Russia's Moskva warship lists after a missile attack in April 2022. Image: CNN / Screengrab

Although naval warfare has not figured as a major component of the war in Ukraine, maritime strategists are rightly evaluating the recently intensifying air and naval combat near Snake Island off of Odessa. That small-scale but deadly fighting has seemingly witnessed a naval first: the sinking of small patrol boats by suicide drone (loitering munition) attacks, for example.

Yet the big naval strategy development from the Ukraine conflict has been the stunning sinking of Russia’s Black Sea flagship Moskva in mid-April. That single strike, by a truck-mounted Neptune anti-ship cruise missile, may well have had a very significant impact on the course of war, causing the mighty Black Sea Fleet to operate much more cautiously and thus perhaps helping to save Ukraine’s largest port city of Odessa.

The reverberations of the sinking of Moskva will likely be felt in many corners of the world, but perhaps nowhere more intensely than in the Taiwan Strait, which has been the object of significantly increased attention since Joe Biden’s comments during his first Asia trip as US president.

More than a few observers of East Asian security have noted how important such truck-mounted anti-ship missile systems could be for Taiwan’s future defense. These lessons go in both directions, however, and the Chinese military press has been understandably muted regarding the Russian naval disaster – probably wishing to avoid adding to the humiliation of its strategic partner. 

Still, China is no stranger to the development of advanced anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). During March, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy magazine Navy Today (当代海军) marked another key event in the annals of modern naval warfare: the May 1982 sinking of HMS Sheffield by an Exocet ASCM launched by Argentine aircraft in the Falklands War.

The Chinese remain highly sympathetic to the Argentines and thus refer to that war as the Malvinas War (马岛战争).

The PLA Navy article observes that the Argentine attack came just days after a British nuclear submarine sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, so the successful strike against Sheffield served as a kind of revenge. However, the article notes that unlike the Belgrano, which had been built in the 1930s, the Sheffield represented “one of the most advanced” warships in the Royal Navy.

Indeed, as related in the Chinese rendering, the attack required considerable skill and daring. The article describes how the Argentine attack aircraft flew below the recommended altitude in their approach to the target, since Argentine “intelligence estimated that the British military radars would not detect” the attackers approaching at just 30 meters. Moreover, the Super Etendard aircraft required a complex midair refueling, since they were operating at the edge of their combat radius.

At 80 kilometers from the HMS Sheffield destroyer, the Argentine aircraft very briefly rose up to 150 meters to confirm the targeting information, and then each aircraft released the Exocet ASCM at 32km. One missile missed the target, but the other hit Sheffield on the starboard side, making a large hole. As the Chinese account notes, the missile’s warhead did not explode. However, the fire started by the impact was enough to put the ship under eventually.

Other Chinese analyses of the Falklands War make it clear that the Chinese fully understood the immense challenges confronting the Argentine side in terms of anti-ship munitions – mostly gravity bombs that failed to explode on contact – and the paucity of a robust maritime attack doctrine. 

Noting that the Argentine Exocet had put a Royal Navy ship on the bottom of the South Atlantic that cost 750 times what the missile cost, these PLA Navy authors lavish praise on the attackers of the Sheffield, writing that “it’s worthwhile to study the boldness … [of the] heroic Argentine pilots in actual combat to implement new tactics.”

Today’s emergent PLA Navy is very much a product of a systematic effort to understand the insights of the Falklands War precisely because it is “the only major instance of large-scale naval combat” since World War II, as the March Navy Today article explains. 

From aircraft carriers to nuclear submarines to naval helicopters to amphibious doctrine, the PLA Navy has comprehensively mined the Falklands War for insights into what 21st-century naval warfare might look like. But nowhere have they gone to school more intensively than on fielding a vast array of lethal anti-ship cruise missiles, such as the YJ-12 and YJ-18, which may well be superior to the Western equivalents.

Unquestionably, Taiwan’s defenders will be inspired by the example of Ukrainian asymmetric warfare at sea. However, American strategists will do well to approach this volatile scenario with all due caution, keeping the Sheffield example well in mind. 

After all, as Chinese strategists have long pointed out, if the Argentines simply had a large store of Exocet missiles instead of the handful they did possess, the results of the Falklands War would most likely have been very different.

Lyle Goldstein

Lyle Goldstein is the director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities and a visiting professor at the Watson Institute of Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @lylegoldstein.