Is the Moskva-class Helicopter Cruiser the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era?

By Przemysław Ziemacki

A variety of factors, including the long range capabilities of modern artillery, the evolution of drones and missiles, together with the need for stand-off and distributed lethality, have combined to make space in the world’s navies for a great comeback of helicopter cruisers.

Cold War Cruiser Redux

In the mid-part of the Cold War, helicopter cruisers became a quite popular ship design. This trend was less noticeable in the US Navy, which concentrated on full-size carriers during that period, but a few other navies decided to operate such naval vessels. In the 1960’s, the French Navy commissioned the Jeanne d’Arc, the Italian Navy – Andrea Doria, Caio Duilio and Vittorio Veneto, and the Soviet Navy – Moskva and Leningrad. All of these ships were either heavily armed or could easily increase their armament, while also providing relatively large flight decks and hangars. The helicopter cruisers responded to the increasing threat and role of submarines in naval warfare. The air wings on each ship class consisted of four or more ASW helicopters.

The most representative among these designs is the Moskva class helicopter cruiser. Although 12 hulls were originally planned, only two vessels were built. The Moskva class had a length of 189 meters (620 feet) and 19,200 tons full displacement – a bit smaller than a San Antonio-class amphibious warfare ship. The aft hangar and flight deck of the ASW cruiser was designed to carry 18 medium helicopters, such as the Kamov Ka 25 Hormone; its bow and midship section included 2 medium caliber (57mm) guns and 3 missiles launchers for 48 anti-aircraft and 24 anti-submarine missiles.

The helicopter cruisers quickly assumed roles beyond ASW, even as improvements in ship-mounted sonar and the need to operate fixed-wing aircraft curtailed further development of ASW cruisers. Successors of the ships mentioned above were mostly full-length flight deck vessels.

Today, as full-size aircraft carriers are increasingly vulnerable due to long-range and land based anti-ship missiles, the Moskva class design could emerge from the shadow of history. 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. The promise of greater range artillery, such as high velocity projectile (HVP) ammunition for existing 5” naval guns, could redefine the role of artillery in war at sea. These developments would allow a couple of 5” Mk45 guns to replace standard range anti-ship missiles (like Harpoon or NSM) and to complement anti-aircraft missiles in local defense. In the near future, long range anti-ship missiles will assume the strike and attack roles long held by fixed-wing manned naval aircraft. A design inspired by the Moskva-class could be equipped with 96 VLS cells – or more – that would allow for carrying a mix of at least 32 long range anti-ship missiles and various air defense missiles.

Naturally, the key point of choosing a helicopter carrier is to use helicopters. This proposed solution concentrates on replacing the platform’s original ASW helicopters with a mix of manned airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) heavy helicopters and vertical lift reconnaissance UAVs.

The hangar space would probably need to be divided between a flight deck level hangar for the larger, heavier helicopters and a lower hangar for smaller drones. This arrangement might limit the AEW&C helicopters to only four, but this would nevertheless equal the number of E2D Hawkeyes frequently embarked on a full-size aircraft carrier. Moreover, one should not forget the potential for tiltrotor manned aircraft for AEW&C missions, which would effect better range and operational time than helicopters. Projects like DARPA’s Tern promise compact reconnaissance UAVs that have the range of a fixed-wing UAV but can still take off and land like a helicopter.

The vessel’s strong armament and the vertical lift air wing would make it a self-dependent unit, harkening back to the reconnaissance-strike roots of early carrier-based aircraft. In this context, 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.

Tactical Employment

A wartime task group would include two of the proposed helicopter carriers and at least 3 ASW frigates, which also could provide additional long range anti-ship missiles, extra naval guns, and organic ASW helicopters.

The areas where such task groups would be the most effective include waters of the South-West Pacific Ocean and the triangle of the Norwegian Sea, the Greenland Sea and the Barents Sea. These waters are key zones for global business and security during peacetime while also being characterized by great air- and land-based missile threat during conflict. A potential enemy has high anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities in these areas, which makes traditional air-sea battle tactics too risky. The proposed helicopter cruiser task groups could execute distributed lethality tactics, as they would be less expensive and more numerous than the carrier task groups.

The main aim of the proposed task groups is to create their own sea denial capabilities, in other words, to prevent enemies’ activity in the circle of about 200 nautical mile (Nm) against the air targets and about 500 Nm against the surface targets from the task group. The air wing of the new Moskva-class should be able to provide long-range, over-the-horizon reconnaissance and closer early warning of both surface and air threats.

The AEW&C helicopters carried by the proposed task groups would allow the ships in the task group to turn off their ships’ radars and minimize their electro-magnetic signature. Because of their self-dependence, these ships could easily employ lone wolf tactics, for example sortieing out against enemy task groups. They could also be used for taking control of choke points, or they could prevent enemy forces from landing on allied islands – especially with submarine support.

Many assert that submarines are the right tool to operate near the enemy coast during hostilities – for example, within the first island chain. The problem, however, is that submarines remain vulnerable to enemy ASW forces. Deploying the proposed task group behind own submarines, in a supporting role, would allow the destruction of enemy ASW surface vessels before they could fulfill their mission. Naturally, in more favorable and less threatening circumstances the proposed helicopter cruisers could join a carrier strike group or support forward-deployed Marine Corps operations. Conversely, if full-size carriers are in high demand within a given theater, these vessels could perform presence operations elsewhere.

The new Moskva-class design provokes reflection about the Zumwalt-class destroyer. If we make the Zumwalt-class a bit bigger and a bit less high tech, we will get a vessel that would be very similar to the proposed helicopter carrier but probably much more cost effective and flexible. In the Cold War there was a plan to create a helicopter destroyer (DDH) as a modified Spruance-class destroyer. The DDH was believed not to cost much more to build than a standard Spruance-class destroyer in the condition of series production – as they say, “steel is cheap and air is free.” It is fair to assume that the cost of the helicopter cruiser in relation to a cruiser (or a big destroyer – the difference between these two types is diminishing) could be attractive today as well.

There is also another naval design close to the helicopter cruiser – a landing platform dock (LPD). Most LPDs have enough space and adequate designs for being equipped in AESA radars, missiles, MCGs, helicopters and UAVs. Naturally, a LPD design would need to be adapted for both speed and hull survivability of DDGs. However, it would be very important to remember that the proposed helicopter cruiser is not an arsenal ship. There must exist a balanced quantity of missiles per warship, adequate to the distributed lethality concept. If naval combat requires more missiles, navies should rather look for new concepts of external floating storage rather than concentrating great amounts of scarce and expensive weapons in a single hull – a valuable sitting duck.   

After WWII there were very few naval battles and very many non-war naval operations which favored vessels with maximal aircraft capability and a lot of cargo-like space. A helicopter cruiser would have these qualities in far greater measure than typical cruisers and destroyers. The key advantage of the proposed helicopter cruiser is the flight deck, which enables at least two helicopters to take off or land at the same time. It would be easy to replace the AEW&C helicopters with other platforms and cargo, supporting special forces, humanitarian assistance, mine countermeasures, ASW, and many other missions. The history of the Jeanne d’Arc helicopter cruiser proves this flexibility well.

A design evolved from the Moskva-class could provide high AAW and ASuW self-sufficiency as well as it could be a very flexible platform for many additional tasks. The key assumption of this concept is to consider the proposed vessel as an expendable destroyer/cruiser rather than a distributed carrier. This is why the term “sea control ship” has not been mentioned above – it is a sea denial ship. In the face of the great missile threat and unmanned revolution the air sea battle concept needs to evolve and incorporate new solutions. In spite of strong criticism, full size carriers still provide capabilities and inherent flexibility that other warships cannot match. By adding the proposed air wing to a DDG or CG, the US Navy might get an additional class of capital ships that could act in parallel to CVNs – making the whole fleet architecture both less vulnerable and more diversified.

Przemysław Ziemacki is a freelancer journalist and photographer from Poland. He currently writes for Polityka, one of the largest Polish weeklies. He previously worked for the local press and has also published in National Geographic Poland. He has a long-standing avocational interest in naval matters; this article is his first foreign publication on the subject.

Feature photo: A port beam view of the Soviet Moskva-class helicopter cruiser Leningrad underway. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Defense.

9 thoughts on “Is the Moskva-class Helicopter Cruiser the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era?”

  1. I’m not a huge fan of the Moskva configuration. Personally, I’d stick with the full flight deck with ski jump Sea Control Ship. A dozen or so F-35Bs with another dozen H-60s would be a far more potent air wing. Pair it with a DDG if you need VLS cells and a high-end radar. An SCS also has the potential to carry STOL/STOVL UAVs, not just VTOL. Perhaps something along the lines of an unmanned OV-10 Bronco.

  2. I’ve been playing with this a few days since the Proceedings article about using LPDs for ASW. When you look at WW-II, the escort carriers were the most prolific platform larger than a destroyer. The jet age moved them to the side, but with UAVs we could be doing tons from the back end of an LPD and put a lot of fire power on the front end. All with little modification to the base design.

    1. I’ve been saying this exact thing for ages. I don’t how many missiles you can fit into a welldeck, but I’d guess the answer would be along the lines of ‘one helluva lot’.

  3. UAVs are still aircraft, so they’ll perform a lot better if they get a flight deck all the way through for STOL. That, plus organic defenses, might produce an effective “aviation cruiser” like the Kiev-class.

  4. This is very similar to a concept I wrote an article about a few months ago. The biggest difference is that I arranged the ship differently to shroud the VLS with the island and gave it a full length flight deck to operate F-35B’s. The Moskva’s layout was largely dictated by the requirements of older boom-arm and angled box launchers (and FOD risk to the aircraft), but modern VLS free us from those restrictions and let us improve the layout. I was also looking primarily at area defense and leaning on F-35B’s for situational awareness so I don’t have a huge drone inventory, but it would be easy to add more if desired. One other thing worth consideration for you more specifically is that since my concept is an all-in-one escort and STOVL carrier capable of acting as a self-contained task group, you can fit it into the force structure of a nation like Poland to greatly enhance your international prestige, influence, and alliance value. If you’d like to read my work, here’s the link:

    https://cimsec.org/armed-and-independent-thinking-outside-the-box-on-small-carriers/

    On the employment front we have similar ideas and your task groups would be an excellent way to cut off chokepoints, especially to submarines since you can easily maintain a dense sonobouy field in a narrow channel with a large fleet of helicopters. My only real disagreement is that I think hostile major power coastlines are too dangerous for any fleet to approach so I focus on escort duties more, but your ship would also be an excellent escort so it’s not really a criticism, just something that would have to be wargamed out to determine the optimal tactics.

    One other important concern I’m not clear how thoroughly you’ve considered is the risk of losing helicopters in action. This obviously isn’t a huge deal for the ASW aircraft since you have enough to absorb some losses there, but losing even one AEW&C helicopter (or tiltrotor) is a serious problem with just four on board. This is further complicated by the fact that they must advertise their position with their radar and your inability to escort them like CVNs do (this is one of the Growler’s most important missions), so I’m very concerned about combat losses there leaving you blind and vulnerable. You do admittedly indirectly discuss mitigating this with fleet tactics which would at least double your AEW&C capacity (you can probably swap out some ASW helicopters as well with that many on hand), but that still leaves the attrition problem since these are expensive platforms with highly trained crews you can ill-afford to lose. My solution was obviously to trade some capability for survivability by using F-35B’s, while the British use their F-35Bs to protect an AEW&C helicopter on the much larger Queen Elizabeths.

    The only true issue I have with your thinking is that you’re overestimating the value of guns in modern naval war. While it’s true new technologies like the HVP do significantly improve the range of conventional guns, they’re still less than half the range of even lightweight anti-ship missiles like NSM. Furthermore, the ballistic trajectory of the shells makes it extremely easy to locate the gun with long-range radar, so even if you do sneak in close enough to use the gun, a counterattack is virtually guaranteed. That largely limits its utility to secondary roles and undefended targets even with the improved ammunition, so you shouldn’t expect any revolutionary changes there.

    Anyways, it’s good to see more thought going into the subject of heavily armed carriers. They obviously have their pros and cons just like everything else, but I think this is definitely a good time to seriously reexamine them in light of modern technology and renewed naval threats.

  5. Thank you for your attention and comments. I have decided to reply in one general comment because one problem – a full length flight deck – has been mentioned several times.

    A full length flight deck has many advantages (I would be an advocate of CVNs if I took part in a discussion about fleet architecture of the US Navy). However, I have noticed that when a light aircraft carrier design appears the end of discussion is a full size aircraft carrier as an optimal tool to do the job. For example, recently I read this article: https://www.navylookout.com/are-the-royal-navys-aircraft-carriers-too-big/. In the reality of the US Navy the answer names CVN. My conclusion is that small carrier designs are unstable. Such designs are acceptable in a few navies but probably the main reasons of this situation are 1) these navies have limited tasks and 2) they can not afford for full size carriers. The proposed helicopter cruiser is something from a different shelf. It is not a carrier which allows to keep it cheap, small (relatively…) and numerous.

    My assumption is that the proposed helicopter cruiser could be attractive in spite of its limitations. For example, the AEW&C helicopters could be protected by loyal wingman vertical lift UAVs (they would need to be developed ofcourse). It is just my first quick thought. It is true I have not considered this problem enough. However, are we sure the only solution is a full length flight deck?

    1. Ok, I see the issue here. The key point to understand is that when it comes to carriers, bigger ships are much more efficient. Many of the true drivers of cost are either flat (like C2) or scale slower than displacement/air group size (like propulsion), so any pure carrier will always face pressure to grow since a small increase in cost provides a disproportionately large increase in performance. In fact, this pressure is so strong that I strongly suspect political pressure is the only thing that kept the Ford-class from being significantly larger than the Nimitz-class as further reflected by the fact that the Navy stubbornly refuses to evaluate larger CVNs. There are plenty of excellent discussions of this, particularly a variety of presentations by Captain J. Talbot Manvel who was heavily involved in developing the Ford.

      Circling back to your thesis, history shows that the helicopter cruisers were not exempt from this pressure. When navies replaced or succeeded helicopter cruisers, those ships almost always had full length flight decks, and even if you stretch your definition to include amphibs you see a steady size growth over the years. Thus, your idea of using this configuration to restrain growth clearly will not work.

      What can work, and what I did, is to instead consider the cost of the carrier group as a whole. The minimum viable escort formation is a destroyer and two frigates which costs about $4 billion, so if you can make a self-escorting carrier by folding in the destroyer’s combat capabilities you can achieve savings on the order of $2 billion overall. That doesn’t fully eliminate the upward pressure, but it does put a check on it because it will require several billion dollars worth of escorts if it gets too valuable. That step change creates a stable zone where the smaller ship is relatively cost effective by balancing the efficiency of a larger hull against the risk of operating unescorted, and that zone is where a ship concept like either of ours can function by virtue of its weapons, not its deck shape.

    2. Full-deck aircraft carriers, if unrestrained by hard limits, do grow to supercarrier size out of practicality, but cost is that hard limit for most navies so artificial restraint to a helicopter deck probably isn’t necessary.

      There is a gulf in capability between VTOL aircraft and everything else, to the point that a helicopter-only carrier isn’t viable as an all-warfare-area asset.
      – AEW&C helicopters exist, but are limited, especially in operating altitude: a fixed-wing platform could carry the same radar at about twice as high, providing about twice the range against low-altitude targets.
      – VTOL fighters don’t really exist: the Harrier, Yak-38, F-35B, etc are all STOVL aircraft relying on a full-deck takeoff to get a useful load airborne. A UAV could improve the margins of that performance, but still would want a deck run or catapult for launch.

      With the big limiting factor being aircraft design, not ship design, if a VTOL airwing ever became viable it wouldn’t matter as much what ships they were fielded on, but if the idea is to build ships from scratch, it makes more sense to put in a full flight deck and reduce the challenges for the aircraft.

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