Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Russian Warship and the South China Sea

What lessons does the sinking of the Moskva have for Taiwan?

By , a journalist and former officer in the British Royal Navy.
A Taiwanese frigate launches a U.S.-made Standard missile.
A Taiwanese frigate launches a U.S.-made Standard missile.
A Taiwanese frigate launches a U.S.-made Standard missile on July 26. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

On April 14, a country left almost without a navy secured a stunning victory at sea. Ukraine used two land-based anti-ship missiles (ASMs) to sink a major surface combatant: the Russian-guided missile cruiser Moskva. It was a shocking victory—and one that may have lessons for a potential conflict 5,000 miles away, where China may one day use its own arsenal of ASMs to keep the United States and its allies out of the Western Pacific.

Ukraine’s use of a couple of souped-up Kh-35 missiles looks like asymmetric warfare, the sea version of what Ukrainian land forces skillfully used against the Russian army in the early days of the war. Ukraine landed a haymaker on the Moskva, but it was more a target of opportunity than part of a clear strategy. That may limit its application to other conflicts—but it is still being seized on as part of the dense arguments over the best strategy for Taiwan.

For decades, the U.S. Navy’s surface battle groups have been able to steam up to the enemy’s coastline pretty much uncontested. As late as April 13, Russians felt similarly confident about the Black Sea, historically dominated by Russian naval power.

On April 14, a country left almost without a navy secured a stunning victory at sea. Ukraine used two land-based anti-ship missiles (ASMs) to sink a major surface combatant: the Russian-guided missile cruiser Moskva. It was a shocking victory—and one that may have lessons for a potential conflict 5,000 miles away, where China may one day use its own arsenal of ASMs to keep the United States and its allies out of the Western Pacific.

Ukraine’s use of a couple of souped-up Kh-35 missiles looks like asymmetric warfare, the sea version of what Ukrainian land forces skillfully used against the Russian army in the early days of the war. Ukraine landed a haymaker on the Moskva, but it was more a target of opportunity than part of a clear strategy. That may limit its application to other conflicts—but it is still being seized on as part of the dense arguments over the best strategy for Taiwan.

For decades, the U.S. Navy’s surface battle groups have been able to steam up to the enemy’s coastline pretty much uncontested. As late as April 13, Russians felt similarly confident about the Black Sea, historically dominated by Russian naval power.

Anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) is a U.S. buzzword first applied to describe Beijing’s plans to militarily deter the United States from China’s own maritime sphere. For American warships, the most potentially lethal part of these plans is the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), the largest ground-based missile army in the world. It’s a branch of arms largely foreign to the West but a staple of many autocrats’ parades. The PLARF includes more than 2,000 conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, with a focus on anti-ship variants that can target U.S. carrier groups in the South Chine Sea or reinforce Taiwan in the event of a war from bases near the Chinese coast. The PLARF would try to overwhelm U.S. and allied shipboard defensive systems through sheer numbers. Military planners there were likely thrilled to see what Ukraine accomplished with a couple of truck-mounted ASMs.

Yet the Moskva, commissioned in 1983, was a vintage Cold War ship, armed to the teeth with carrier-killing missiles and no one to fire them at. Contrast that with the increasingly militarized Western Pacific, where the scale and sophistication of air and sea platforms, weapons, sensors, and pace of technological punches and counterpunches are much greater.

The United States and its allies would deploy soft-kill and hard-kill countermeasures to defeat China’s newer land-based ballistic and hypersonic anti-ship missiles, the latter now or soon able to cover much of the South China Sea. Whether Beijing has the matching intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities is up for debate. Hitting a ship at a great distance is a step-by-step process, from initial location to tracking, engaging, and finally post-battle assessment—together termed the “kill chain” model.

As this mini arms race continues, the United States is looking to, among other measures, “quad-pack” RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles into the Mark 41 Vertical Launching System of cruisers and destroyers. That means four missiles per launch cell instead of one, enabling U.S. ships to better defend themselves against massed attacks, and with deeper magazines that remain on station longer, which improves troops’ prospects of attack when their ammunition resupply opportunities look dim. The United States is also trying to develop anti-ship cruise missile lasers—a promising technology but one that’s still some distance from deployment.

Who has the upper hand? “My personal guess is that we are on the cusp of being able to defend ourselves again, but that does depend on newfangled technologies’ living up to their hype. So it’s not a guess I make with any confidence,” said James Holmes, the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College.

If Chinese President Xi Jinping agrees with Holmes’s assessment, then he might think about attacking Taiwan sooner rather than later. “I do worry that a now-or-never mindset might take hold,” Holmes said.

But when it comes to Taiwan, A2/AD works both ways. Beijing wants to keep U.S. ships away, but any invasion involves getting its own army across what’s already one of the most heavily defended stretches of water in the world. The sinking of the Russian cruiser gave U.S. lawmakers a timely cudgel with which to try to persuade recalcitrant Taiwanese military leaders of the value of a “hedgehog defense,” the island bristling with missiles like a hedgehog’s spines as both a defense and deterrent to potential aggressors.

“For the most part, rather than high-end systems vulnerable to [Chinese] attack, this means focusing on cost-effective, mobile, survivable technologies that provide the most deterrent effect for the lowest cost—like anti-ship missiles which the Ukrainians have used to great effect,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to Foreign Policy.

But Taipei is not there yet, and some of the existing systems are misplaced. “It’s maddening when senior people in Taipei go out and threaten to strike Beijing with the island’s very limited inventory of long-range, surface-to-surface missiles,” Holmes said. “What would amount to revenge strikes would do little good in terms of what matters, meaning the island’s survival as a democratic polity.”

The idea of Taiwan rolling out a version of A2/AD against a People’s Liberation Army amphibious invasion is not new. Back in 2010, Holmes and Asia-Pacific expert Toshi Yoshihara argued for just such instruments and strategy for Taipei, noting that in many ways it would be copying a Maoist maritime spin on sea denialism as used by mainland China itself in the decades before it embarked on building a navy that can operate globally. But Taiwan’s military leadership has been notoriously stubborn, with their hearts set on major weapons systems, cookie-cutter replicas of other middling powers, and a surface fleet of destroyers and frigates. The Moskva sinking could potentially change that.

For both the United States and China, land-based ASMs would reinforce a centuries-old constant of naval warfare: Bad things happen to ships the closer they get to the enemy’s shoreline. Three centuries ago, it was coastal batteries and forts. These days, faster weapons and cluttered electronic environments inshore also create shorter response times, whereas injured ships have longer distances to travel back to one’s own bases and repair facilities. The landlubber shooter meanwhile has an easier job finding and tracking targets when they are relatively close inshore. There’s a reason former British Vice Adm. Horatio Nelson is credited with saying “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort.”

During the Falklands War in 1982, for instance, the British carriers Invincible and Hermes were held so far to the east, for fear of Argentine ASMs, that a joke circulated among the task force that they were to be awarded the Burma Star, a medal for service in what is now Myanmar.

How distant could a U.S. carrier strike group stay away from the Chinese coast or islands in the South China Sea, where the Chinese have built bases, and still be effective? Not as far as in the 1980s. Former U.S. Navy Secretary John Lehman and Lt. Cmdr. Steven Wills of the CNA make the case that today’s carrier-borne aircraft do not have the range nor payloads of previous types, such as the F-14 or A-6. That means carriers have to come closer to the action.

Compounding the problem, during the Cold War, carrier air wings had dedicated air refueling assets. They no longer exist. An unmanned aerial tanker, the MQ-25 Stingray, is in the works and would fly from the decks of carriers, extending the range of F-18s, but it won’t be operational until at least 2026.

But the problem is just as acute for Beijing. What major surface units would China venture in an invasion of Taiwan? Its shiny new carriers? In 2016, historian Stephen Biddle and strategic security expert Ivan Oelrich envisioned a “U.S. sphere of influence around allied landmasses [out to about 500 miles], a Chinese sphere of influence over the Chinese mainland, and contested battle space covering much of the South and East China Seas, wherein neither power enjoys wartime freedom of surface or air movement.”

Much has happened since they wrote that. It is just as possible that in a future war, the South China Sea would not be contested but instead vacated, a maritime no man’s land as deserted as the space between Western trench systems in World War I and denuded except for submarines patrolling beneath the waves.

Another question the Moskva’s destruction has produced is just how fragile ships are. Estimating how many strikes a surface ship can survive is both an imprecise science and a largely classified one. Based on a rough formula, one retired U.S. Navy commander recently wrote that the Moskva should have been able to withstand up to five Neptune missiles. Wills estimated to FP that the number should have been three to four missiles.

Results from the USS America supercarrier’s SINKEX exercise in 2005 are classified. In their 2021 book, Lehman and Wills seek to arrive at an answer by examining major fires that happened aboard U.S. carriers in the 1960s and use them as a proxy for an anti-ship cruise missile strike. Their conclusion is that a Ford- or Nimitz-class could take a beating, though the authors acknowledge that a deck or hangar fire does not have the energetics of an impacting subsonic cruise missile—let alone an incoming supersonic, ballistic ASM.

Conversely, in 1994, a Naval Postgraduate School student (and naval officer) named John Schulte submitted his thesis looking at the effectiveness of cruise missiles in littoral warfare. To help, he constructed a data set of all previous missile hits against ships. He found that an average of 1.2 hits put ships out of action and 1.8 missile strikes sank the ships. The Moskva fits that profile. The Russian cruiser’s crew appeared to have been asleep at the wheel at the time of the strike. Schulte’s thesis, declassified in 2009, found this was fairly common, too. He created a special category called “defendable targets”—warships that had the tools to fight off an ASM attack but did not and were hit, usually because of inattention, defense systems switched off or not working, or situational confusion, among others. Often, the victim never even got off a countermeasure. The eventual havoc wreaked was proportional to the size, number, and sophistication of weapons used.

Worse for defenders, the failure to knock down every missile in a salvo is potentially disastrous. Retired Navy Capt. Jeffrey Cares, co-author of 2021’s Fighting the Fleet: Operational Art and Modern Fleet Combat, has this take: “Why would we think we should go into combat and not take hits? Because we think our systems are that good? … Well, the joke’s on us.”

Of the ships ever hit by an ASM, most, like the Moskva, were subject to just one or two missiles. No vessel has had to fend off a barrage of anti-ship cruise missiles, as was expected in A2/AD-type scenarios against the Soviet Union and now potentially in the South China Sea.

Moskva was a big, well-armed ship. The United States builds big, well-armed ships in relatively small numbers compared to China. “When you are imbalanced like we are and can afford only highly capable platforms in small numbers, you greatly simplify an adversary’s targeting problem,” Cares said. “Everything that the [People’s Liberation Army Navy] might shoot at is worth hitting.”

The more pressing question would be whether a ship can remain operational or get quickly repaired and be back on the line after a missile hit. In a short-term conflict, if one missile isn’t fatal but suspends flight operations and forces a carrier to retire from theater, then it is pretty much as good as sunk.

However, clearly the Chinese themselves don’t believe aircraft carriers are dinosaurs quite yet given their own rapid building program. To some extent, carriers are a vanity metric, the equivalent of buying a Porsche for a midlife crisis, but the People’s Liberation Army Navy must not think them entirely doctrinally obsolete or fatally vulnerable given the resources they are pouring into them. In June, it launched China’s first flat-deck carrier, the Fujian, and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments recently estimated that China might afford an additional three carriers over the coming 10-year period. The heyday of the big ship might be over, but it’s not obsolete yet.

Alexander Wooley is a journalist and former officer in the British Royal Navy.

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