Surface Forces: Russian Black Sea Fleet Disaster

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April 15, 2022: About a hundred kilometers off the southwest Ukrainian coast, the Russian Navy suffered an embarrassing defeat when the 12,000-ton Moskva, flagship of its Black Sea fleet, was hit by two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles. Russia denied this and said the explosions and fires on the Moskva were the result of an accident on the ship that damage-control efforts by the 500-man crew were unable to handle, leading to major ammunition explosions.


Moskva was directing operations off the Ukrainian port of Odessa at the time. As the flagship of the Black Sea fleet Moskva had senior officers and their staffs on board to plan and direct Russian efforts to attack Ukrainian ports, especially Odessa, and turn Ukraine into a landlocked nation.

Russia later admitted Moskva sank while being towed back to its home port in the nearby Crimean Peninsula. Russia will not admit Moskva was hit by two Ukrainian anti-ship missiles because the Moskva had multiple defenses against such attacks. Apparently Ukraine used one or more of their Turkish TB2 UAVs to track and harass Moskva and that enabled the two Neptune missiles to get through and start the fires that the crew could not handle and led to the abandon ship order. Ukraine may also have used ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) on Moskva to enable the missile strike.

Russia is trying to blame the loss of the ship on massive crew incompetence rather than admit the ship was hit by two Ukrainian missiles. To do so would also include crew incompetence; as in not turning on all the anti-missile defenses because they were distracted by the Ukrainian UAVs. It might also indicate that the missile defenses are inadequate. With the ship at the bottom of the Black Sea, the crew will have to explain what happened and why.

The Neptune is an upgrade of the Russian Kh-35 anti-ship missile. Ukraine played a major role in designing and supplying components for the Kh-35. That was because work on Kh-35, the Russian answer to missiles like the American Harpoon, began in the 1980s, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union and a major component of the massive Soviet weapons defense design and manufacturing industries. After the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, independent Ukraine continued doing business with Russia and Kh-35 development was completed in 1996. The Russian Navy procurement budget was so small that Russia could not afford to buy Kh-35s until 2003, Meanwhile, Kh-35 was popular with export customers, who still account for most of the Kh-35s produced in Russia.

Ukraine decided they could improve the Kh-35 design and did so, completing that in 2019 and delivering missiles in early 2021 for use in coastal defense. Neptune was heavier than Kh-35, longer range (300 kilometers), with a much better guidance system and several other unspecified improvements.

The Kh-35 is similar to the American Harpoon but lighter at 520 kg (1,150 pounds), compared to 728 kg and has less range; 130 kilometers compared to 224 for the latest version of Harpoon. The Kh-35 can also be fired from helicopters, aircraft or shore batteries. The Kh-35 has not been used in combat yet but it appears to be a competent Harpoon-type weapon. Neptune weighs nearly a ton (870 kg) and has already been successfully used against Russian transports and warships off the coast.

Moskva returned to service in early 2020 after finally completing an extensive refurbishment. Moskva is one of the oldest large Russian surface warships because it was the first of the Slava class cruisers and entered service in 1982. Three more were launched and two entered service in 1986 and 1989. The remaining one was launched in 1990 and was nearly complete when work was halted in 1991 because this ship, renamed the Ukrayina (Ukraine) because the shipyard where the work was being done was in the newly independent nation of Ukraine, now belonged to Ukraine. There was no money to complete work on the Ukrayina.

Work on nearly all unfinished Russian Navy warships was halted in the early 1990s because Russia was broke. That plus nationalism and long-suppressed separatism were the main reasons the Soviet Union disintegrated into 14 new nations, the largest being Russia and the second largest being Ukraine. The dissolution deal had all the new nations taking ownership of any Soviet assets, including military and economic ones, belonging to the new nation the assets were now in.

The Ukrainian Navy initially consisted of nearly 70 former Soviet Black Sea fleet warships. The problem was that most of the officers on these new ships were Russians who did not want to change their nationality. The rest of the Soviet military had the same problem but that was solved by allowing the Russian officers and troops to transfer to Russia, where most of them were demobilized. That meant most of the former Soviet land, air force and strategic rocket (ICBM) units were disbanded and Russia, with the help of the United States, bought and dismantled the nuclear weapons based in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus as part of a post-Cold War nuclear disarmament treaty. This agreement led to a sharp reduction in American and former Soviet ICBMs, and nuclear warheads in general. Russia went along with this because they feared Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus would hold on to the nukes as insurance against future Russian aggression. Although Russia retained the secret launch codes for these warheads, Ukraine was the one nation with the technical capacity to modify the warheads to eliminate the need for the Russian launch codes. Many people in these three nations favored giving the warheads back and Russia signed agreements guaranteeing Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan safety against any future Russian aggression. Russia violated this treaty in 2014 when it seized Crimea and was still fighting to annex part of eastern Ukraine (Donbas) in 2022. In 2014 the successful takeover of Crimea meant Russia obtained possession of 54 of the 67 remaining Soviet era Black Sea fleet warships.

A 1997 treaty with Ukraine that settled the Black Sea Fleet problems involved leaving a lot of Russian officers still operating Black Sea Fleet ships. While now classified as Ukrainians, many of these Russian officers and technical specialists still considered themselves Russian and this helped with the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014. The Black Sea fleet ships that were not repossessed by Russia were those in other Ukrainian ports. Crimea had always contained most of the naval bases and shipyards that supported the Black Sea fleet. One of the ships the Russians did not get was the fourth Slava class cruiser, which was still 95 percent and rusting away in a Ukrainian port. Even after 2014 the Russians were willing to buy back the fourth Slava, and complete it. Ukraine was tempted but refused because Ukrainian troops were still fighting, and drying, to hold onto the Donbas. In 2017 Ukraine decided to scrap the Ukrayina because Ukraine never had the money to complete the ship and really didn’t need it because until 2014 they had the largest fleet in the Black Sea. Russia also realized they could not afford to complete the Ukrayina, which had deteriorated greatly since work was abandoned in 1991.

The other three Slavas were worth refurbishing but even that was a financial strain. The Slava (now Moskva) was the flagship of the Black Sea fleet in 1991 but was not in Ukraine at the time and the largely Russian crew declared allegiance to Russia and managed to get away with it. Most of the former Soviet Black Sea fleet ships were unable to do that and became part of the Ukrainian Navy.

The Soviets had planned to build ten Slavas and all were to be built in shipyards that were Ukrainian after 1991. Four Slavas were already built or under construction but even before 1991, Russia realized it could not afford to build that many and work on the fifth, unlaunched, Slava was halted in 1990 and the partially completed hull was scrapped.

Although the first Slava was only nine years old in 1991, it already needed refurbishment. Towards the end of the Soviet Union work on new ships declined in quality and the Slava was an example of that. The Slava was scheduled for refurbishment in 1991 in a Russian controlled shipyard but work was stalled because Russia was still broke and the Russian military budget had been cut by over 80 percent. There was not even enough money to operate or maintain a lot of the warships that Russia had inherited from the Soviet Union. Russia was in possession of most of those ships because, except for the Black Sea fleet, the other named fleets (Northern in north Russia, Pacific in the Russian Far East, and the Baltic Fleet) were based in ports still a part of Russia. Most of the refurbishment on Slava was completed by 2000 and it was renamed Moskva because the city of Moscow had raised money to complete the work. The Moskva then became the flagship of what was left of the pre-1991 Russian Black Sea fleet. Slava wasn’t the only Soviet Black Sea ship that was not in a Ukrainian port in 1991. Parts of the Black Sea coast were still part of post-1991 Russia and the refurbed Moskva was the most powerful vessel of its new Black Sea fleet, the smallest fleet in the Russian Navy. The Ukrainian Navy was much larger and that continued to annoy the Russians. The rest of the refurb work that was not completed in 2000 was now to be completed starting in 2016. Once more, lack of money delayed work and it was not finished until 2019.

The last Slava to enter service in 1989 and was stationed in the Pacific where it spent most of the 1990s tied up in port because all the budget could afford was a skeleton crew and enough fuel to keep essential equipment in working order. This Slava was returned to service, after some refurbishment, in 2008. The second Slava, which entered service in 1986, completed its refurbishment in 2016. Back then one Slava was based in the Baltic, one in the Black Sea (with frequent trips to the Mediterranean) and the third in the Pacific.

These 11,500-ton ships look impressive, despite their elderly weapons and electronics. Each carries a crew of 485, two 130mm cannon, sixteen P-500 anti-ship missiles, 64 S-300PMU long-range anti-aircraft missiles, 48 short-range OSA-M anti-aircraft missiles, six 30mm anti-missile autocannon, two launchers for rocket-powered depth charges, ten 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes and a helicopter. The refurbishments were necessary to upgrade engines and other mechanical components, as well as missiles and electronics. This work takes two or three years.

The refurbishment of the larger Kirov class nuclear battlecruisers and a non-nuclear aircraft carrier took even longer. These refurbs are expensive and don’t do much to modernize these 1980s era warships. But these ships mainly serve as a symbol of fading Russian naval might. This means a lot for many Russians because for over two decades, from the late 1960s to 1991 Russia was a major naval power. That was never the case before and won’t be again as long as the U.S. and China maintain their fleets.

The Slavas are likely to be refurbed again because their replacements, the Lebed class cruisers, were recently canceled and the larger and older Kirov class battlecruisers are fading fast. So is the tradition of the Russian fleet operating large surface warships.

The loss of Moskva is a major embarrassment for Russia, which is already trying to deal with the poor performance of the army and air force in Ukraine since late February. Ukrainian morale has soared because of a successful defense against Russian attacks. Russia continues its offensive where it can and threatens to use nuclear weapons, a move that is very unpopular inside Russia. The Moskva is the largest surface warship to be lost in combat since World War II, which ended in 1945. Russia has lost a number of major warships, especially nuclear subs to design or performance defects as well as crew misbehavior. Such was the case in 2000 when the new nuclear submarine Kursk was lost while submerged during a training exercise because of a faulty torpedo that detonated after being loaded into a torpedo tube. That set off several other torpedoes. Design and construction flaws in the new boat prevented the sub and any of its crew from surviving the incident. Most of the sub was brought to the surface and examined but most of the details in the extensive examination of the wreckage remain state secrets. Russia did make some changes in the construction of new subs and the training of crew. That did not eliminate all accidents and loss of life aboard Russian nuclear subs but did reduce the incidence and severity of accidents. So much money and resources were devoted to the submarine program that Russia lost the ability to build large warships and has concentrated on smaller (frigates, corvettes and coastal patrol boats) vessels which proved safe, reliable and useful.

 


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