by Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (Retd)

On 14 April, Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, sank off the coast of Ukraine, in the Black Sea. A controversy immediately surfaced regarding the causes of the loss. The Russians attributed the loss to an accidental fire on board while Ukraine claimed that two of its Neptune Missiles had struck the vessel. US officials have backed Ukraine’s claims. Time should reveal the truth. But for now, the controversy is the poster for the escalation of the Ukraine war that suggests that the war is expanding in its reach, both physically and psychologically. The challenge in judging escalation is that while physical factors can be measured, the intangible nature of the psychological part is mystifying and debatable.

The physical loss of Moskva is a major psychological blow to Russia’s naval power. The loss is layered over its geographic disadvantages that emanate from Russia’s restricted access to the waters of the Black Sea. The access is controlled by Turkey under the Montreux Convention of 1936, which gives it rights to limit transit during wartime through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits that connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, with an exemption for naval ships returning to their home bases. In early March, Turkey called for all sides to respect the Convention. The stance was appreciated by the US since it puts Russia at a disadvantage because it cannot provide a replacement for the Moskva. Its Black Sea naval capability will, therefore, stand impaired as long as the war endures.

The loss of a key surface naval asset to cruise missiles provides fodder to buttress some arguments in an ongoing global debate within maritime powers. The debate is an offshoot of a larger debate on the survivability of large platforms like aircraft carriers due to their vulnerability to precision-guided munitions like cruise missiles. It is a debate that is particularly relevant to India and one that continues to animate the Indian Navy’s insistence on the continued relevance of the aircraft carrier.

Vulnerable Warships On The Sea

Technological advancements in surveillance capabilities that are networked with missiles based on air, land, and sea platforms have certainly increased the vulnerability of surface naval assets. Accuracy is significantly improved by using a combination of Global Positioning Signals (GPS), laser guidance and inertial navigation systems. Simultaneously, the development of countermeasures also reduces the vulnerability factor. It is a cat-and-mouse game in technology development that mostly tends to favour the attacker over the defender. The obvious route for the attacker is to overwhelm the defender’s ability by firing a large number of missiles simultaneously on the same target. Also, the pace of development and cost of missiles that can penetrate the defender’s missile shield is quicker and cheaper than developing and fielding missile defences.

Many smaller mobile offensive military assets have therefore been touted as the way ahead. Development of long-range cruise and ballistic missiles has ensued. China’s DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, Russia’s Kaliber anti-ship cruise missile and US’ Tomahawk cruise missiles are the exemplars.

The effectiveness and the risk posed by such missiles continue to be debated. Some believe that though the risk exists, surface ships should be able to operate effectively.

India’s Choice Now

India’s aircraft carrier debate is juxtaposed with options available due to its geographic setting. Peninsular India juts out like a knife into the Indian Ocean and bestows it with the potential to use its vast coastline and island territories like the Andaman and Nicobar in the East and Lakshadweep in the West to provide missile bases that can cover strategically important areas of the Indian Ocean region.

Developing long-range missiles has been a quest that India continues to strive for. Doctrinally, India has confined most of its its ballistic missile capability to the domain of nuclear weapons while cruise missiles are restricted to conventional warheads. The segregation is believed to strengthen stability in crisis and combat. India’s BrahMos missile, which has been co-developed with Russia, is currently the mainstay of its indigenous cruise missile capability that can be based on land, sea and air platforms.

While all three configurations can be mobile, land-based missiles have to compete with the potential reach conferred by the mobility of sea and air-based platforms. Striking a balance between the three is a military planning decision point that requires a Joint-Services approach. It is specifically challenged by the availability of budgetary and technological support. Progress in the indigenous development of cruise missiles is running ahead of progress in air and sea-based platforms like aircraft and ships.

A case exists for prioritising and expediting the production of cruise missiles and their deployment on island territories that are supported by surveillance capabilities. It would cost much less than bases for fighter aircraft. As regards the aircraft carrier debate, till such time the functions performed by it are replaced by alternative platforms, the enhanced risk to the existing assets will have to be accepted and measures taken to mitigate it. For me, it is still difficult to imagine India’s growth as a maritime power without its surface and sub-surface capability not being anchored in aircraft carriers, surface ships and submarines. Platform size, form and numbers may change but their essential functions as part of naval capability are irreplaceable in the surfeit of roles that they can undertake.

Moskva rests at the bottom of the Black Sea and its loss could animate India’s maritime debate involving large naval ships. But the warning sign that must hang over it, is that its relevance to the Indian context can be different.