More Russian ships sunk: The West and Ukraine are winning the missile-and-drone war

There is no respite for the ships of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The end of last week saw a multi-pronged attack on the port of Novorossiysk, the Tuapse refinery and nearby oil terminal. This was by air and surface drones which defeated Russian defence systems and tactics once again. Videos have since emerged of ships alongside trying to hit the incoming drones with a barrage of upper deck gunfire but only succeeding in making swiss cheese of the houses opposite.

Then on Sunday, American supplied Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) ballistic missiles struck the pier in Sevastopol, sinking the minesweeper Kurovets – one of the few Russian warships not to have fled Crimea for the relative safety of Novorossiysk. There are also reports that a Karakurt class missile corvette was sunk in the same attack. As it would potentially be armed with the long-range and extremely capable Kalibr missile, this would be significant, if confirmed.

Aside from the loss of yet another ship (or two) this is significant on a few levels. First, many thought ATACMS accuracy of around 30 feet was insufficient to use against ships. Also, the models that we knew were in Ukrainian hands scatter large numbers of grenade-sized submunitions that negate the need for pinpoint accuracy, but they are also relatively unlikely to cause a ship to sink. However they are armour-piercing in effect and can take out tanks, so a good pasting with ATACMS submunitions could easily turn a ship into a writeoff, and an out-of-control fire caused by a submunition could cause a ship to sink.

It’s possible that the Ukrainians actually used an ATACMS variant with a larger, 470lb/213kg unitary warhead. That could certainly sink a ship, and if it did it is clearly more accurate than many predicted.

If the Ukrainians have unitary-warhead ATACMS, however, it seems strange that they haven’t used some to bring down the Kerch bridges connecting southern Russia to Crimea. This was attempted in October 2022 and the subsequent disruption lasted months. Now that the Russians have reportedly built a railway to carry supplies along the “land bridge” north of the Azov from Russia to Crimea, the Kerch bridges are no longer the utterly critical logistic supply route they formerly were, but they’d still be an obvious target.

One thing that is clear is that Russia’s air defence systems are still in disarray. Last Thursday, ATACMS strikes destroyed an S-400 surface-to-air missile battery and 10 or so aircraft it was supposed to be protecting on Crimea’s Belbek airfield. This was a useful strike in its own right, as well as a ‘shaping operation’ prior to the Sevastopol attack, but either way, it exposed the limitations of the much vaunted S-400 … again. The S-400 has long been touted as capable of defence against ballistic weapons like the ATACMS.

To successfully defend against this sort of attack you need three layers in place; warn, detect and destroy. ‘Warn’ relies on intelligence agencies, satellite surveillance and other inputs to give you an indication that an attack is imminent. If you’re sharp, and have the right assets to hand, you can strike it before it’s fired – shoot the archer, not the arrow.

‘Detect’ is where much effort is being expended now. The danger of having no airborne early warning radar was a lesson brutally learned by the British in the Falklands War and as missiles get faster and faster, the requirement to detect them earlier, and process the information faster, is only going one way.

Some now argue that this has got to the point where a warship’s (or a ground missile battery’s) own radar, down at the surface and as such unable to see far, has any utility at all. I still believe that ships need to be able to fight in ‘come as you are’ mode, but in the coming era of hypersonics even an airborne radar may not be enough. The US Navy is planning to load its new hypersonics-busting Glide Phase Interceptor aboard its Aegis warships, but it is openly admitted that space-based early warning satellites will be needed to track the incoming threats early enough.

‘Destroy’ is an equal hotbed of research and development to respond to the increasingly deadly threat environment. In the land domain, Patriot (many times upgraded and a completely different weapon to its ancestors of long ago), THAAD (son of Patriot), and the Israeli systems Arrow and Iron Dome are repeatedly proving their combat credentials.

In the southern Red Sea and in the operations to repel the recent Iranian mass attack on Israel we are seeing the same with the US Standard Missile family and the European Aster equivalent all conducting successful surface-to-air engagements. Patriot is now accredited with taking down hypersonics and Standard and Aster have both knocked out ballistics. They work.

As part of this, it is worth noting the difference between an ‘area defence’ missile and a ‘point defence’ weapon. All the ones listed above are ‘area’, i.e. they can defend a bubble of varying sizes which decreases quickly depending on the crossing angle of the target. If your weapon has a range of less than say 10 miles, that bubble quickly shrinks to the point where – in a naval context anyway – it is only of use protecting you. Guns with automated aiming systems and directed energy weapons such as the UK’s emerging DragonFire laser, no matter how advanced, will fall into this category. This isn’t to diminish their utility as an essential part of the inner layer, just to make it clear that they are not a panacea.

Having said that, at sea you do have the advantage of being able to position yourself up-threat to ‘goal keep’ for a high-value ship such as the carrier or an escorted tanker. But you must be very close, it’s demanding and it largely stops you from being able to do anything else.

The takeaway from all this is that missile defence is hard and if one of your layers is missing, or neglected, or destroyed, then it becomes nearly impossible, as Russia is finding again and again in the Black Sea. Compare this to the combined and layered takedown of the Iranian swarm attack on 14 April and you can see the difference, even if those were mostly relatively unsophisticated weapons. For now at least, we Westerners have the edge – and the Ukrainians are showing again and again how Russia’s lack of that edge makes it vulnerable.

Extreme caution is needed before extrapolating this into any sense of optimism in the land war, but with a third of the Black Sea Fleet now destroyed, another Kalibr missile shooter possibly sunk, Ukrainian grain exports now largely restored, Russian air defence systems largely not working – and indeed with Ukraine demonstrating an improved ability to attack Russia’s critical infrastructure far inside its territory – you do have to say that the picture is not one such as to bring joy to Vladimir Putin or the Iranian regime.

Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy specialist anti-air warfare officer