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 airbase.ru, 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. (forums.airbase.ru)

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. (forums.airbase.ru)

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 (forums.airbase.ru)

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.

Endnotes

1. Przemysław Ziemacki, Is the Moskva-Class Helicopter Cruiser the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era?, CIMSEC, 7/9/2021, https://cimsec.org/is-the-moskva-class-helicopter-cruiser-the-best-naval-design-for-the-drone-era/

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, https://www.ssp.navy.mil/fb101/themissiles.html#I

9. USN Strategic Systems Programs, FBM Weapon System 101: The Missiles, https://www.ssp.navy.mil/fb101/themissiles.html#I

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, https://nuclearsecrecy.com/missilemap/

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 https://news.usni.org/2019/12/19/next-generation-anti-ship-missile-achieves-operational-capability-with-super-hornets

24. Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, quoted in Naval Doctrine Publication 1: Naval Warfare (2020), P. 0 accessible at: https://cimsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/NDP1_April2020.pdf

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, https://www.cnas.org/publications/commentary/moving-beyond-a2-ad (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, https://warontherocks.com/2019/09/its-time-to-talk-about-a2-ad-rethinking-the-russian-military-challenge/

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, https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/IRM-2016-U-013646.pdf

35. The technical advisor for Bumblebee, 3T, Typhon, and Aegis was the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who also developed the VT fuse. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA229872.pdf

36. USS Theodore Roosevelt Public Affairs, Theodore Roosevelt, Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups conduct dual carrier operations, 2/8/2021, https://www.cpf.navy.mil/news.aspx/130807

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)

4 thoughts on “Why The Moskva-Class Helicopter Cruiser Is Not the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era”

  1. This is an excellent analysis which mirrors many of my comments on the original article and the decisions I made in my own exploration of a heavily armed aviation ship. As such, I was wondering if you read my article on a more Kiev-like design for a self-escorting CVE used primarily for convoy escort in wartime.

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

    I was hoping to get a discussion of alternative concepts for these kinds of ships going since a traditional heavily escorted CVL is never cost effective, so I’m interested in your thoughts.

    1. Hi Mr. DiDonato! Not super used to wordpress’s UI, so I hope this replies correctly.

      While I love the aesthetics of the Kiev-class (especially Pr.1143.4/Adm. Gorshkov), I’m not sure it’s the best way to do a CVE. I’ve had spitballed conversations with friends about the concepts of a merchant-hull CVE, such as one mostly filled with metal foam (the idea being that it would be borderline impossible to sink, even if it split in half).

      In terms of self-escorting aviation vessels, I’ve never been sold on the concept. Putting surface combatant weapons and sensors on the CVE hull just drives up the price of something designed to be expendable, and the idea of putting all the eggs of a convoy’s escort in one basket doesn’t sit well with me. The paradigm of SLOC protection has (from the reading I’ve done) always been a numbers game. A single vessel escort can only be in once place at once. I don’t disagree that a CVE is a good idea, though, but I think that there are better options that an adapted Kiev-ized San Antionio-Class.

      On the other hand, the lack of a catapult on a STOVL CVE means that there’s no Hawkeyes. Defending against the increasingly common two-stage supersonic terminal seaskimmers without persistent AEW seems hair-raising, to say the least. While some kind of ECMV-22 could be developed, and might sell well internationally to the other STOVL carrier nations (ITA/UK/JPN), it would be another novel program to strain the USN procurement budget. Regarding F-35B AEW, I frankly think that that’s not viable on grounds of persistence, sensor capability, pilot fatigue and airframe life. You’d be running the air group into the ground trying to get 360 coverage to defend against sub-launched seaskimmers.

      Circling back to the Kievs, I’ll point out that they were *not* what Gorshkov wanted for the fleet. The Soviet Military Industrial Commission (VPK; led by Ustinov) spent most of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s quashing the idea of Soviet CATOBAR carriers. Did the VMF need fleet carriers? That’s certainly an open question, one perhaps better answered by others. But they had a series of design studies throughout the late 60s and 70s for various nuclear and conventional CATOBAR fleet carriers in the 70-80,000 ton range under Project 1160, 1153, and the initial CATOBAR 1143.5. Generally they had 2-3 cats, and an air group from that of SCB 101.66 Midway to 70s/80s Forrestal in size.

      The Kievs were what got built instead of Pr.1160 because the Soviet Military was primarily a land power, and building 3 80,000 ton CVNs and their air wings was seen as too risky; this is why the VMF had a catapult and arresting gear test setup in Crimea (NITKA, at Saki-4) in the late 1970s, despite the first CATOBAR carrier (Ulyanovsk) being slated for launch in the early-mid 1990s. Plus, Ulyanovsk wasn’t even fully CATOBAR, it still had the bow-ramp.

      Regarding the design proposal in your article, the San Antonio hull is unnecessary and a poor choice. It is not optimized for aviation handling, and enough modification to fix this is probably not saving much money or design time compared to a new hull. I’m believe the USN investigated CVLs for the Ford-class design studies, so figuring out which of those is buildable at Ingalls Pascagoula and getting them to gin-up a dedicated carrier hull is probably in the long run a better idea. The additions to the San Antonio you propose in the article are HUGE and the big resource sink in shipbuilding these days, as I understand it, is systems integration, not hull design. Bolting a lot of surface combatant sensors, weapons and battle management systems to an already very very complex integrated suite of systems on a carrier/Amphib seems like a recipe for development hell.

      It’s also really important to keep in mind, IMO, that the WWII CVE program was done at a point where Congress could sit down and clearly see that the USN was going to be in a shooting war with peer adversaries within the next 5 years. Building cheap knocked together minimum-capability mass produced CVE was viable because Congress and the Navy weren’t going to be saddled with the ships for a long peacetime service life. From this view, I really don’t think it’s appropriate or fiscally sound to build CVEs currently. There is every possibility of the USN buying these niche ships and then they serve as a crappy LHA for 25 years. On the other hand, I think that a CATOBAR CVL, something approximating the Midway-class, would be quite useful in all situations, and could meet the USN’s needs in lower-priority theaters (like CENTCOM or deterring the Russians in 2nd and 6th Fleets with NATO support), freeing CVNs to shift to the Indo-Pacific to deter the PLAN. I mentioned this in the article here, and hope to expand on it in future.

      As regards the weapons fit on your San-Antonio-CVE, I really don’t see what the advantage is compared to having a ‘normal’ CV[L/E/S] and then 3 Constellations or equivalent FFGs, perhaps with some FFs for even more ASW work. War is a team sport, and I just don’t see why trying to jam a carrier and three guided missile frigates onto one hull is more capable for the money spent as a convoy escort.

      Just a nitpick, your point about the RNoAF is kind of weird, the RNoN has had a tiny budget for years, it’s explicitly mentioned in the Helge Ingelstad accident report as part of the cause for the sinking, and the RNoAF only operates the F-35A. The RNoN wouldn’t pay the roughly 1.5 billion US to fix Helge, citing the price of a new frigate as ~500 million. Why would they spend 4 billion plus the price of an air group on an aviation surface combatant? The RNoN, with its focus on fast attack craft, doesn’t strike me as particularly interested in power projection.

      My bottom line is as follows: I don’t see any strong indication that a “traditional heavily escorted CVL” is, as you put it, “never cost effective”. Indeed, I think that compared to a STOVL aviation-surface-combatant the cost:benefit ratio is far in favor of both a CATOBAR CVL and a “traditional” adapted-merchant-hull CVE. The CVL brings so much more capability and flexibility that it’s likely worth the cost increases (especially because cost:benefit in war is not purely fiscal), and an adapted-merchant-hull CVE is so much cheaper and faster to produce that you’d probably still save money on it, the air wing, and 3 FFG-62s as escort. (For a baseline, the Lewis B Puller costs $134 million and serial FFG-62s are supposed to cost $550 million. I think your $4 billion number is optimistic, I think 5$b would be more reasonable).

      1. Thanks for the reply. I’m not sure how much of my article you read, so I’ll give a more clear design explanation than the shorthand Kiev reference I used to tie into your article. The model I put together has a straight Queen Elizabeth-style straight flight deck with a ski jump on the port side while the starboard island is greatly enlarged to carry the radars and wraps around the VLS battery to shield the flight deck from FOD. The deck gun is more exposed sitting forward of the superstructure, and there are a number of smaller point defense weapons mostly mounted on lower platforms.

        It’s also important to highlight that I selected the San Antonio hull on the assumption that we would want to build a single test ship to validate the concept before designing a purpose-built ship to really optimize the design and incorporate lessons learned. I agree that the San Antonio hull is almost certainly not optimal, but that commonality will make sustaining a unique one-off large warship much more feasible than usual so I think it’s the right call for what is essentially a prototype. Similar logic also applies to transplanting the sensors and weapons of a Burke wholesale (minimal changes mean easier integration), although the increasing commonality and modularity of Aegis (and COMBATSS-21) makes this a bit less important than the HME.

        With that out of the way, I want to clearly state one obvious point before I get into the meat of the discussion. We’re not the Soviets, so while understanding their logic is interesting, it isn’t really relevant to our needs so I won’t go into it further.

        Now, the first big topic is escorts which I’ve done a lot with as part of my surface combatant force structure work. The first key point is that three frigates is not a viable escort formation since they lack ballistic missile defense capabilities, so the actual minimum is two frigates and a Burke since you also need at least three ships to cover all directions. Based on the CRS report, the new frigates will cost about a billion dollars each (the Navy’s official estimate was $940 million but the actuals appear to be slightly higher at $991.9 million for hull 3), and Burkes tend to hover around $2 billion each for a hard minimum of $4 billion to escort anything. That means any traditional carrier you build, no matter how cheap, must have at least that $4 billion added to its cost to get the real shipbuilding cost since you must build enough escorts to protect it.

        With that number in mind, the commonly discussed LHA-derived CVL ($3.4 billion) gives you a cost of about $7.4 billion for the formation. For that price, you can get about two self-escorting CVEs based on my analysis (integration costs are what takes it above $3 billion) which can obviously be in two places at once. The total airwing underway should be slightly larger with the CVEs, and the reduced number of ships should bring operating costs down a bit thanks to fewer total sailors and reduced ship fuel consumption. The result is similar or slightly better overall cost and performance if you keep the CVEs together which you might be able to argue against, except the ability to split them up goes a long way for covering SLOCs.

        That said, where this discussion gets really interesting is sealift escort. That minimum applies to convoy escort just as much as it applies to escorting a carrier, except the up-armed CVE can fill the Burke’s slot by doubling as the BMD-capable surface combatant (the frigates will still be needed to cover other avenues of approach). That effectively subtracts $2 billion from the cost of the CVE so the effective cost is $1-2 billion to add persistent air cover to the convoy. It would be difficult to get that kind of aviation capacity (including lifts and maintenance facilities) on a separate hull for that price without badly compromising survivability (WWII sailors often said CVE stood for “Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable”), but the uparmed ship will obviously be built to military standards so we don’t have to worry too much about it sinking at the slightest provocation like European ships do (or burning/exploding). Furthermore, everything I just said about escorting sealift ships also applies to escorting amphibs, so a ship like this could add about 50% more aviation capacity to an ESG at relatively low cost.

        When you balance this against the phenomenal efficiency of supercarriers (an escorted Ford may cost 2.5 times as much as that LHA group, but it delivers far more total capability), it quickly becomes clear why every CVL study always ends in the decision to stick with CVNs. In fact, the efficiency of larger carriers is such that I strongly suspect a very deliberate political decision has been made to avoid studying larger carriers because the numbers would point to something significantly larger than the Fords which wouldn’t be politically acceptable. The only way I can see to get around this engineering reality is to target the cost of the escort formation by bringing that capability aboard the carrier since that only works for small ships (a Burke’s weapons and sensors on a Ford would obviously be inadequate on their own), which in turn implies a notch in the efficiency curve where the value/aviation capacity drops enough to make self-escorting viable and that $4 billion escort formation drops out of the equation. It seems like it should also be possible to exploit both of these effects by going to fewer, larger CVNs (e.g. six 200,000 ton monsters) and using the savings to build CVEs sitting in that notch to fill out the fleet.

        On the functional front, I think you’re underestimating the F-35. It may not have the radar of a traditional AEW aircraft, but it can do the job optically thanks to its DAS and it has the datalinks to cue ship-launched missiles. Combine that with the survivability inherent in the stealthy airframe (which also helps protect the ship from hostile detection), and it might actually be more survivable than the E-2 overall. The only major concern I share is airframe life/flight hours/fatigue, but that’s only really relevant in wartime or high-risk operations since its surface combatant defenses should be more than adequate in lower threat environments and will let you skip the CAP most of the time.

        As for peacetime operations, a huge part of that is simple presence. There’s always far more demand for aviation ships than hulls, so filling out the fleet with these would help take some of the demand off the CVNs. They could be used for air strikes in lower priority theaters (although that should really be the USAF’s job) or perform surveillance/ASW missions (they bring a lot to the table for missions like counterpiracy), but there’s no need to pigeonhole them like that since they can also do surface combatant missions and host special operations forces. Thus, while they are more limited than a LHA, they do bring novel flexibility to the fleet which will allow them to fill a wide variety of needs. That said, this is all very speculative which is why I would want to build a prototype to test the concept before committing to serial production. If it doesn’t work, we’re only stuck with one oddball which we can at least sustain and get use out of until it ages out, or we can sell/gift it to another country if we really don’t want to deal with it.

        Finally, on the subject of the RNoAF, the driving reason is international relations. Regardless of what we may think, the American public is getting fed up with subsidizing the defense of Europe. Unless they do something drastic and visible to turn that perception around, it’s only a matter of time before we walk away, especially now that China is adding major pressure elsewhere. A carrier, even a small one, would be exactly the kind of highly visible move that would convince the American people Norway is worth keeping around as an ally, especially since it would add concrete value in dealing with China. Beyond that, it would be an excellent flagship and force multiplier for many of the multinational task forces they participate in which would make them a sought-after partner worldwide. Even if they’re not interested in direct power projection, they could leverage that capability to get other diplomatic advantages like more advantageous trade deals by offering joint training or operations in exchange for concessions.

    2. I’m not sure if I replied properly, I’m not super familiar with wordpress, but see my comment below!

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