Russia's Moskva warship lists after an apparent missile attack. Image: CNN / Screengrab

The Russian cruiser Moskva was attacked in the Black Sea on April 13. There are unconfirmed reports also that the Russian frigate Admiral Makarov was attacked on May 6.  As details emerge, four important questions arise:

First, were these vessels, equipped with supposedly excellent air defense systems, caught by surprise and, if so, how did that happen?  There is no suggestion, from any source, that Russian sailors attempted to shoot down Ukrainian missiles, or even that they knew they were there before they were hit.

Second, was there anything special about the Ukrainian missiles that made them undetectable?

Third, why didn’t either or both ships respond?

Fourth, what, if any, role did the US play in the attack on both of these ships?

Russian warships are equipped with modern air defenses, combining excellent radars and effective interceptor missiles of different types. The Moskva has two systems: an older one known as the Osa-MA (SS-N-4), a short-range system that is supposed to counter inbound anti-ship missiles; and the newer S-300F, a more capable, longer-range air and missile defense system.

The Makarov is equipped with the 3S90M BUK air defense system, featuring the 9m317m interceptor. These are fairly long range, up to 130 km (80 miles).  The BUK is a well-regarded and lethal air defense cluster (radars, transporter or launch tubes, interceptor missiles). It has a response time from target detection of between 10 and 15 seconds.

The Ukrainian anti-ship Neptune missile that struck the Moskva is a subsonic, sea-skimming cruise missile that flies at a top speed of approximately 900 km/h (559 mph). 

At 60 miles from shore, Neptune would require a little more than six minutes to hit a target; at 20 miles, a little over 2 minutes.  While sea skimmers can be hard to detect, there is nothing stealthy about the Neptune, which is based on the Russian KH-35 anti-ship missile. 

As for the Makarov, given its location and potential vulnerability, it would be reasonable to assume that if it was struck, most likely it was either a Neptune missile or a slow-flying drone, such as the Turkish-made Bayraktar. 

Both the Makarov and the Moskva had layered defenses, consisting of air defense missiles, rapid-fire guns, and MANPAD ground to air missiles, including the latest Russian MANPAD called Verba (9K333). 

It is a bit of a presumption to think the layers are in any way integrated (the US until recently didn’t do so, but should have). But, even so, if a threat was detected, one would expect all stations to be on the highest alert.

In neither case, as far as can be said based on current information, did the Russian ship fight back. If there were good air defenses (the Makarov went into service only in 2015), including good radars, and modern electronic countermeasures as well, why didn’t either or both fight?

It could be that the Russian radars and other sensors are not as good at detecting sea-skimming missiles as Moscow wanted the West to believe. Or something else happened.

The P-8A controversy

Ukrainian officials say that the Moskva was targeted with the help of the United States.  The Pentagon officially denies that – as it has denied reports that US overhead systems were targeting Russian generals in the Ukraine war.

What we can say for sure in the case of the Moskva is that there was a P-8A Navy surveillance and anti-submarine-warfare aircraft in the Black Sea in the ship’s vicinity. Is targeting all that the P-8A was doing?

The P-8A is a Boeing modified 737 that replaced the venerable P-3 anti-submarine surveillance aircraft. Introduced into the US fleet in 2013, the P-8A like the P-3 can drag sonars to detect submarines. It can also launch torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

In the case of the Moskva, there is no evidence that the P-8A launched any weapons. It would cross a very sensitive line and put the US directly in the Ukraine war without Congressional or public Presidential authorization. Of course, anything is possible.  Certainly, if the P-8A is out there, along with following Russian warships and submarines, it would have been testing various onboard systems against major Russian naval combatants.

The P-8A has an elaborate AN/ALR-55 electronic countermeasures suite built by BAE systems.  These are brand new systems and if they are on the P-8s operating in the Black Sea arena, they would have been installed in the past year, or even in the past few months.

A KC-135 Stratotanker with the 927th Air Refueling Wing, Florida refuels a P8 Poseidon with Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Florida above the Atlantic Ocean during sunset May 10, 2021. Photo: US Air Force / Senior Airman Tiffany A Emery

Much of what the ALR-55 can do is classified, but it is capable of jamming enemy radars or, possibly, spoofing radars.  Therefore, it is theoretically possible that if the US Navy P-8A was connected in real-time or near-real-time to Ukraine’s Neptune operators, it could blank out or spoof the radars on the Russian ships.

There is little doubt that the P-8A was coordinating with the Ukrainians, perhaps directly or through satellite connections, or possibly via handoffs to US and NATO forces and then to the Ukrainians. Otherwise, what was it doing shadowing Russian ships in international waters, risking a possible confrontation?

The possible use of radar jamming by the US Navy against Russian targets is something that cannot now be proven.  Among the possibilities for the Russian ships are bad electronics, bad operators, or outside jamming and spoofing. With two ships now hit, jamming and spoofing are a real possibility. It is unlikely we will ever know for sure.

Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter at @stevebryen