May 23, 2022

Don't Overread Moskva

Currently topping The Atlantic's "Most Popular" list is an article claiming "A Whole Age of Warfare Sank With the Moskva". Unfortunately, it bungles the history involved completely, to the point that you get an emergency Naval Gazing.

The author begins by talking about the Battle of Hampton Roads, ending the section "In one day, every wooden ship of the line of every naval power became immediately obsolete." This is clear nonsense. Hampton Roads gets a lot of press because it was the first clash between ironclads, but it was clear that the ironclad was on its way. Britain and France had both begun to build fleets of proper ironclad battleships (and not just coastal vessels like Monitor and Virginia) and events at Sinop and Kinburn had shown both the vulnerability of wooden warships and the durability of the ironclads. But we don't talk about Crimea, so that's all overlooked.

Then he turns to Pearl Harbor, and things get worse. "If the battle of the ironclads settled once and for all the wood-versus-iron debate, Japanese carrier-based aircraft settled the battleship-versus-carrier debate by sinking the cream of America’s battleship fleet in a single morning." I'm not sure what's most baffling here. The suggestion that there was a debate between wood and iron, or the idea that Pearl Harbor somehow settled the debate between battleship and carrier. Pearl Harbor is unique in scale and the fact that it happened to the United States and without warning, but it wasn't even the first time carrier-based planes had sunk anchored battleships. It's also worth noting that if the carriers had been in port, they would probably have fared quite a lot worse than the battleships did, as indeed they did under air attack in general. A better point to locate "the demise of the battleship" is three days later, when Force Z was sunk while alerted and at sea, although even then, battleships at sea proved surprisingly hard to sink through the end of war and played a valuable role through the early 50s.

All of this is leading up to the main point, questioning if Moskva's sinking is ushering in a new "age of warfare". To which I can only say that the late 60s called and want their theories back. Moskva was far from the first warship sunk by anti-ship missiles. That honor arguably belongs to HMS Egret, although the threat didn't receive wide public attention until the Israeli destroyer Eilat was sunk by anti-ship missiles in 1967. And the result at the time was a great deal of hand-wringing and claims that the surface ship was obsolete. But that was over half a century ago, and while ASMs had some subsequent success, navies have learned to deal with them. A modern warship is far less vulnerable to missile attack than its predecessors were 40 years ago thanks to systems like Aegis, and everything we know about Moskva points to her being sunk not because her defenses were overwhelmed by a new generation of extremely deadly missiles but because her defensive systems were turned off. It wouldn't be the first time that had happened, either. A more representative example is the USS Mason, attacked three separate times by anti-ship missiles in 2016, all of which either missed or were shot down.

The author then launches into a long discussion of the USMC's new "Force Design 2030", which involves the Marine Corps dispersing across the Pacific to launch missile attacks from small islands on Chinese warships. I have mixed feelings on it. On one hand, it is nice to see some part of the US military doing something that looks like a very serious attempt to fight in a new way. On the other, the way that they've chosen doesn't make a lot of sense. Maybe we're just cursed to screw up badly every time we try to do "Transformation". In particular, the supposed superiority of the "anti-platform" seems at odds with what the Chinese themselves are doing.

But then we come to the end, where the article completes the bingo card of bad historical analogies by bringing up the Maginot Line. While this is a byword for failed military solutions, it in fact did exactly what it was designed to do by forcing the Germans to go around it. The French plan was to defeat the Germans in Belgium and northwestern France, something they conspicuously failed to do for rather complicated reasons.

This article is an excellent example of Santayana's dictum that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", in this case with scare-mongering about the anti-ship missile. Making it even worse, the author is clearly trying to draw from history, but without taking the time to get deeper than a few well-worn and deeply-flawed tropes.


  1. May 23, 2022Ancient Oak said...

    While this is a byword for failed military solutions, it in fact did exactly what it was designed to do by forcing the Germans to go around it.

    Just to check: is it really not failed one? Plenty of systems familiar to me (not military ones!) worked as designed but were a complete failure nevertheless because design was a failure.

    But may it is more common in programming.

  2. May 23, 2022bean said...

    The whole plan failed, but the typical narrative is "the French thought that the Maginot Line would protect them, and didn't think about the Germans going around", which isn't what happened. It may well have been a bad plan, but it was at least a reasonable one instead of being stupid.

  3. May 23, 2022Echo said...

    "Hey, we need a veteran to write an article about army things for us. Does anyone here know one?"

    "Uhh, I know of one. His novels won a carnegie and he spent years in Afghanistan, so he must be an expert in all that stuff"

    "Does he know about naval strategy?"

    "Well his father is in my yacht club, so presumably"

  4. May 23, 2022bean said...

    Yeah, that's how it comes off. I thought of ending this post with a reminder that a military doesn't actually train that many people in understanding militaries, but couldn't think of a way to phrase it that wasn't a bit more confrontational than I wanted.

  5. May 23, 2022Chuck said...

    There is something amusing about implying that a ship being sunk by an antiship missile will usher in an unheralded chapter in naval warfare when the ship in question is covered in antiship missiles. That said I think the sinking does underscore how unforgiving modern naval combat can be, though I suppose in some ways the situation has been much the same since the advent of the submarine.

  6. May 23, 2022James S said...

    When I read this article on the Atlantic I just knew you were going to hate it! I thought the use of word "obsolete" was particularly ridiculous--the development of arms and armour has always been incremental and I struggle to think of any new technology which instantly made another obsolete. Repeating rifles (like the Spencer from the ACW for example) were a huge stop up from than a single shot (especially if you ignore the logistical challenges with ammunition). But even though having 5 times the volume of your enemies was a massive advance, it's not like the single shots were suddenly useless. Repeating rifles are so good now that I think it would be fair to say a Springfield is obsolete but it took years to refine the technology and tactics. I can't think of anything that happens overnight!

    By the way, Bean, you likely saw this already as I am aware you read his blog, but Bret Devereaux provided a very similar rebuttal as yours in a twitter thread yesterday --

  7. May 24, 2022bean said...

    There is something amusing about implying that a ship being sunk by an antiship missile will usher in an unheralded chapter in naval warfare when the ship in question is covered in antiship missiles.

    That is a really good point, and I wish I'd thought of it.

    @James S

    Someone pointing me to his twitter thread is how I found out about the article. I just thought that there was enough space between his version and what I wanted to see to write my own.

  8. May 24, 2022Doctorpat said...

    This argument that self propelled explosive weapons mean the large warship is obsolete isn't really dating back to the 1960s. It's really dating back to the invention of torpedo boats in the 1860s.

    Meanwhile, the stereotype of the Maginot line reminds me of the same argument about the Great Wall of China.

    "Oh the idiots. They built this huge wall and it didn't stop the Jurchen in the 1100s, the Mongols in the 1200s, the Manchu in the 1600s or the Japanese in the 1900s. What a waste of money."

    I never thought about this, and just accepted the common myth, until I saw a documentary that was made in China, by Chinese. And while I know they are going to be biased, their arguments much more closely align with other facts. Namely that

    1. It was never intended to stop a vast army every few hundred years.

    2. It was intended to stop a few thousand raiders every couple of years who'd sack and burn towns and villages, a few hundred every couple of months who'd sack and burn farms, a dozen raiders every couple of weeks who'd rob and rape individuals.

    3. This constant low level of raids meant there were hundreds of km of farmland along the borders with zero farms. And China wanted that land to be usable.

    4. With the wall that area rapidly filled with productive, and taxable, farms. So the wall did its job. QED.

  9. May 24, 2022cur said...


    my understanding is that it wasn't particularly good at stopping low level raids either, because the raiders would just bribe the gate guards.

  10. May 24, 2022Philistine said...

    People have also been yelling about how the fighting in Ukraine shows that modern man-portable ATGMs mean the end of the tank. (Meanwhile, the Ukrainians themselves - who presumably have a lot of information on just how effective modern ATGMs can be - keep asking for more tanks, please.) And while I haven't seen it (yet), I wouldn't be at all surprised to see people using the Russian failure to gain and exploit air superiority over Ukraine as a basis for similar arguments regarding manned aircraft. (Meanwhile, the Ukrainians themselves - who presumably have a lot of information on just how effective modern IADSs can be, or even just handing out tons and tons of MANPADS - keep asking for more aircraft, please.)

  11. May 25, 2022Doctorpat said...

    @cur, sure the wall wasn't a perfect barrier. Organised raiding groups could get through, but all the casual "what will we do this week?" type casual raids get demotivated. The evidence on the ground was that farming, which was previously kept far from the grazing lands, now expanded up to the wall.

    @Philistine, I've definitely seen people arguing "the drones in the Ukraine prove that manned aircraft, especially the F35, are obsolete". At a wild guess, there is an actual argument here, not on military grounds, but just because of western attitudes to pilot losses. But public panic about pilot losses go out the window once a war changes from a remote intervention on the other side of the world, and becomes a war of national survival.

  12. May 25, 2022Anonymous said...

    Would drones work if Russia had decent EW?


    At a wild guess, there is an actual argument here, not on military grounds, but just because of western attitudes to pilot losses.

    If you have an all-volunteer military then they knew the risk when they signed up but even so if the job can be done without putting anyone on our side at risk then why risk anyone?

  13. May 28, 2022AlphaGamma said...

    Apparently the Moskva is a first, but a much more specific one- the first large warship to be sunk by a guided missile launched from shore.

    HMS Glamorgan was hit by a truck-mounted Exocet in the Falklands but didn't sink, and the Yugoslavians sank a small Croatian vessel with an ATGM during the siege of Dubrovnik in 1991.

  14. May 29, 2022bean said...

    Yeah, that makes sense, and I just don't care. The missile doesn't care where it's launched from, at least not after the first minute or so of flight, and as a result, this is an interesting bit of trivia, and not a reason to rethink anything.

  15. May 30, 2022Anonymous said...

    Not many large warships have been sunk since WWII so there's a good chance any event will be a first.

  16. June 04, 2022Daniel Kokotajlo said...

    Bean I respect your judgment on military matters in general but not on the utility of large surface warships in particular. I think you are biased. : )

    Yes, the argument about anti-ship missiles rendering large surface warships vulnerable is not a new one.

    But it's a good one, and the Moskva is yet another piece of evidence in its favor.

    Were there to be a WW3 between USA and China, the surface warships would all need to stay out of missile range or be sunk ignomiously like Force Z.

    This is my central claim. Do you deny this?

    I guess I'd follow up with "And missile range is long and getting longer, such that the overall utility of surface warships per dollar of investment is just not as high as it used to be. Ships should now be thought of as nothing more than vulnerable transports for land forces, air forces, and anti-ship missiles. Regrettably necessary in cases where we can't transport the relevant material by land or air, and cost-effective in regions outside the reach of enemy missiles. Unfortunately the navies of the world, and in particular the US navy, haven't fully adjusted to this reality yet (though they are definitely moving in this direction, hence why the Moskva is covered in ASMs and hence why US carriers are retooling to use aerial refueling drones and otherwise do their thing farther from shore.)"

    Do you deny that?

    Ramblings/justification to follow:

    First of all, this is mostly just a priori. Wargame it out. See how much it costs to produce a carrier, or cruiser, or whatever, and see how many ASM systems you can purchase for the same $. Now imagine the ship gets within range of the ASM systems... [insert something about how the ship gets spotted] ... massive salvo ... yes, theoretically decoys could defeat a massive salvo but it seems likely that the arms race between missile sensors and decoys will generally and increasingly favor the missiles as technology improves.

    But I think the historical track record (even excluding the Moskva?) bears this out.

    Quantitatively, the situation is like in WW2 where even battlefleets were vulnerable to kamikaze attacks... except now the kamikazes have more range and a k/d ratio 100x larger, and also they are cheaper to produce and don't involve killing your own people. The balance of power between surface warships and [guided long-range cheap method of attacking them] has substantially shifted in favor of the latter, despite improvements in anti-aircraft/anti-missile defenses.

    I'd be interested to see data on this actually. How many kamikaze sorties were there, and how many ships were sunk by kamikazes? My guess is that it's something like 100:1 ratio. Whereas the ratio for modern anti-ship missiles would be significantly more favorable AND the missiles have longer range and are relatively cheaper (in the important ways, maybe not in nominal terms due to inflation and military procurement bloat etc.)

    Wikipedia says 38 US ships sunk by kamikazes: Is it plausible that there were 3800 Kamikaze attacks? Idk but there were at least 1000 off Okinowa alone IIRC.

    Compare to anti ship cruise missiles. How many anti-ship cruise missile sorties have there been in the last 50 years? How many ships have been sunk by them? OK, so the k/d ratio isn't 100x larger, it's probably more like 10-30x larger. Still. And the Moskva is a big one too, if we adjust for tonnage the ratio looks more favorable to the missiles... most of the ships sunk by kamikazes were destroyers or landing ships...

    I'd also like to see data on air sorties in ww2 compared to in recent decades. My recollection from what I know of Midway, Coral Sea, etc. is that it took something like 100 sorties per sunk ship during these clashes. Certainly more than 10, probably less than 1000. So, similar to kamikazes I guess. Yes, most of those sorties didn't result in the loss of the plane and pilot, but enough of them did... you probably had to be prepared to sacrifice at least 10 planes+pilots per enemy ship sunk, and the modern situation with anti ship missiles looks better than that PLUS the missiles are cheaper than a plane+pilot.

    You can say "The Moskva was an anomaly, the Russians were incompetent" but that's pretty weak IMO, since you then go around and cite the Mason example even though the Houthis were presumably incompetent too (the article you link seems to say about as many missiles failed to hit their target due to lack of range as were successfully defended against! Also, where did Houthi rebels learn to operate anti-ship missiles?) Anyhow incompetence and missteps are a part of war, and should be planned for.

  17. June 05, 2022Hugh said...

    @Daniel Kokotajlo, there is an old study "An Analysis of the Historical Effectiveness of Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles in Littoral Warfare" by John C Schulte, student at the US Naval Postgraduate School, 1994. Was used by Capt. Wayne Hughes as a source in his "Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat" book, which gets recommended a lot for civilians like me who want to learn more. The study itself got declassified a decade or so back and can be found online.

    However, it is getting quite old. Can anyone suggest a more up to date paper / book?

  18. June 05, 2022bean said...


    That's an interesting perspective, and a proper answer will have to wait for a time when I didn't just get back from a long party at David Friedman's house. The short answer is that there are a lot of different scenarios, and a lot of different trends pushing things in different directions. Taking, say, 1982 (Sheffield) as our baseline, we see better and easier sea surveillance today, but also significant improvements in shooting down missiles. And yes, missiles in recent years are smarter and better at evading defenses, but those are rare, as are really good surveillance systems. If you handed me $10 billion and said "there's more where that came from if you need it to build me the ultimate anti-ship missile system", I could come up with some very good stuff. But that's a threat only China can really muster. In most cases, the threat is a lot lower, and surface ships are really useful in a lot of cases where they aren't facing anti-ship missiles.

  19. June 05, 2022Daniel Kokotajlo said...

    Thanks for the thoughtful preliminary reply; I look forward to more discussion someday!

    I totally agree that against non-peer adversaries the threat is a lot lower and surface ships are really useful.

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