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What the rise of anti-ship cruise missiles means for the US Navy

On April 14, Ukraine once again shocked the world when it launched two Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles, scoring decisive hits that sunk the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva. Named for the Russian capital Moscow, this once-symbol of Russian naval supremacy in the war on Ukraine carried a crew of roughly 500 and was fully equipped with an arsenal of anti-ship, anti-aircraft and air defense missiles. Despite its foreboding appearance, this pride of the Russian Federation was unable to defend itself against a small number ASCMs, and it paid the ultimate price.

The fallout from the Moskva sinking has been many faceted. First and foremost, it was a strategic success for Ukraine — taking Russia’s most lethal warship out of the war and forcing the remaining fleet to retreat farther away from the coast. Second, the sinking is an inescapable political problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin. His misinformation campaign within Russia, unable to suppress the news of this casualty, now must answer for this destroyed vessel and the well-being of its crew.

There is another message from this catastrophe, however, that both the U.S. Navy and Congress must consider when faced with making long-term spending decisions for our 21st century fleet: If a relatively low-cost, short-range missile such as Neptune can destroy one of the largest warships in the Russian Navy, how do we ensure that ships in our fleet are not doomed to the same fate?

This question becomes even more serious when considering the sophistication of China’s anti-ship missile technology, which significantly dwarfs the range and firepower of Ukraine’s Neptune missile. By way of comparison, the Neptune has a range of roughly 200 miles, travels at subsonic speed and has a warhead that is designed to cripple but not necessarily sink a large ship. China has anti-ship missiles like the Dong Feng 21, or DF21 — whose range is roughly 1,000 miles — and the DF26, whose range is roughly 2,500 miles.

If Ukraine’s Neptune ASCMs upended Russia’s naval presence in the Black Sea with ease, clearly the U.S. Navy and Congress must consider whether our pacing threat is capable of the same.

The U.S. Navy has been furiously working on countermeasures, such as longer-range radars and integrated air and missile defense systems, both of which are being incorporated into new ship construction. The Navy also expressed confidence in the contribution of our submarine fleet with a higher budget for submarine construction and plans to extend the life of older Los Angeles-class subs.

These vessels are relatively impervious to the ASCM threat; our surface fleet is not. Today’s surface fleet must be capable to detect, track and engage our adversaries’ most capable anti-ship missiles, and have the structural integrity to survive damage sustained in combat.

President Joe Biden’s proposed Navy budget reflects the need to think through this strategic challenge. On the one hand, the request of $28 billion for Navy shipbuilding is the largest ever. By way of comparison, then-President Donald Trump’s last budget in 2020 requested $19 billion. But Biden’s request also seeks to decommission a number of legacy surface ships that predate the threat posed by modern anti-ship missiles. Predictably, this decision has been greeted by a chorus of protest, but nonetheless the fact remains: Every U.S. ship that sails into harm’s way must represent a relevant threat and be fit to fight.

Among the contested ships proposed for decommissioning are five Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The Navy, in its annual shipbuilding report to Congress, cited several serious concerns with the Ticonderoga-class cruiser, including “poor material condition of these ships due to their age” and “ongoing concerns with overall legacy sensor and [hull, mechanical and electrical] system reliability.” The chief of naval operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, said that the cruiser’s “SPY-1A, SP-1B [radars are] just not sufficient given the threat we’re facing.” By comparison, the oldest Ticonderoga-class cruiser proposed for decommissioning was commissioned in 1986, only four years after the Russian Slava-class cruiser Moskva.

While it is unclear whether the combat system aboard the Moskva failed her crew, it is without doubt its age and seaworthiness played a role in its demise as the crew was overcome by fire, smoke and seawater.

One lesson that the courageous nation of Ukraine has demonstrated to the world is one that Congress should heed: We not only need to invest in a strong Navy, but also in a survivable one. As Congress begins to shape the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, we must take an honest look at whether the platforms we are fielding to engage our adversaries are both relevant and survivable in modern naval warfare.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., serves on the House Armed Services Committee and chairs its Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.

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