Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

Send Skimmers to the Skirmish: A Case for a Wing-In-Ground Effect Attack Craft

By Michael Knickerbocker

The People’s Liberation Army – Navy, PLA(N), has rapidly modernized and grown their fleet with advanced warships and weapons. China’s fleet expansion and widening air defense system reach threaten the United States’ power projection capability in the Indo-Pacific.1 At the same time, Russian expansion in the Black Sea region has further expanded and entrenched area denial and forward basing capabilities.2 With the reality of flattening, or shrinking budgets, it is imperative that the United States Navy leave no stone unturned in looking for disruptive technologies that continue to tilt the balance of power in their favor.

Modern warships can bring considerable firepower for a mobile platform, but, along with advanced air defense radars, also possess system limitations and watchstander challenges when targeting smaller, more agile, and low to the surface targets.3 A sea-skimming platform in the role of a maritime attack craft could exploit vulnerabilities in system automation, low elevation detection capability, watchstander training, and radar system set-up.4 A wing-in-ground maritime attack craft (WMAC) would present an opportunity to field a cost-effective, survivable asset that can punch above its weight and cost. Such a platform would assist the United States naval battlegroups in attriting adversarial surface platforms and shore-based area denial systems to pursue maritime superiority in a contested environment. The United States Navy should pursue the acquisition, experimenting with, and eventual conversion of commercially produced wing-in-ground craft to fill an anti-surface warfare role until purpose-built designs can be developed, tested, and fielded. 

Potential Mission Roles and Tactics

Wing-in-ground effect craft (WIG) rely on the interaction of physical forces with the water’s surface to allow them to operate only a few meters above the water’s surface, or within one wing’s distance although some WIG craft can operate inside and outside of ground effect.5 They are wind and sea state limited for take-off and landing, but sea state is not as much of a factor once operating in ground-effect.6 WIGs offer a platform that can maneuver close to the surface of the water, exploiting limitations in modern radar systems at speeds over 250 knots and with ranges up to 1000 nautical miles.7 8 They are fast, maneuverable, and could be up to five times as fuel-efficient as aircraft that do not operate in ground effect.9 These characteristics have already sparked the United States Department of Defense’s interest in applying the technology.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has already called for potential designs to explore WIG feasibility and application for the role of strategic sealift.10 There is extreme value in such platforms in a significant conflict in the Indo-Pacific from the aspect of heavy lift and logistical support in a contested environment. But, the Department of the Defense, specifically the Department of the Navy, need not limit the application of WIG platforms to only one role. WIG design potential as a low-cost, shorter production timeline, anti-surface warfare platform should not be ignored. The application of WIG designs should not be about choosing one platform to fill a distinct role. It should be about adopting and applying a disruptive technology that can benefit multiple mission areas. A WMAC would provide a battle group with the ability to mitigate the threat of forward-deployed adversarial surface combatants that are currently able to outrange the United States Navy’s offensive weapon systems. This is a role like previous iterations of missile patrol boats that were removed from inventory in the 1990s. These smaller missile patrol boats had limited sea denial ability due to their smaller size limiting them to calmer seas and closer to shore. Modern systems and the location of the potential fight require a platform that can be taken into contested areas to take the fight to the adversary.

Sea-skimming missiles have long exploited the limited radar horizon of surface ships. Although the open ocean lacks micro-terrain and other means to block line of sight that exist overland for a drone to exploit, the phenomenon of surface scatter coupled with pre-set radar track filters to disregard presumed ‘false tracks’ create an exploitable opportunity. A wing-in-ground craft can take advantage of this sensing gap. By creating unusual track behavior patterns by utilizing combinations of indirect approaches, speed, and altitude outside the normal parameters of current known surface, air (rotary or fixed wing), or missile platforms, stressing radar operators’ proficiency and system track logics. Although systems and trainings will adapt, the initial introduction and novel nature of track behavior control will initially exploit existing detection gaps and stress the capabilities of systems and their operators. With the ability to take off and land within roughly 500 meters, a WMAC could combine its unique track characteristics with indirect, sprint and drift approaches to a target or waypoint.11 This approach would present unique challenges to radar system design, operational set-up, and watchstander training while mitigating the risk of operating within probable surface ducting effects of the adversary’s radar. By starting and stopping ground-effect legs of travel at speeds near predicted system track-filter speed settings, and then altering course while in the water, a WMAC could appear to be a series of false tracks, ostensibly referred to as ‘zoomers’ by watchstanders, while conducting a recon patrol or a maritime strike mission against an identified target. The ability to take off and land within short distances would also increase the survivability of a WMAC when engaged by adversarial missile systems or aircraft when coupled with electronic or physical countermeasures. These countermeasures could include a combination of towed or rocket-launched decoys, camouflage paint schemes, radar absorbent materials, electronic signal repeaters, and avoidance maneuvers. WIG craft would also only need to close targets as much to be within maximum range of their weapons, often on the outer limits of the adversary’s own weapons range increasing their survivability and need to avoid detection.

A WMAC could scout ahead of a battle group to loiter until it detects a signal correlating to a specified target, relay targeting data, engage the target with a combination of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) or high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM), and then evade by maneuvering or attempting to blend in with the ocean surface until it can return to the battlegroup to refuel and re-arm. This application is like that of diesel-electric submarines that use their ability to bottom to position themselves to attack a transiting force or to evade counter-detection and engagement after firing at their target. Include. The ability to launch munitions in support of a battle group and a landing force from off-axis, or forward deployed, adds another dimension to exploit by operational planners. The outfitting of a WMAC should be to degrade or destroy radar equipment on surface combatants. Degrading or destroying combatants is known as “mission kill” which is more than sufficient to meet many potential tactical objectives, especially in a battle waged on the sea in the Indo-Pacific or Black Sea regions. Such objectives, when met, can provide the conditions necessary to flow in larger capital ships to close the enemy force and bring their full combat power to bear in a more permissive environment by attriting adversarial surface combatants in their ability to detect, track, and engage United States naval forces.

Initial WMACs would likely need to embark on amphibious ships to launch utilizing well-decks or crane systems. A potential commercial design for WMAC conversion would be the Wigetworks Airfish-8, roughly 50 feet wide and 60 feet long without modifications to fold-and-stow the wings or tail section. As a frame of reference, a Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC) is 48 feet wide and 91 feet long.12 Three WMACs to be loaded in place of two LCACs into a compatible well-deck as found on the San Antonio Class (LPD-17), Harpers Ferry Class (LSD-49), and America Class Flight IIs (LHA-6).13 14 15 A Wasp Class (LHD-1) would be able to embark four WMACs.16 While still utilizing current USS ships, a crane-based option would be the Lewis B Puller Class Expeditionary Sea Bases (ESB).17 ESBs are designed for moving cargo to forward operating areas with a configurable main-loading deck. These ships could potentially embark and deploy between four to six WMACs. Initial designs would implicitly guide tactical employment and embarkation limitations.

Design Considerations for Initial WMAC Conversions

The threat in the Indo-Pacific could require action within the next three years.18 Contractor bids to design, build, and test new platforms typically take much longer than that possible timeframe – not to include placing the design into production, training personnel. To accelerate the acquisition timeline, the Navy should expeditiously acquire existing commercially produced craft. For this theoretical exercise, we will build out a modified Wigetworks Airfish-8.

Singapore-based Wigetworks, produces the Airfish-8, a WIG that can support a two-person crew with six to eight passengers and a total cargo of 1.1 tons. The craft is 56 feet (17.2 meters) long and has a wingspan of just over 49 feet (15 meters), just slightly smaller than an F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet.19 20 The Airfish-8 is limited in speed and range with maximum speed of 106 knots and only 300 nautical mile range while operating at a max above-surface height of just under 23 feet (7 meters) making it suitable for fleet experimentation but not combat operations. Although not in full-scale production yet, Wigetworks indicated that each unit will likely cost around $500,000. Even if this price point is doubled to $1 million, it still provides a low-cost experimental platform.

Operating a WMAC based on the Airfish-8 could be limited to only a pilot and a weapon systems operator. The pilot and weapon systems operator, however, would not require traditional naval flight school since the classification of WIGs as boats. This would allow for these billets to be opened to Chief Warrant Officers or even enlisted ranks like how the Navy currently crews LCACs. This would allow for potential options to include additional fuel, bunks, or equipment racks in the cabin in lieu of passenger seating installed on the commercial use variant. Crew space and bunks would depend upon the decision for operational employment and whether a WMAC would pre-position and drift for extended periods. The current engine design of a gasoline-powered V-8 would likely need to be swapped out with a JP-5 fueled turboprop, which is more powerful and fuel-efficient.

A converted Airfish-8 would likely have one weapon hardpoint per wing considering wing space, weight limitations, and drag calculations for impact to speed and range. The load out would consist of ASCM or HARM. Engineering considerations would have to be considered for potential issues to include weapon weight and minimum launch airspeed requirements to include potential booster modifications depending on the weapons selected for use by a WMAC. Missile options should also not be limited to weapons currently in the United States’ inventory. Partner and allied nations such as France and Norway, among other Western countries, produce ASCMs that are in many ways superior to the limited United States Navy offerings.

A first-generation Airfish-8 WMAC test platform, as described, might cost roughly $5 to $15 million per unit, although cost estimation for prototypes is notoriously difficult. This price-point pales compared to the estimated $81 million per aircraft of the F-35 program.21 Aside from cost, is the reality that more expensive, and thus more complex, platforms usually come with significant lead times for production. Less complex and less expensive platforms would likely come with the advantage of being able to produce at a higher rate which would help with initial fleet inventory numbers as well as replacements for units lost due to accidents or combat.


In obtaining and fielding maritime platforms for use in a potential conflict with China or Russia, cost-effectiveness and speed to fleet are vital to the United States’ security concerns and strategy. The Indo-Pacific theater is a predominantly maritime theater governed by the tyranny of distance and the threat of a rapidly growing, modern Chinese Navy. The Black Sea region saw Russia annex the Crimean Peninsula and built up standing naval forces in the area following by the widely publicized and condemned Russian invasion of Ukraine. If conflict with these peer adversaries come to fruition, we must account for the grim reality of modern combat with equally advanced opposition – the United States will suffer losses. As modern weapons get faster and more lethal, the old belief of United States’ fast and advanced platforms being superior to the opponent will no longer hold true. While WMACs possesses inherent weaknesses when faced with SAM or fighter threats, their ability to scout ahead of a battle group and degrade or destroy the systems on adversarial surface platforms needed to target the battlegroup will justify the risk. A small crew, small price tag, and shorter production timeline for a replacement represent a significantly lower risk than losing a major surface combatant such as a destroyer, cruiser, or even worse, an aircraft carrier.

The reality of the theater and threat has stoked discussions surrounding the applications of wing-in-ground-effect platforms and seaplanes in recent years. But discussion is not enough. The United States Departments of Defense and the Navy need to pursue and field platforms before they are required. Near-term acquisition and modification of commercially produced, proven WIG designs provide a stop-gap measure to field capability to these, and potentially other, key regions until purpose-built military platforms can be designed and tested. This second generation of WMACs should explore hull-form shapes to reduce radar-cross-section, a vertical or catapult launch capability to expand the number of platforms they can embark on, and power plant options to increase range and speed for evasion.

The plausibility and timelines of potential conflict in the Pacific and Eastern Europe involving the United States are tenuous and fluid. The rapid development and deployment of a WMAC would allow the United States Navy to directly counter the growing size and capability of Chinese and Russian forces by exploiting the inherent weaknesses of modern systems. This capability provides additional conventional deterrence to Chinese military aggression vis-à-vis Taiwan and the South China Sea and towards Russian aggression in the Black Sea and Baltic regions.

Wing-in-ground-effect craft provide tremendous potential for strategic lift and other vital mission sets. However, in examining the applicability and effectiveness of the technology, the United States Departments of Defense and the Navy must not overlook the viability and role of smaller, shorter-range platforms. Now is the time to take decisive action that can potentially turn the tide of a future conflict in the Indo-Pacific or the Black Sea regions. To neutralize or deter rising adversaries, the United States Navy must send skimmers to the skirmish.

Commander Michael Knickerbocker is a United States Navy Surface Warfare Officer with previous experience as an AEGIS Combat Systems Officer and Integrated Air Missile Defense Planner. He is currently a Federal Executive Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin conducting independent research into naval equities impacting current national security situations. His research focuses on technology adaptation into maritime strategy as well as maritime trade security assessments and risk identification. The views expressed are those of the individual writing them and do not reflect the official positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or the University of Texas at Austin.


[1] O’Rourke, Ronald. 2022. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities- Background and Issues for Congress. Washington DC: Congressional Research Service.

[2] Gressel, Gustav. 2021. “Waves of Ambition: Russia’s Military Build-up in Crimea and the Black Sea.” European Council for Foreign Relations. September 21. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[3]Oyvind Overrein, Andreas Birkeli. 2021. Radar Detection Evaluation Method for Sea Skimming Targets Including Effective Flight Altitude Simulations as Seen by Radar. NATO paper, Brussels: NATO.

[4] White, Ryan. 2021. “What is Sea Skimming? How Effective Sea-Skimmer Missiles?” Naval Post. April 3. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[5] International Maritime Organization. 2022. “Wing-in-Ground (WIG) Craft.” International Maritime Organization. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[6] WigetWorks. 2020. Airfish-8 FAQ. Accessed January 24, 2022.,15%20knots%20of%20cross%20wind.

[7] Michael Halloran, Sean O’Meara. 1999. Wing-in-Ground Effect Craft Review. Melbourne: Australia Department of Defence.

[8] Walker Mills, Dylan Phillips-Levine, Joshua Taylor. 2020. “Modern Sea Monsters: Revisiting Wing-in-Ground Effect Craft for the Next Fight.” Proceedings.

[9] Ingels-Thompson, David. 2021. “Rethinking SEAD for A2/AD.” Proceedings.

[10] Katz, Justin. 2021. “DARPA Hopes A Plane Boat Hybrid Can Solve the Pentagon’s Sealift Challenge.” Breaking Defense. August 30. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[11] Department of the Navy. 2020. Airfish-8. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[12] Department of the Navy. 2021. “Landing Craft, Air Cushioned Fact File.” October 14. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[13] Department of the Navy. 2021. “Amphibious Transport Dock – LPD.” January 21. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[14] Department of the Navy. 2019. “Dock Landing Ship – LSD.” July 19. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[15] Department of the Navy. 2021. “Amphibious Assault Ships – LHA(R).” April 15. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[16] Department of the Navy. 2021. “Amphibious Assault Ships – LHD.” April 15. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[17] Department of the Navy. 2021. “Expeditionary Sea Base – ESB.” January 21. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[18] Quinn, Jimmy. 2021. “Beijing’s Taiwan Invasion Timeline: Two Predictions.” National Review. November 8. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[19] WigetWorks. 2020. Airfish-8. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[20] Department of the Navy. 2021. “F/A-18 A-D Hornet and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet Strike Fighter.” February 4. Accessed January 24, 2022.

[21] Grazier, Dan. 2020. “Selective Arithmetic to Hide the F-35s True Costs.” Project on Government Oversight. October 21. Accessed January 24, 2022.

Featured Image: The Wigetworks Airfish 8 aircraft, (Photo via Wigetworks PTE LTD.)

Employing Unmanned Surface Vehicles To Guard Ports and Harbors

By George Galdorisi

“Globalization” instantly brings to mind the flow of international trade that has both lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and delivered abundant choices to consumers. Almost all of this thrumming trade moves on the high seas, which is where I thought of it throughout my career as an active-duty U.S. naval officer. That blue-water framing changed in August 2020, when deadly explosions rocked the harbor in Beirut, Lebanon. Lost among the headlines that dominated the international news for weeks was the importance of ports and harbors to global commerce.

I live in an American city astride a major U.S. port, and now see it for what it is: a critical node for global trade. While many people focus on the importance of ships in carrying this seaborne trade, they often forget that the critical nodes that support globalization and world trade are the world’s ports and harbors. From Shanghai, to Antwerp, to Rotterdam, to Shenzhen, to Los Angeles, to other mega-ports, as well as hundreds of smaller ports, these ports are critical to world prosperity.

A disaster in one of these ports similar to what happened in the harbor in Beirut—an explosion in port, a fire on a large oil tanker, or any of a host of other events—could close one of these ports indefinitely, with catastrophic economic and ecological effects. More recently, the supply-chain backups at the U.S. ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach demonstrate the ripple effects of even a slowdown at a major port. A complete closure of one of these ports for even a few days would have dire consequences that would be difficult to mitigate without extraordinary effort.

The repercussions of slowdowns and stoppages justify wide-reaching preventative measures, but the magnitude of providing comprehensive security for an average size port—let alone some of the world’s mega-ports—can lure port authorities into wishing away the challenge. Ports present an all-too-inviting target for terrorists, other non-state actors, and even state-backed sabotage, and so ports must be vigilantly defended.

Faced with this challenge, port authorities must ensure security twenty-four hours a day, every day. This task includes continuous inspection of port assets, threat detection and security response, as well as on-demand inspections after storms or other disasters, ongoing surveys to ensure navigable waterways, hull inspections, and a wide-range of other missions.

Unmanned surface vessels can fill this gap better than legacy approaches.

The Current State of Port and Harbor Security

Port and harbor security has changed little in a generation. Most large ports rely on cameras placed at strategic locations and monitored by watch-standers to spot trouble. Port officials also provide security with a variety of manned surface vessels on regular patrols. This traditional approach is good, but it stresses the ability of port authorities to provide around-the-clock security and can lead to gaps in coverage, rendering ports less secure than they could be. 

Cameras seem to offer a cheap and effective solution, but someone — often several people —must monitor the video feeds. A port maintaining scores of cameras requires a command center and enough watch-standers, in rotating shifts, to monitor the video in real-time, twenty-four hours a day.

Similar issues accompany the use of manned craft to patrol a harbor of any size—let alone mega-ports. Manned vessel operations are increasingly expensive, are often limited by weather and water conditions. These small craft must be manned, typically by two or more people at a time, who must cope with the physical toll of riding a small vessel for hours on end. Unlike watch-standers on land who might be able to work shifts as long as eight or even twelve hours, pounding through an often-choppy harbor in a RHIB or other small craft means that a watch rotation of three to four hours is about all most people can endure.

With such short watch rotations, providing round-the-clock security is a costly endeavor under ideal conditions. Add rain, wind, waves, fog and other natural phenomena that often reduce visibility and slow patrol speeds, the need for more craft and more people can multiply significantly, often without warning, thereby further driving the need for standby crews. All-in-all, this is an expensive undertaking.

Additionally, there are many shallow areas throughout ports that are beyond the reach of typical manned vessels. Even limited draft craft like RHIBs draw some water when they are loaded with people, communications equipment, weapons and the like. A manned vessel pushing too close to shore also runs the risk of impaling itself—as well as its crew—against visible or invisible hazards. This risk is compounded at night and during dense fog and other adverse weather conditions.

Given the manifest challenges of providing adequate—let alone comprehensive—security for ports with current state-of-the-art systems and capabilities, it is little wonder that port officials are searching for technology solutions that will enable them to provide better security, at lower costs, and importantly, without putting humans at risk.

The Port of Los Angeles: A Mega-Port with a Mega-Challenge

The Port of Los Angeles (POLA) is the busiest port in the United States. This mega-port comprises 3,200 acres (42 square miles) of water, 43 miles of waterfront, 26 passenger and cargo terminals and 86 ship-to-shore container cranes. POLA handled over 9.3 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo last year (up from 8.8 million TEUs the previous year and predicted to increase year-over-year).

Current capabilities to secure the Port of Los Angeles’ 42 square miles of water involve monitoring the video provided by 500 cameras throughout the port, as well as patrolling the ports’ expanse of water with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of POLA authorities to provide the necessary 24/7/365 security. Additionally, POLA has a large number of shallow areas throughout its 43 miles of waterfront that are beyond the reach of any of the manned vessels.

For these reasons, Port of Los Angeles officials decided to explore the use of unmanned surface vehicles to enhance the security of the port. To that end, port officials invited Maritime Tactical Systems Inc. (MARTAC) to visit and demonstrate the capabilities of their MANTAS USV. MANTAS is a high-performance, commercial off-the-shelf USV built on a catamaran-style hull, and comes in a number of variants ranging in size from six-foot to 50-foot. A demonstration was conducted using a 12-foot MANTAS.

The 12-foot MANTAS (otherwise known as the T12) has a length of twelve feet and a width of three feet. It is fourteen inches high and draws only seven inches of water. The MANTAS can be equipped with a wide variety of above-surface sensors (EO/IR/thermal video) and below-surface sensors (sonars and echo-sounders), as well as other devices such as chem/bio/nuclear sensors, water quality monitors, and above/below surface environmental sensors.

Leveraging Previous Successful Demonstrations

POLA authorities requested the MANTAS demonstration principally because the system had performed so well in an earlier port security demonstration, the Mobile Ocean Terminal Concept Demonstration in Concord, CA, conducted by the U.S. Army’s Physical Security Enterprise & Analysis Group.

For these missions, three MANTAS vessels, T6, T8 and T12, were used to perform different operations. The MANTAS T6 was utilized as an intercept vessel to quickly address potential threats at high-speeds of up to 55 knots. This T6 was equipped with a standard electro/optical camera focused on rapid interdiction and threat identification. The second vessel was a MANTAS T8 equipped with a FLIR M232 thermal camera. Its role was as a forward-looking harbor vessel situational awareness asset. The final vessel was a MANTAS T12 tasked with prosecuting above and below surveillance operations to detect and identify intruder vessels, or other threats to harbor assets. The sensor kit included a SeaFlir 230 for above surface ISR capabilities and a Teledyne M900 for subsurface diver/swimmer detection.

The Port of Los Angeles Unique Requirements

During the visit to the Port of Los Angeles, MARTAC representatives provided a comprehensive briefing on MANTAS capabilities, took a three-hour boat tour to observe the entirety of POLA authorities’ span of operations, and then provided a remote demonstration where port officials controlled and observed a MANTAS T12 operating off the eastern coast of Florida. The demonstration validated the going-in assumption that employing a thoroughly tested and proven USV is a viable solution that POLA is keen to pursue.

The Devil Ray USV (Photo by Jack Rowley)

After observing the MANTAS remote demonstration, officials from the Port of Los Angeles determined that the capabilities of this USV met the requirements for the port’s wide variety of missions. That said, port officials asked MARTAC to scale-up the MANTAS to a 24-foot and 38-foot version, reflecting a concert that the 12-foot MANTAS was so stealthy that ships in transit would not see it. Additionally, the larger T24 and T38 could operate for longer periods and carry additional sensors. The T38 MANTAS has now been demonstrated in several U.S. Navy exercises, and conducted another port security demonstration in the Port of Tampa with similar results.

MANTAS has an open architecture and modular design, which facilities the rapid changing of payload and sensor components to provide day-to-day port security as well as on-demand inspections. Additionally, if a longer endurance or an increased mission payload sensor profile was desired by the port, the modularity of the MANTAS system will easily allow for increasing the size of the craft from the battery powered electric motor 12-foot T12 to a marine diesel fueled 24-foot T24 or 38-foot T38. This transition would eliminate the necessity for battery replacement/recharging on the T12 after each of the shorter missions.

This demonstration certified that commercial-off-the-shelf unmanned surface vehicles can ably conduct a comprehensive harbor security inspection of a mega-port such as the Port of Los Angeles. As a facility with a longstanding need to augment its manned vessel patrol activities with emergent technology in the form of unmanned surface vehicles, the Port of Los Angeles demonstration provided a best practices example of the art-of-the-possible for augmenting port security.


Enhancing the Effectiveness of Port and Harbor Security

The reliable, adaptable and affordable USV support to port security as described in this article has only been evaluated recently because the technology simply did not exist just a few years ago. 

In an article in the January 2020 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Commander Rob Brodie noted: “When the Navy and Marine Corps consider innovation, they usually focus on technology they do not possess and not on how to make better use of the technology they already have.” Extrapolating his assertion to the multiple entities responsible for port and harbor security at mega-ports such as the Port of Los Angeles, one must ask if maritime professionals are to slow to leverage an innovative solution that can be grasped immediately.

This technology is available today with commercial off-the-shelf unmanned surface vessels, and these can be employed to increase the effectiveness of port protection if we do as Commander Brodie suggests and “make better use of the technology we already have.” And given the enormous personnel costs associated with monitoring cameras and patrolling with manned vehicles, this innovative solution designed to supplement current capabilities will drive down acquisition and life cycle costs while resulting in shorter times for a return on investment (ROI).

This Port of Los Angeles demonstration and subsequent Port of Tampa validation certified that commercial-off-the-shelf unmanned surface vehicles can ably conduct a comprehensive security inspection of a mega-port. As a facility with a longstanding need to augment its manned vessel patrol activities with emergent technology in the form of unmanned surface vehicles, the Port of Los Angeles demonstration provided a best practices example of the art-of-the-possible for enhancing port security.

As the world continues to come to grips with the human and economic impact of the Beirut harbor disaster, all nations would be well-served to leverage emerging technology to enhance the security of the ports and harbors that make the global economy hum. To fail to do so would be inviting a disaster that is eminently preventable.

Captain George Galdorisi (USN – retired) is a career naval aviator whose thirty years of active duty service included four command tours and five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff. He began his writing career in 1978 with an article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. He is the Director of Strategic Assessments and Technical Futures at the Navy’s Command and Control Center of Excellence in San Diego, California. The views presented are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: The Devil Ray USV (Photo by Jack Rowley)

Forging the Apex Predator:­­­ Unmanned Systems and SSN(X)

By LCDR James Landreth, USN, and LT Andrew Pfau, USN

2041: USS Fluckey (SSN 812) Somewhere West of the Luzon Strait

Like wolves stalking in the night, the pack of autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) silently swam from USS Fluckey’s open torpedo tubes. In honor of its namesake, “The Galloping Ghost of the China Coast,” Fluckey silently hunted its prey. With the ability to command and control an integrated UUV swarm via underwater wireless communication systems, Fluckey could triangulate any contact in the 160-mile gap between Luzon and Taiwan while maintaining the mothership in a passive sonar posture. Its magazine of 50 weapon stows brimmed with MK-48 Mod 8 Torpedoes. 28 Maritime Strike Tomahawks glowed in the vertical launch system’s belly like dragon’s fire. With just one hull, the Galloping Ghost sealed the widest exit from the South China Sea. Any ship seeking passage would have to pass through the jaws of the Apex Predator of the undersea.


The Navy has its eyes set on the future of submarine warfare with the Next Generation Attack Submarine (SSN(X)), the follow-on to the Virginia-class attack submarine. Though SSN(X) has yet to be named, the Navy began funding requirements, development, and design in 2020. Vice Admiral Houston, Commander of Naval Submarine Forces, described SSN(X) in July 2021 as, “[T]he ultimate Apex Predator for the maritime domain.”1 In order to become the “Apex Predator” of the 21st century, SSN(X) will need to be armed not only with advanced torpedoes, land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles, but also with an array of unmanned systems. While SSN(X) will carry both unmanned aircraft and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV), it is assumed that UUV optimization will lead the unmanned priority list. Acting as a mothership, SSN(X) will be able to deploy these UUVs to perform a variety of tasks, including gaining a greater awareness of the battlespace, targeting, active deception and other classified missions. To fulfill its destiny, UUV employment must be a consideration in every frame of SSN(X) and subjected to rigorous analysis.

SSN(X) must be capable of the deployment, recovery, and command and control of UUVs. To fulfill this mission, every aspect of contemporary submarine-launched UUV operations will need to scale dramatically. Submarine designers and undersea warriors need to understand the trade space available in order to gain an enhanced understanding of potential SSN(X) UUV employment. A detailed study of the trade space must include all relevant aspects of the deployment lifecycle including UUV acquisition, operation, sustainment and maintenance. The following analysis provides a first approximation of the undersea trade space where the Apex Predator’s ultimate form will take shape.

UUV Concept of Operations

Effective solution design of SSN(X) and UUVs can only come from a mature concept of operations (CONOPS). These CONOPS will center around the use cases for submarine launched UUVs. UUVs will provide SSN(X) the ability to monitor greater portions of the battlespace by going out beyond the range of the SSN(X)’s organic sensors to search or monitor for adversary assets. The ability to search the environment, both passively and actively, will be key to fulfilling the CONOPS. Additionally, active sonar scanning of the seabed, a current UUV mission, will continue to be a key UUV mission. These are by no means the only missions that UUVs could or will perform, rather they examples of relevant missions that enhance the combat power of SSN(X).

It is critical that CONOPS developers and acquisition planners consider the SSN(X) and its UUV as an integrated system. That integrated system includes the SSN(X) mothership as well as the UUV bodies, crew members required to support UUV operations and the materiel support strategy for deployed UUVs. Other categories are necessary for consideration, but each of these provides a measurable constraint on SSN(X) CONOPS development. While the acquisition of UUV and SSN(X) may ultimately fall under separate Program Executive Offices, the Navy must heed the lessons of Littoral Combat Ship’s (LCS) inconsistent funding of mission modules.2 One of LCS’s early woes related to the failure to develop mission modules concurrently with LCS construction. Absent the mission modules, early LCS units bore criticism for lacking combat capability. Instead, the Navy should draw on the success of iterative capability developments like the Virginia Payload Module (VPM).3 In the same way Virginia-class introduced incremental capability improvements across its Block III through Block V via VPM, the Navy must prioritize continuous UUV development just as urgently as it pursues its next submarine building initiative. Table 1 lists some priority considerations:

Category Elements for Consideration
UUV Size of the UUVs carried inboard
Quantity of embarked UUVs
Deployment methods of UUV
Communications between SSN(X) and UUV
UUV Crew UUV Support Crew Size
Training requirements for UUV Sailors
Materiel Support Strategy Charging and recharging UUVs inboard
Maintenance strategy for UUV
UUV load and unload facilities

Table 1. UUV Considerations

Designing SSN(X) for UUVs

Organic UUV operations are the desired end state, but several gaps exist between the Navy’s current UUV operational model and the Navy’s stated plans for SSN(X). At present, submarines deploy UUVs for specific exercises, test and evaluations, or carefully planned operations.4 Additionally, UUV missions require specially trained personnel or contractors to join the submarine’s crew to operate and employ the UUV system, limiting operational flexibility. To their credit, today’s SSNs can deploy UUV from a number of ocean interfaces according to the size of the UUV including: 3” launcher, the trash disposal unit, torpedo tubes, lock-in/lock-out chamber, missile tubes, large ocean interfaces or dry-deck shelters.5 However, the ability to perform UUV-enabled missions depends heavily on the legacy submarine’s mission configuration. Two decades ago, the Virginia-class was designed to dominate in the littorals and deploy Special Forces with a built-in lock-in, lock-out chamber. Just as every Virginia-class submarine is capable of deploying Special Forces and divers, every SSN(X) must be UUV ready.

In order to fully define the requirements of the Apex Predator, requirements officers and engineers within the undersea enterprise must understand the trade space associated with UUV operations. SSN(X) must exceed the UUV capabilities of today’s SSNs and should use resources organic to the ship, such as torpedo tubes, to employ them. Also, given that Navy requirements need SSN(X) to transit at maximum speed, these UUVs will need to present low appendage drag or stay within the skin of the submarine until deployed.6 Similar to the internal bomb bay configuration of Fifth Generation F-35 Stealth Fighters, internally-housed UUVs, most likely with the form-factor of a torpedo, will likely yield the greatest capacity while preserving acoustic superiority at high transit speeds.

With so many variables in play and potential configurations, requirements officers need the benefit of iterative modeling and simulation to illuminate the possible. Optimization for UUV design is not merely a problem of multiplication or geometric fit. Rather, an informed UUV model reveals a series of constraining equations that govern the potential for each capability configuration. The following analysis examined over 300 potential UUV force packages by varying the number UUVs carried, the size of the UUV crew complement, and UUV re-charging characteristics in-hull, while holding the form-factor of the UUV constant. Appendix 1 provides a detailed description of the first order analysis, focused on mission-effectiveness, seeking to maximize the distance that a UUV compliment could cover in a 24-hour period. Notably, the UUV sustainment resources inside the submarine matter just as much as the number of UUVs onboard. Such resources include maintenance areas, charging bays, weight handling equipment and spare parts inventory.

Given that SSN(X) and its unmanned systems will likely be fielded in a resource constrained environment, including both obvious fiscal constraints and physical resource constraints within the hull, a second order analysis scored each force package on maximum utilization. After all, rarely-utilized niche systems are often hard to justify. While more UUVs generally resulted in a potential for more miles of UUV operations per 24-hour period, smaller numbers of UUVs in less resource-intensive configurations (that is, requiring less space, less operational support, etc.) achieved up to 5x higher utilization scores. Given the multi-mission nature of SSN(X) and the foreseeable need to show high utilization in the future budgetary environment, requirements officers have a wide margin of trade space to navigate because many different types and configurations of UUVs could achieve high utilization rates as they performed various missions.

What should be Considered

SSN(X) will be enabled by advanced technologies, but its battle efficiency will rely just as much on qualified personnel and maintenance as on any number of advanced sensors or high endurance power systems. In order to identify the limiting factor in each capability configuration, the study varied the following parameters according to defined constraint equations to determine the maximum number of miles that could be scanned per 24-hours: number of UUVs, size of the UUV support crew, the UUV support crew operational tempo, the number of UUV charging bays, and the numbers or charges per day required per UUV. As a secondary measure, the UUV utilization rate for each capability configuration was determined as a means of assessing investment value. The constraint equations are provided in full detail in Appendix 1: Analysis Constraint Equations.

The Navy currently fields a variety of UUVs that vary in both size and mission. The opening vignette of this essay discusses UUVs that can be launched and recovered from submarine torpedo tubes while submerged, which the Navy’s lexicon classifies as medium UUVs (MUUV) and which this study uses as the basic unit of analysis. The current inventory of MUUVs include the Razorback and Mk-18 systems, but this analysis used the open-source specifications of the REMUS 600 UUV (the parent design of these platforms) to allow releasability. These specifications are listed in Table 2, and Table 3 assigns additional values to relevant parameters related to UUV maintainability based on informed estimates. While the first SSN(X) will not reach initial operating capability for more than a decade, the study assumed UUV propulsion system endurance would only experience incremental improvements from today’s fielded systems.7

Remus 600 Characteristics
Mission Speed 5 knots
Mission Endurance between Recharges 72 hours
Number of Sensors (active or passive) 3

Table 2. Remus 600 Characteristics

Informed Estimates on Maintainability
Maintenance Duty Cycle 0.02
Sensor Refit Duty Cycle 0.09
Duty Cycle Turnaround 0.23

Table 3. Informed Estimates on Maintainability

Model Results and Analysis

The Navy’s forecasted requirements for SSN(X) weapons payload capacity mirrors the largest torpedo rooms in the Fleet today found on Seawolf-class submarines. Seawolf boasts eight torpedo tubes and carries up to 50 weapons.8 Assuming SSN(X)’s torpedo room holds an equivalent number of weapons stows, some of these stows may be needed for UUVs and UUV support.

Trial values from the trade study for specific UUV, crew, and operational tempo (OPTEMPO) capability configurations are shown in Table 4:

Parameter Values
Number of UUVs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Number of UUV Crew Watch Teams 2, 3, 4
Crew OPTEMPO 0.33, 0.5
Number of UUV Charging Bays 2, 4, 6, 8
Daily Charges per UUV 0.33, 0.5

Table 4. Study Parameters

The number of crew watch teams could represent a multiple based on the ultimate number of personnel required to sustain UUV operations. Crew OPTEMPO represents the time that UUV operations and maintenance personnel are on duty during a 24-hour period. A value of 0.33 represents three 8-hour duty sections per day. 0.5 represents two 12-hour duty sections per day.

The results in Table 5 represent seven of the highest scoring capability configurations from among the 336 trials in the trade study.9 The most significant variable driving UUV miles scanned was the number of UUV Crew Watch Teams, and the second most significant variable was the UUV Crew OPTEMPO. UUV configurations with 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 UUVs all achieved the maximum score on scan rate of 240 miles scanned per 24 hours, though utilization rates were much higher for the configurations with fewer UUVs. The 3 UUV configuration was able to achieve 240 miles with the fewest number of UUVs and yielded the second highest utilization score. The 2 UUV configuration earned a slightly higher utilization score (+2%), but the scan rate was 42% less than the 3 UUV configuration. 

# UUV # Crew Crew OPTEMPO UUV Charging Bays Charges per Day Miles Scanned per 24 hrs Utilization Notes
8 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.25 Big footprint; High scan rate; Low utilization
7 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.29 Big footprint; High scan rate; Low utilization
6 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.33 Medium footprint; High scan rate; Low utilization
5 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.4 Medium footprint; High scan rate; Medium utilization
4 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.5 Medium footprint; High scan rate; High utilization
3 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.67 Small footprint; High scan rate; High utilization
2 3 0.5 2 0.33 165 0.69 Smallest footprint, Medium scan rate; Highest utilization

Table 5. Sample Analysis Results 

This study shows that in order to scan more miles, loading more UUVs is not likely to be the first or best option. Understanding of this calculus is critically important since each additional UUV would replace a weapon needed for combat or increase the overall length, displacement and cost of the submarine. Instead, crew configurations and watch rotations play a major factor in UUV operations.


The implications for an organic UUV capability on SSN(X) go far beyond simply loading a UUV instead of an extra torpedo. The designers of SSN(X) will have to consider personnel required to operate and maintain these systems. The spaces and equipment necessary to repair, recharge, and maintain UUVs will have to be designed from the keel up.

The Apex Predator must be more than just the number and capability of weapons carried. SSN(X)’s lethality will come from the ability of sailors to man and operate its systems and maintain the equipment needed to perform in combat. The provided trade study sheds light on the significant technical challenges that still remain in the areas of UUV communications, power supply and endurance, and sensor suites. By resourcing requirements officers, technical experts and acquisition professionals with a meaningful optimization study, early identifications of UUV requirements for SSN(X) can enable the funding allocations necessary to solve these difficult problems.

Lieutenant Commander James Landreth, P.E., is a submarine officer in the Navy Reserves and a civilian acquisition professional for the Department of the Navy. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy (B.S.) and the University of South Carolina (M.Eng.). The views and opinions expressed here are his own.

Lieutenant Andrew Pfau, USN, is a submariner serving as an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the U. S. Naval Academy. The views and opinions expressed here are his own.

Appendix 1: Analysis Constraint Equations

The following equations were used to develop a reusable parametric model. The model was developed in Cameo Systems Modeler version 19.0 Service Pack 3 with ParaMagic 18.0 using the Systems Modeling Language (SysML). The model was coupled with Matlab 2021a via the Symbolic Math Toolkit plug-in. This model is available to share with interested U.S. Government parties via any XMI compatible modeling environment.

Number of Miles Scanned per 24 hours=Number of Available Systems*Speed*24

Equation 1. Scanning Equation

Number of Available Systems= min⁡(Number of Available UUV,UUV Crew,Number of Available Charges)

Equation 2. System Availability Equation

Number of Available UUV=((Number of Available UUVs by Day+Number of Available UUVs by Night)*UUV Duty Cycle)/2

Equation 3. UUV Availability Equation

Number of Available UUV=((Number of Available UUVs by Day+Number of Available UUVs by Night)*UUV Duty Cycle)/2

Equation 4. UUV Duty Cycle Equation

Number of Available UUVs by Day=min⁡(number of day sensors,number of UUVs)

Equation 5. Day Sensor Availability Equation

Number of Available UUVs by Night=min⁡(number of night sensors,number of UUVs)

Equation 6. Night Sensor Availability Equation

Number of Available Crews=Number of Crews*Crew Time On Duty

Equation 7. Crew Availability Equation

Number of Available Charges=(Charges per Day)/(Daily Charges per UUV)

Equation 8. Charge Availability Equation

Utilization= (Number of Miles Scanned per 24 hours)/((Number of UUVs*Patrol Speed*24 hours))

Equation 9. Utilization Score 


1. Justin Katz, “SSN(X) Will Be ‘Ultimate Apex Predator,’” BreakingDefense, July 21, 2021,

2. Congressional Research Service, “Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Updated December 17, 2019,

3. Virginia Payload Module, July 2021,

4. Megan Eckstein, “PEO Subs: Navy’s Future Attack Sub Will Need Stealthy Advanced Propulsion, Controls for Multiple UUVs,” USNI News, March 9, 2016,

5. Chief of Naval Operations Undersea Warfare Directorate, “Report to Congress: Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Requirement for 2025,” p. 5-6, February 2016,

6. Congressional Research Service, “Navy Next-Generation Attack Submarine (SSN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” May 10, 2021,

7. Robert Button, John Kamp, Thomas Curtin, James Dryden, “A Survey of Missions for Unmanned Undersea Vehicles,” RAND National Defense Research Institute, , 2009, p. 50,

8. U.S. Navy Fact Files, “Attack Submarines – SSN,” Updated May 25, 2021,

9. The results of all 336 capability configurations are available in .xlsx format upon request.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN – USS Santa Fe (SSN 763) joins Collins Class Submarines, HMAS Collins, HMAS Farncomb, HMAS Dechaineux and HMAS Sheean in formation while transiting through Cockburn Sound, Western Australia.

Why The Moskva-Class Helicopter Cruiser Is Not the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era

By Benjamin Claremont

In a recent article titled “Is the Moskva-Class Helicopter Cruiser the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era?” author Przemysław Ziemacki proposed that the Moskva-class cruiser would be a useful model for future surface combatants. He writes, “A ship design inspired by this cruiser would have both enough space for stand-off weapons and for an air wing composed of vertical lift drones and helicopters.”1 These ships would have a large battery of universal Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) to carry long range anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles. The anti-ship missiles would replace fixed-wing manned aircraft for strike and Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), while surface-to-air missiles would provide air defense. Early warning would be provided by radar equipped helicopters or tilt-rotor aircraft, while vertical take-off UAVs would provide target acquisition for the long range missiles. A self-sufficient platform such as “a vessel inspired by the Moskva-class helicopter carrier and upgraded with stealth lines seems to be a ready solution for distributed lethality and stand-off tactics.” The article concludes that inclusion of this type of vessel in the US Navy would make “the whole fleet architecture both less vulnerable and more diversified.”

The article’s foundation rests on three principles: aircraft carriers are, or will soon be, too vulnerable for certain roles; manned naval aviation will be replaced by shipboard stand-off weapons; and drones have fundamentally changed warfare. From these principles the article proposes a more self-sufficient aviation cruiser would be less vulnerable in enemy Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) zones and able to effect “sea denial” over a large area of ocean, becoming an agile and survivable tool of distributed lethality, rather than “a valuable sitting duck.”2 Both the foundational principles and the resulting proposal are flawed.

The article names itself after the Moskva-class. They were the largest helicopter cruisers, but like all helicopter cruisers, were a failure. They were single-purpose ships with inflexible weapons, too small an air group, too small a flight deck, and awful seakeeping that magnified the other problems. Their planned role of hunting American ballistic missile submarines before they could launch was made obsolete before Moskva was commissioned: There were simply too many American submarines hiding in too large an area of ocean to hunt them down successfully.

The article’s ‘Modern Moskva’ proposal avoids the design’s technical failures but does not address the fundamental flaws that doomed all helicopter cruisers. Surface combatants such as cruisers, destroyers and frigates need deck space for missiles, radars, and guns. Aviation ships need deck space for aircraft. Fixed-wing aircraft are more efficient than rotary-wing, and conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) – particularly with catapults and arresting gear – more efficient than vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). Trying to make one hull be both an aviation vessel and a surface combatant results in a ship that is larger and more expensive than a surface combatant, but wholly worse at operating aircraft than a carrier.

Consequently, helicopter cruisers were a rare and fleeting type of surface combatant around the world. Only six of these ungainly hybrids were ever commissioned: France built one, Italy three, the Soviet Union two. The Japanese built four smaller helicopter destroyers (DDH).3 In every case the follow-on designs to these helicopter ships were dedicated aircraft carriers: the Soviet Kiev-class, Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi-class*, and Japanese Hyuga-class. France’s Marine Nationale chose not to replace Jeanne d’Arc after her 2010 retirement.

Moskva-class, Mikhail Kukhtarev, 07/28/1970 (the pennant number 846 implies this is Moskva in 1974, the photo may be misdated)

The Moskva-class was a striking symbol of Soviet Naval Power. These vessels epitomize the aesthetic of mid-Cold War warship with a panoply of twin arm launchers, multiple-barrel anti-submarine rocket-mortars and a forest of antennae sprouting from every surface save the huge flight deck aft. They are also poorly understood in the West. The Soviets were never satisfied with the design, cancelling production after the first two ships in favor of dedicated separate aircraft carriers and anti-submarine cruisers, the 6 Kiev and Tblisi-class carriers and 17 Kara and Kresta-II-class ASW cruisers in particular.4

The Moskva-class, known to the Soviets as the Проект 1123 “Кондор” Противолодочная Крейсера [Пр.1123 ПКР], (Project 1123 “Condor” Anti-Submarine Cruiser/Pr.1123 PKR) was conceived in the late 1950s. Two ships, Moskva and Leningrad, were laid down between 1962 and 1965, entering service in late 1967 and mid 1969 respectively. The Moskva-class was conceived as anti-submarine cruisers, designed to hunt down enemy SSBN and SSN as part of offensive anti-submarine groups at long ranges from the USSR.5 The primary mission of these groups was to sink American ballistic missile submarines, the 41 for Freedom, before they could launch.6

USS George Washington (SSBN-598), lead boat of the 41 For Freedom (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

The requirements were set at 14 helicopters to enable 24/7 ASW helicopter coverage, and a large number of surface to air missiles for self-protection. The resulting ships were armed with (from bow to stern):7

  • 2x 12 barrel RBU-6000 213mm ASW rocket-mortars
    • 96 Depth Bombs total, 48 per mount
  • 1x Twin Arm SUW-N-1 (RPK-1) Rocket-Thrown Nuclear Depth Bomb system
    • 8 FRAS-1 (Free Rocket Anti Submarine) carried
  • 2x twin-arm launchers for SA-N-3 GOBLET (M-11 Shtorm)
    • 48 SAM per mount, 96 total
  • 2x twin 57mm gun mounts, en echelon
  • 2x 140mm ECM/Decoy launchers (mounted en echelon opposite the 57mm guns)
  • 2x quintuple 533mm torpedo mounts amidships
    • One per side, 10 weapons carried total
Primary organic weapons of the Moskva-class warship Leningrad. Click to expand. (Image from, modified by author.)

This concept and armament made sense in 1958, when submarine-launched ballistic missiles had short ranges and SSBNs would have to approach the Soviet coast.8 In 1964 the USN introduced the new Polaris A-3 missile, which extended ranges to almost 3,000 miles.9 By the commissioning of Moskva in December 1967, all 41 for Freedom boats were in commission, with 23 of those boats carrying the Polaris A-3.10 The increased range of Polaris A-3 meant that US SSBNs could hit targets as deep in the USSR as Volgograd from patrol areas west of the British Isles, far beyond the reach of Soviet ASW forces.11 The Project 1123 was obsolete in its designed mission before the ships took to sea, as they could never find and destroy so many submarines spread over such a large area before the SSBNs could launch their far-ranging missiles.

Leningrad sensor fit. Click to expand. (Attribution on image, edited by author)

The defining feature of the Moskva-class was the compliment of 14 helicopters kept in two hangars, one at deck level for two Ka-25 (NATO codename: HORMONE) and a larger one below the flight deck for 12 more of the Kamovs. The greatest limitation of this hangar and flight deck arrangement was the relative inefficiency compared to a traditional full-deck carrier. There was only space on the flight deck to launch or recover four aircraft at any one time. This was sufficient for the design requirements, which were based around maintaining a smaller number of aircraft round-the-clock. However, the limited space prevents efficient surging of the air group, and the low freeboard forced central elevators, rather than more efficient deck edge designs. The Soviet Navy found the aviation facilities of the Moskva-class limited and insufficient for its role.12 The third ship in the class was to be built to a differing specification, Project 1123.3, 2000 tons heavier, 12m longer and focused on improving the ship’s air defenses and aviation facilities.13 Project 1123.3 was cancelled before being laid down and focus shifted to the more promising Project 1143, the four ship Kiev-class aircraft carriers.

Leningrad showing her typical seakeeping in 1969. (

Among the chief reasons for the cancellation of all further development of the Moskva-class was the design’s terrible seakeeping. The very fine bow pounded in rough seas, shipping an enormous amount of water over the bow.14 On sea trials in 1970, Moskva went through a storm with a sea state of 6, meaning 4-6m (13-20ft) wave height calm-to-crest. For the duration of the storm the navigation bridge 23m (75 ft) above the waterline was constantly flooded.15

A Moskva in drydock awaiting scrapping, showing the rounded lines aft. (

The Moskva-class also had a broad, shallow, round-sided cross-section aft. This caused issues with roll stability in all but moderate seas. This meant that flight operations could be conducted only up to a sea-state of 5, or 2.5-4m (8-13 ft) waves, especially when combined with the excessive pounding in waves.16 In addition, the class shipped so much water over the bow that the weapons suite was inoperable in heavy seas and prone to damage at sea state 6.17 The Moskva-class failed to meet the requirements for seakeeping set by the Soviet Navy.18 It could not effectively fight in bad weather, a fatal flaw for ships designed to hunt enemy submarines in the North Atlantic.

Moskva in the North Atlantic. Pennant number indicates 1970 or 1978 (

Project 1123 stands among the worst ship classes put to sea during the Cold War. The Moskva-class had too few aircraft, too small a flight deck, poorly laid out weapons, shockingly bad seakeeping, and was generally unsuitable for operation in regions with rough seas or frequent storms, despite being designed for the North Atlantic. They were not significantly modernized while in service and were scrapped quickly after the Soviet Union collapsed. Many knew the Moskva-class cruisers were bad ships when they were in service. The Soviets cancelled not only further construction of the class, but further development of the design before the second ship of the class, Leningrad, had commissioned.19 In place of Project 1123 the Soviets built Project 1143, the Kiev-class, an eminently more sensible, seaworthy, and efficient ship with a full-length flight deck which saw serial production and extensive development.20

Part II: Whither the Helicopter Cruiser?

Having explored the development and history of the Moskva-class helicopter cruiser, let’s examine the proposed ‘Modern Moskva’. The goal of the ‘Modern Moskva’ is to have a self-contained ship with drones, helicopters, stand-off anti-ship and strike weapons, and robust air defenses.21 The original article calls this a helicopter cruiser (CGH), helicopter carrier (CVH), or helicopter destroyer (DDH). This article will describe it as an aviation surface combatant (ASC), which better reflects the variety of possible sizes and configurations of ship. The original article then explains that such a self-contained ship accompanied by a handful of small ASW frigates (FF) would be the ideal tool for expendable and survivable distributed lethality to carry out sea denial in the anti-access/area denial zones of America’s most plausible enemies.22 Both the design and operational use concept are flawed, and will be examined in sequence.

The argument made in favor of aviation surface combatants in the article rests on three fundamental principles: that the threat of anti-shipping weapons to carriers has increased, that naval aircraft will be supplanted by long-range missiles, and that unmanned and autonomous systems have fundamentally changed naval warfare. These foundational assertions are false.

The threat of anti-ship weapons has increased over time, in absolute terms. Missile ranges have increased, seekers have become more precise, and targeting systems have proliferated, but the threat to aircraft carriers has not increased in relative terms. As the threat to aircraft carriers has increased, shifting from conventional aircraft to both manned (Kamikaze) and unmanned anti-ship missiles, the carrier’s defenses have also become more powerful. The Aegis Combat System and NIFC-CA combine the sensors and weapons of an entire naval task force, including its aircraft, into one single coherent system. Modern navies are also transitioning towards fielding fully fire-and-forget missiles, such as RIM-174 ERAM, RIM-66 SM-2 Active, 9M96, 9M317M, Aster 15/30, and others. Navies are also moving towards quad-packed active homing missiles for point defense, such as RIM-162 E/F/G ESSM Block 2, CAMM and CAMM-ER, or 9M100. These two developments radically increase the density of naval air defenses, pushing the saturation limit of a naval task force’s air defenses higher than ever before.

USS Sullivans, Carney, Roosevelt, and Hue City conduct a coordinated launch of SM-2MR as part of a VANDALEX, 12/1/2003 (US Navy Photo)

The article is correct that anti-ship weapons have become more capable, but the defenses against such weapons have also benefited from technological advances. The aircraft carrier is no more threatened today than has been the case historically. That is not to say that aircraft carriers are not threatened in the modern era, but that they always have been threatened.

The article claims that naval fixed-wing aircraft will soon be supplanted in their roles as stand-off strike and attack roles by long range missiles. While it is true that modern missiles can strike targets at very long ranges, naval aircraft will always be able to strike farther. Naval aviation can do so by taking the same missiles as are found on ships and carrying them several hundred miles before launch. For example, an American aviation surface combatant as proposed in the article would carry 32 AGM-158C LRASM in VLS, and fire them to an estimated 500 nautical miles. A maritime strike package with 12 F-18E Super Hornets could carry 48 LRASM to 300 nautical miles, and then launch them to a target another 500 miles distant, delivering 150% of the weapons to 160% the distance.23 Unlike VLS-based fires, which must retreat to reload, carrier-based aircraft can re-arm and re-attack in short order. The mobility, capacity, and persistence of aircraft make it unlikely that naval aviation will be replaced by long range missiles.

AGM-158C LRASM flight test (NAVAIR photo)

Finally, the article claims that there is an ‘unmanned revolution’ which has fundamentally changed naval combat. This point has some merit, but is overstated. Unmanned systems typically increase the efficiency of assets, most often by making them more persistent or less expensive. However, this is not a revolution in naval warfare. There have been many technological developments in naval history that were called revolutionary. Other than strategic nuclear weapons the changes were, instead, evolutionary. Though they introduced new methods, new domains, or increased the mobility and tempo of naval warfare, these were evolutionary changes. Even with modern advanced technology, the strategy of naval warfare still largely resembles that of the age of sail. As Admiral Spruance said:

“I can see plenty of changes in weapons, methods, and procedures in naval warfare brought about by technical developments, but I can see no change in the future role of our Navy from what it has been for ages past for the Navy of a dominant sea power—to gain and exercise the control of the sea that its country requires to win the war, and to prevent its opponent from using the sea for its purposes. This will continue so long as geography makes the United States an insular power and so long as the surface of the sea remains the great highway connecting the nations of the world.”24

Control or command of the sea is the ability to regulate military and civilian transit of the sea.25 This is the object of sea services. Unmanned and autonomous systems enhance the capability of forces to command the sea, but they do not change the principles of naval strategy.

Sea Hunter USVs sortie for Unmanned Battle Problem 21 (UxS IBP-21) with USS Monsoor DDG-1001 astern. (Photo 210420-N-EA818-1177, April 20, 2021, MC2 Thomas Gooley via DVIDS/RELEASED)

Having examined the underlying assumptions of the article, we must now examine how these ships are proposed to be used. The concept is that task groups of “two of the proposed helicopter carriers and at least 3 ASW frigates… would be most effective… [in] the South-West Pacific Ocean and the triangle of the Norwegian Sea, the Greenland Sea and the Barents Sea.”26 These waters are said to be so covered by enemy anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities that “traditional air-sea battle tactics” are too dangerous, requiring these helicopter cruisers groups to change the risk calculus.

The article’s use case for the aviation surface combatant has three interlocking assertions. First is that China and Russia will use A2/AD. A2/AD refers to “approaches that seek to prevent US forces from gaining or using access to overseas bases or critical locations such as ports and airfields while denying US forces the ability to maneuver within striking distance of [the enemy’s] territory.”27 Next, that A2/AD represents a novel and greater threat to naval forces which prevents typical naval tactics and operations, therefore new tactics and platforms are needed. Finally, that aviation cruisers leading frigates into these A2/AD zones for various purposes are the novel tactic and platform to solve A2/AD.

The article is flawed on all three counts. Despite the popularity of A2/AD in Western literature, it does not actually correlate to Russian or Chinese concepts for naval warfare. Even if A2/AD did exist as is proposed, it does not represent a relatively greater threat to naval task forces than that historically posed by peer enemy forces in wartime. Finally, even if it did exist and was the threat it is alleged to be, the solution to the problem would not be helicopter cruiser groups.

Launch of SS-C-5 STOOGE (3K55 Bastion) coastal missile system. (Photo via Alexander Karpenko)

A2/AD is a term which evolved in the PLA watching community and has been applied to the Russians.28 Indeed, there is no originally Russian term for A2/AD because it does not fit within the Russian strategic concept.29 Russian thinking centers around overlapping and complimentary strategic operations designed “not to deny specific domains, but rather to destroy the adversary’s ability to function as a military system.”30 While there has been a spirited back-and-forth discussion of the capabilities of Russian A2/AD systems, these center around “whether Russian sticks are 4-feet long or 12-feet long and if they are as pointy as they look or somewhat blunter.”31 By ignoring the reality of how the Russian military plans to use their forces and equipment this narrative loses the forest for the trees.

The term A2/AD comes from PLA watching, perhaps it is more appropriate to the PLAN’s strategy? Not particularly. The Chinese concept is a strategy called Near Seas Defense, “a regional, defensive strategy concerned with ensuring China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.”32 Defensive refers to the goals, not the methods used. The PLAN’s concept of operations stresses offensive and preemptive action to control war initiation.33 Near Seas Defense has been mixed with the complimentary Far Seas Protection to produce A2/AD.34 As with the Russian example, the actual strategy, operational art and tactics of the PLA have been subsumed into circles on a map.

If A2/AD existed as more than a buzzword it would not necessarily pose a new or greater threat to aircraft carriers than existed historically. The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean and the US Navy off Okinawa and the Japanese Home Islands during the Second World War experienced threats as dangerous as A2/AD. The constrained waters in the Mediterranean, especially around Malta, kept Royal Navy forces under threat of very persistent air attack at almost all times. At Okinawa and off the Home Islands, the Japanese could launch multi-hundred plane Kamikaze raids against exposed US forces thousands of miles from a friendly anchorage. These raids were the impetus for Operation Bumblebee, which became Talos, Tartar and Terrier and eventually the Standard Missiles and Aegis Combat System.35 The US Navy has been aware of and striving to meet this challenge for nearly a century, just under different names.

Since 1945, the defense has required:

  • Well-positioned early warning assets, such as radar picket ships or aircraft,
  • Effective fighter control,
  • Large numbers of carrier-based fighters relative to incoming launchers (shoot the archer) and weapons (shoot the arrow),
  • Heavily-layered air defenses on large numbers of escorts and the carriers themselves. In the Second World War, these included 5”/38, 40mm, and 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Today, these include SM-2ER/SM-6, SM-2MR, ESSM, RAM, Phalanx, Nulka and SRBOC.
  • Well-built ships with trained and motivated crews, skilled in fighting their ship and in damage control.

This methodology does not wholly prevent ships being lost or damaged: There is no such thing as a perfect defense. What it does do is optimize the air defenses of a task force for depth, mass, flexibility, and redundancy.

Aviation cruiser groups are not the appropriate solution to the A2/AD problem. The cruiser groups proposed have far less air defense than the US Navy’s Dual Carrier Strike Groups (DCSG), the current concept to push into “A2/AD” areas.36 The paper implies that these aviation surface combatants would be smaller targets and would not be attacked as much, but if they were attacked, they would be expendable. However, the enemy decides what targets are worth attacking with what strength, not one’s own side. If a carrier strike group with 48 strike fighters, 5 E-2D AEW&C aircraft to maintain 24/7 coverage, escorts with 500 VLS cells, and the better part of two dozen ASW helicopters is too vulnerable to enter the A2/AD Zone, why would two aviation cruisers and five ASW frigates with 200-350 VLS cells, some drones and 4 AEW helicopters be able to survive against a similar onslaught?37 If a carrier cannot survive the A2/AD area, deploying less capable aviation surface combatants would be wasting the lives of the sailors aboard. The rotary-wing AEW assets proposed are too limited in number and capability to provide anything approaching the constant and long-range coverage the USN feels is necessary.38 Even if A2/AD existed as the threat it is alleged to be, the proper response would not be to build helicopter cruisers and send them into harm’s way with a small ASW escort force. The appropriate response would be to build large numbers of competent escorts to reinforce the carrier task forces, such as the Flight 3 Burke-class or the forthcoming DDG(X).

Conclusion: Neither Fish Nor Fowl

The Moskva-class represented the largest and most obvious failure of the helicopter cruiser concept. Their weapons were inflexible and their air group too small, compounded by horrible seakeeping. Beyond the failings of the design itself, their doctrinal role was made obsolete before the first ship commissioned. While the proposed ‘Modern Moskva’ avoids these failings, the concept does not address the problems which doomed all helicopter cruisers. Efficiently operating large numbers of aircraft requires as much flight deck as possible. Surface combatants require deck space for weapons and sensors. Trying to combine the two requirements yields a ship that does neither well. A ‘Modern Moskva’ finds itself in a position of being larger and more expensive than a normal surface combatant, but wholly worse than a carrier at flight operations.

If the aircraft are necessary and supercarriers unavailable, then a light carrier (CVL) is a better solution. Specifically, this light carrier should be of conventional CATOBAR design with two catapults capable of operating two squadrons of strike fighters, an electronic attack squadron and an ASW helicopter squadron, plus detachments of MQ-25 and E-2D. In addition to the previously mentioned increased anti-shipping and land attack strike radius, the CVL’s fixed wing air group can fight the outer air battle, the modern descendant of the WWII-era “Big Blue Blanket,” and do so in excess of 550 nautical miles from the carrier.39 A task group with a single CVL and escorts could exercise command of the sea over a far greater area than a helicopter cruiser group, and do so with greater flexibility, persistence, survivability, and combat power. The range of carrier aircraft allows the carrier to stay outside of the purported A2/AD bubbles and launch full-capability combined arms Alpha strikes against targets from the relative safety of the Philippine or Norwegian Seas.

USS Midway, CV-41, with CVW-5 embarked, 1987. The modern CVL could approach Midway in displacement and deck area. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

The world is becoming less stable. Russia and China are both militarily aggressive and respectively revanchist and expansionist. They are skilled, intelligent and capable competitors who should not be underestimated as potential adversaries. American and Allied forces must be ready and willing to innovate both in the methods and tools of warfare. Rote memorization, mirror imaging and stereotyping the enemy lead to calamity, as at the Battle of Tassafaronga. It is important to remember that these potential enemies are just as determined, just as intelligent, and just as driven as Western naval professionals. These potential enemies will not behave in accordance with facile models and clever buzzwords, nor will they use their weapons per the expectations of Western analysts. They have developed their own strategies to win the wars they think are likely, and the tactics, equipment and operational art to carry out their concepts.

English speaking defense analysis tends to obsess over technology, but war is decided by strategy, and strategy is a historical field.40 We must not forget that “The good historian is like the giant of a fairy tale. He knows that wherever he catches the scent of human flesh, there his quarry lies.”41 Historical context focuses on the human element of warfare: the persistent question of how to use the weapons and forces available to achieve the political goals of the conflict. By removing history, and with it strategy, operational art, and tactics, proposals often drift toward past failed concepts mixed with the buzzword du jour. War has only become faster and more lethal over time. The stakes in a conflict with the probable enemy will be higher than any war the US has fought since the Second World War. Novelty and creativity are necessary and should be lauded, but they must be balanced with historical context, strategic vision, and a candid and realistic understanding of potential adversaries.

Benjamin Claremont is a Strategic Studies MLitt student at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. His dissertation, Peeking at the Other Side of the Fence: Lessons Learned in Threat Analysis from the US Military’s Efforts to Understand the Soviet Military During the Cold War, explored the impact of changing sources, analytical methodologies, and distribution schemes on US Army and US Navy threat analysis of the Soviet Military, how this impacted policy and strategy, and what this can teach in a renewed era of great power competition. He received his MA (Honours) in Modern History from the University of St. Andrews. He is interested in Strategy, Operational Art, Naval Warfare, and Soviet/Russian Military Science.

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

*Correction: The Italian carrier was of the Giuseppe Garibaldi class, not the Vittorio Veneto class as originally stated.


1. Przemysław Ziemacki, Is the Moskva-Class Helicopter Cruiser the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era?, CIMSEC, 7/9/2021,

2. Ziemacki, Moskva Class for the Drone Era. All quotations in this and the preceding paragraph are from Mr. Ziemacki’s article.

3. The French Jeanne d’Arc, the Italian Andrea Doria, Caio Duilio, and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Soviet Moskva and Leningrad, and the Japanese Haruna, Hiei, Shirane and Kurama.

4. Yuri Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, 2010, МОРКНИГА, p. 79, 98 The Tblisi class became the Kuznetsov class after 1991.

5. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 18

6. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 17

7. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 22,

8. USN Strategic Systems Programs, FBM Weapon System 101: The Missiles,

9. USN Strategic Systems Programs, FBM Weapon System 101: The Missiles,

10. The first to be built with Polaris A-3 was USS Daniel Webster, SSBN-626. In addition, the 10 SSBN-627 boats and 12 SSBN-640 boats all carried 16 Polaris A-3 each for a total of over 350 missiles.

11. Determined using Missilemap by Alex Wellerstein,

12. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

13. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

14. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

15. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

16. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

17. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

18. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

19. Work was halted on Pr.11233 in 1968, Leningrad commissioned on June 22nd, 1969.

20. Yuri Apalkov, Ударные Корабли, МОРКНИГА, p. 4-6

21. Ziemacki, Moskva Class for the Drone Era.

22. Ziemacki, Moskva Class for the Drone Era.

23. Xavier Vavasseur, Next Generation Anti-Ship Missile Achieves Operational Capability with Super Hornets, USNI News, 12/19/2019

24. Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, quoted in Naval Doctrine Publication 1: Naval Warfare (2020), P. 0 accessible at:

25. Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Naval Strategy, p. 103-4

26. Ziemacki, Moskva Class for the Drone Era.

27. Chris Dougherty, Moving Beyond A2/AD, CNAS, 12/3/2020, (clarification in brackets added)

28. Michael Kofman, It’s Time to Talk about A2/AD: Rethinking the Russian Military Challenge, War on the Rocks, 9/5/2019,

29. Kofman, It’s Time to Talk about A2/AD. The Russian term is a translation of the English

30. Kofman, It’s Time to Talk about A2/AD

31. Kofman, It’s Time to Talk about A2/AD

32. Rice, Jennifer and Robb, Erik, “China Maritime Report No. 13: The Origins of “Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection”” (2021). CMSI China Maritime Reports, p. 1

33. Rice and Robb, CMSI #13, p. 7

34. For more on the interactions between Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection see RADM Michael McDevitt, USN (Ret.), Becoming a Great “Maritime Power”: A Chinese Dream, CNA, June 2016,

35. The technical advisor for Bumblebee, 3T, Typhon, and Aegis was the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who also developed the VT fuse.

36. USS Theodore Roosevelt Public Affairs, Theodore Roosevelt, Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups conduct dual carrier operations, 2/8/2021,

37. A nominal CSG has 1x CG-47 and 4x DDG-79; CGH group has 2x 96 Cell CGH and 5x ASW LCS or 5x FFG-62

38. This is due to the payload, fuel efficiency, speed and altitude limitations inherent to rotary wing or tilt-rotor aircraft compared to fixed wing turboprops.

39. Based on estimated combat radius of c. 500 nautical miles for the F-18E, plus 50 nautical miles for the AIM-120D.

40. Hew Strachan, ‘Strategy in the Twenty-First Century’, in Strachan, Hew, ed., The Changing Character of War, (Oxford, 2011) p. 503; A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Seapower on History, (Boston, 1918) p. 7, 226-7; Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, (London, 1911) p. 9, Vigor, ‘The Function of Soviet Military History’, in AFD-101028-004 Transformation in Soviet and Russian Military History: Proceedings of the Twelfth Military History Symposium, 1986 p. 123-124; Andrian Danilevich, reviewing M. A. Gareev M. V. Frunze, Military Theorist, quoted in Chris Donnelly, Red Banner: The Soviet Military System in Peace and War, p. 200

41. Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, (New York, 1953), p. 26

Featured Image: April 1, 1990—A port beam view of the Soviet Moskva class helicopter cruiser Leningrad underway. (U.S. Navy photo by PH3 (Ac) Stephen L. Batiz)