On April 14, Ukraine shocked the world again by launching two Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles, score decisive blows that sank the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet Moskva. Named after the Russian capital Moscow, this ancient symbol of Russian naval supremacy in the war against Ukraine carried a crew of around 500 and was fully equipped with an arsenal of anti-ship, anti-aircraft and air defense. Despite its ominous appearance, this pride of the Russian Federation was unable to hold its own against a small number of ASCMs, and it paid the ultimate price.
The repercussions of the sinking of the Moskva were multiple. First and foremost, it was a strategic success for Ukraine: taking out the deadliest Russian warship of the war and forcing the remaining fleet to retreat further from the coast. Second, the sinking is an inescapable political issue for Russian President Vladimir Putin. His disinformation campaign in Russia, unable to suppress the news of this accident, must now answer for this wrecked ship and the welfare of its crew.
There is another message from this disaster, however, that the U.S. Navy and Congress must consider when faced with long-term spending decisions for our 21st century fleet: if a relatively short-range missile inexpensive as Neptune can destroy one of the largest warships in the Russian Navy, how can we ensure that the ships of our fleet are not doomed to the same fate?
This question becomes even more serious when one considers the sophistication of China’s anti-ship missile technology, which dramatically eclipses the range and firepower of the Ukrainian Neptune missile. For comparison, the Neptune has a range of about 200 miles, travels at subsonic speeds, and has a warhead designed to cripple but not necessarily sink a large ship. China has anti-ship missiles like the Dong Feng 21, or DF21 – which has a range of around 1,000 miles – and the DF26, which has a range of around 2,500 miles.
If Ukraine’s Neptune ASCMs easily upset Russia’s naval presence in the Black Sea, then clearly the US Navy and Congress must be asking whether our stimulus threat is capable of doing the same.
The US Navy has been working hard on countermeasures, such as longer-range radars and integrated air and missile defense systems, both of which are being built into the construction of new ships. The Navy has also expressed confidence in the contribution of our submarine fleet with a higher budget for submarine construction and plans to extend the life of older Los Angeles-class submarines.
These ships are relatively impervious to the ASCM threat; our surface fleet is not. Today’s surface fleet must be able to detect, track, and engage our adversaries’ most capable anti-ship missiles, and have the structural integrity to survive battle damage.
President Joe Biden’s proposed budget for the Navy reflects the need to think about this strategic challenge. For one thing, the Navy’s $28 billion shipbuilding request is the largest ever. By comparison, President Donald Trump’s last budget in 2020 called for $19 billion. But Biden’s request also seeks to decommission a number of legacy surface ships that predate the threat posed by modern anti-ship missiles. Predictably, this decision was met with a chorus of protest, but nonetheless the fact remains: every American ship that sails into danger must pose a relevant threat and be combat-capable.
Among the disputed ships proposed for decommissioning are five Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The Navy, in its annual shipbuilding report to Congresscited several serious concerns about the Ticonderoga-class cruiser, including “the poor material condition of these ships due to their age” and “continuing concerns about the legacy sensor and [hull, mechanical and electrical] system reliability. The Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, said the cruiser “SPY-1A, SP-1B [radars are] simply not enough given the threat we face. By comparison, the oldest Ticonderoga-class cruiser proposed for decommissioning was commissioned in 1986, just four years after the Russian Slava-class cruiser Moskva.
Although it is not clear if the combat system on board the Moskva failed her crew, it was undoubtedly her age and seaworthiness that played a role in her demise as the crew was overwhelmed by fire. , smoke and sea water.
A lesson the brave nation of Ukraine has shown the world is a lesson Congress should heed: We must not only invest in a strong navy, but also a navy that can survive. As Congress begins to shape the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023, we must honestly consider whether the platforms we put in place to engage our adversaries are both relevant and capable of surviving in modern naval warfare.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., serves on the House Armed Services Committee and chairs its Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee. He founded and co-chairs the Friends of Australia Committee as well as the AUKUS Task Force (otherwise known as the AUKUS Committee).