guided weapons onto Ukraine than vice versa. The results of these attacks have, however, not seemed to be as devastating for Ukraine as expected. Ukraine’s air defence over a large part of its territory reportedly remains potent, and its ground forces have regrouped and even taken the tactical advantage in some areas. Consequently, the rush to write obituaries for fighting assets, based on limited analytical rigour needs to be reined in.
As a naval veteran, I would even venture to state that the better way forward is larger ships, with more credible offence-defence capabilities in air, surface, and sub-surface warfare. This would provide the Navy with high-survivability platforms which could go more aggressively into ‘high-risk’ areas to undertake the missions which are critical to our national interest.
Another likely lesson which will emerge in due course is the effectiveness of the Russian blockade on Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea. Even though no blockade has been formally declared and direct naval action against Ukraine has been minimal, commercial maritime activity in Ukraine has virtually ceased – as reflected on multiple open-source shipping tracking sites and applications. The economic implications of these will make a very significant study in days ahead, as it would re-emphasise the continued effectiveness of naval economic warfare. While in Ukraine’s case, the figures may not be as significant as they would be for most other maritime-heavy economies, they will nevertheless reveal the potent and credible threat which continues to be posed by naval blockades in modern conflict.
To summarise, some of the enduring truths one could glean from the ongoing conflict would be:
- the naval battle space is getting increasingly transparent due to the wide array of manned and unmanned aerial platforms as well as satellite-based sensors.
- consequently, it is even more important to make a comprehensive, realistic, and logical assessment of the operational situation.
- a Favourable Air Situation is an imperative for sustained operations close to a hostile coast.
- the ability to achieve and sustain FAS increases exponentially when air power is available here and now – at sea; normally be provided by aircraft carriers.
- overlooking basic tactical principles is a recipe for disaster, even for platforms with new technologies and credible weapons/sensors.
- the importance of effective training is even more today, given the rapidly changing technologies and ever-quickening speed of events in conflict.
- even the hint or possibility of a blockade could cause economic fallout with commercial shipping preferring to steer clear of warzones.
- Commercial satellite services are available to whoever wants to buy information. These include all types of satellite imagery and information, across the globe, including all international waters. It has increased risk of early detection/positional compromise of surface forces while also adding to fog of war in the information domain, due to large number of OSINT analyses.
To conclude, while the ongoing conflict will undoubtedly throw up a huge number of lessons to be learnt or re-learnt by militaries there is a need to be honest in analysis and conclusions. The threats posed by new technologies are immense but the soldier at the frontline will certainly be doomed if such analyses are not undertaken honestly and biased by the perspectives of any service or arm. The Moskva was let down by a combination of poor situational estimation (by operational planners), multiple tactical errors in movements, readiness, as well as ineffective responses by an ill-equipped crew – a mix of failings that doomed her to her unfortunate fate.
I do not know the future of the large ship, but I do realise that ‘ignoring these truths’ will be hugely damaging to any naval operations we undertake in future.
Capt. D K Sharma (Retd)