Why are military ships so difficult to attack from distance?

With the recent news that Ukrainian missiles were likely responsible for the sinking of the Moskva, I wonder why they simply couldn’t sink a few more? The ships are large and basically floating islands, correct? I could see that a modern military ship’s defense systems would protect from direct attacks from close range. But how would they be able to stop a guided missile with the ship programmed as the target?

Modern ship missile defense systems are a complicated mix of radar, computers, and rapid-firing rotary guns, which work together automatically to shoot down missiles or small aircraft threatening the ship. When they work right they can keep a ship safe from a relatively small number (i.e. one or two should be well within their capability) of anti-ship missiles. Dozens of missiles at the same time would probably overwhelm even the best naval anti-missile systems, which is one of the reasons that naval big thinkers are rethinking naval strategy (it’s much, much cheaper to obtain and maintain dozens of anti-ship missiles than even a single moderately sized warship).

They can definitely defend themselves.

Keep in mind that most anti-ship missiles are more akin to a small airplane than what we probably think of as a “missile”. The US Harpoon antiship missile is 13 feet long and 13.5 inches in diameter. The Ukrainian Neptune / Russian KH-35 (what the Neptune is based on) is 14 feet long and 16.5 inches in diameter. Others are larger still.

And they do show up on radar and are vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles at longer ranges, and CIWS missiles/guns at very close ranges, both of which modern ships, including the Moskva have.

The Ukrainians hitting her with two missiles means that some combination of things happened- the Russian crew was sloppy and not doing what they should have in terms of defensive measures, the Russian crew’s maintenance was sloppy and things didn’t work like they should have, the defensive measures themselves didn’t work as advertised, and/or the Ukrainians had some sort of EM warfare that was effective allowing their missiles to get through.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m guessing that all of those were in play to some degree.

Compounding the OP’s question is that missile defense was apparently part of Muskva’s primary role: Once she was disabled, it should have been even easier to hit the other ships in her fleet, because she was the one defending them.

I suspect that the answer is just that, though they’ve been fighting both valiantly and effectively, the Ukrainian military is still severely short on resources. Sinking the Muskva might have been a result of them throwing everything they had at it, and by the time they resupplied enough to make another such attack, the rest of the fleet had already moved out of range.

Keep in mind that the CWIS is the ship’s weapon of last resort. They only have a range of about a mile, which is precious little time to vaporize an object the size of a minivan bearing down on the ship at close to the speed of sound.

My understanding is that warships are not particularly difficult to attack from a distance using anti-ship missiles like the Exocet or Harpoon or Russian equivalents. The missiles are designed to skim in low over the water, avoiding detection, and then detonating at the ships waterline. That’s a big concern
among modern naval war planners.

A Carrier Battle Fleet tied together with the Aegis System can easily handle dozens of missiles. Within a decade, they will also be defended with a Laser defense system. The Zumwalt Destroyers and Ford Class Carriers will be equipped with such is my understanding.

The big worries for US Navy is ships operating alone and of course torpedoes.

A fleet would have a minimum of 8 Phalanx CIWS. These guns are extremely accurate and fast to a range of 1.5 miles and have a Rate of Fire of at least 3000 rounds per minute. With the Aegis system, the entire fleet works together to shoot down the incoming missiles.

Additionally the Carriers carry the Sea Sparrow, anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles. These were already pretty good in 1988. I’m sure they’ve advanced a lot since then.

Yes, I was assuming a single ship. Thanks for what you added.

Sadly for the Moskva, the Russian Black Sea Fleet doesn’t have aircraft carriers, Ticonderoga-class Aegis missile cruisers, and Zumwalt-class destroyers :frowning:

Sadly? What is sad is the lack of properly trained firefighting crews and lack of leadership planning concerning access to the Black Sea.

Firefighting is half of what crews train for. The fact that the missle was only rated to take out a 5k ton ship may mean that yes, an ammo explosion caused the major damage. This should have been controlled better by ship design and proper fire control procedures.

The entrance to the Black Sea is controlled by Turkey who is part of NATO. They can only replace the Moskya with what is already in the Black Sea. Why didnt Russia beef up the fleet better before the war broke out? The timeline was totally under their control.

Why would they? That would require a lot of effort on their part, considering they were just going to drive int Kyiv unimpeded. The war would be over in a matter of days. Plus it would require a decision from the battlefield commander of the operation which… ooooh.

Do we really believe that the Russians were sloppy and incompetent and their systems didn’t work as expected? There must be a more logical explanation - maybe space lasers.

They only have (uh, had) three missle cruisers in total, anyway.

All three of them?

They’ve been built with the power generation capabilities to support the laser system. It was intended they would get the rail guns but this program was cancelled as apparently metallurgy is not up to the job yet. The Ford Class carriers are significantly more powerful than the Nimitz class. Plenty of excess power generation available.

I’m sure future ships will be built that can support such systems, but at this time I think those are the only 2 classes of ships with the excess power generation capacity. But of course the carriers are the most important one.

There is some debate about (U.S.) use of Carrier Battle Groups. The concerns seem to be not so much large numbers of missiles, but faster cruise missiles - and submarines. Two U.S. carriers have been “sunk” by submarines on exercises.

But the last of these was 14 years ago, so no doubt technology and tactics have moved on significantly since then.

Subs are the main danger. It is very hard to defend against torpedoes. Harder to defend against torps from subs. There are torpedo defenses being developed. But for good reason, these systems aren’t public knowledge like most of the surface weapon systems.



The cruise missiles seem to be over-rated as a danger. It is a concern, but part of addressing that is more improvements to our anti-missile missiles and the laser defense system in development as we speak. They expect to see it deployed between 2028 and 2032 is what I’ve seen.

A few years ago I went down a rabbit hole of reading about the Aegis system, and then of course youtube - dozens of videos about it. I think I lost most of a day. I’m not usually a weapons/warfare geek at all, but it is incredibly cool.

Well, we also have 70 Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers. Those are actually close in capability to the nominally larger Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers.

I think we’re doing ok, missile-boat wise.

What is the quality of lower deck sailors in the Russian navy?
A youtube video about Midway pointed out that Japanese sailors in WWII were beaten if they screwed up, and did not have much mechanical knowledge. The Americans had guys who, for example, could fix a lawnmower or a tractor, and hence could repair a gas driven water pump that malfunctioned. His point being that USA sailors were more capable than the Japanese.

I know that the US Navy preaches and lives the doctrine of damage control uber alles. Everyone aboard gets a DC assignment and everyone gets at least enough firefighting training to be a help.

Of course, a Navy comprised of professional sailors (even the rawest seaman) instead of conscripts probably has an edge in giving a damn about damage control, both before it’s needed and at the point of crisis.

This, for me, is the real head scratcher: why was this particular ship so apparently easy to attack from a distance? Not only to attack, but to sink? Although in fairness USS Stark, back in the 80s, managed (through incompetence) to take in the side a couple anti-ship missiles that it should have been able to ward off, but then again Stark’s crew did manage to keep afloat. And of course Stark was a much smaller ship (relative to the recently departed Russian cruiser) and should, in theory, have had a harder time absorbing that kind of damage (or rather, the cruiser should have had an easier time keeping afloat after taking damage from a missile or two). That it not only took a hit from what was by no means an “overwhelming” stream of missiles or some similarly complex attack, but sank as a result, is yet another signal that the Russian military is something of a hollow force.