TOC Ready Room 6 May 2022: Intel superheroes of America

What’s wrong and right in the world.

Unfortunately, U.S. officials handed NBC a disclosure on Thursday that the U.S. had assisted Ukraine in targeting the Russian cruiser Moskva, which was sunk by a Ukrainian anti-ship missile attack on 14 April.

Touting such activities in the media is foolish and unnecessary.  Providing assistance in locating and identifying Russian weapon systems that are then immediately targeted can be read as becoming a belligerent in the war.

Crowing over it, in the manner we saw Thursday, also looks like taking credit for superficial politics’ sake, and that always comes off as weak and undisciplined.

It’s one thing to announce without caveat that you attacked something, take full responsibility, and issue an unmistakable warning through your tone and your terse explanation of why.

But that’s not what U.S. officials did.  The president is the person who ought to announce such attacks anyway, not so he can look good but because he’s appointed to express our national interests and will.  The responsibility of such communications isn’t to be left to subordinates, and certainly not to anonymous officials.

Yet this disclosure came on little cat feet from the Anonymous HQ Element.  And in the cringe-worthy opposite of a masterstroke, it tried to have things both ways.

I don’t think readers will have any trouble detecting the cringe-point.  Here’s NBC’s account of the particulars:  “The attack happened after Ukrainian forces asked the Americans about a ship sailing in the Black Sea south of Odesa, U.S. officials told NBC News. The U.S. identified it as the Moskva, officials said, and helped confirm its location, after which the Ukrainians targeted the ship.”

So, they asked us.  Hey, not our fault.  Moreover:  “The U.S. did not know in advance that Ukraine was going to target the Moskva, officials said, and was not involved in the decision to strike.”

Right.  Given that summary, there is no reason to even mention it to the public.  Doing so anyway is gratuitous, seeming very much like an exercise in bear-baiting.  Vadimir Putin may not merit better treatment, but the American people do, and so do Ukrainians and the other peoples of the region, for that matter.

Quite a number of social media users weighed in immediately with their sense that Biden administration officials are trying to ensure the invasion of Ukraine expands into World War III.  I doubt we need to belabor that point.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that what we provided to Ukraine probably wasn’t, as they say, all that.

Russian cruiser Moskva in distress in the Black Sea after Ukrainian anti-ship missile attack, 13 April 2022. Russian MOD image

I wrote about the Moskva sinking last week, although not in much detail.  (See “Miscellany section at the end.)  But the important detail for this new round of gibble-gabble was available last week, and we can briefly recap it.

The U.S. Navy had a P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) operating in the area shortly before the Ukrainians launched the missile attack.  The P-8 wasn’t over the Black Sea; it was operating over the eastern coast of Romania, inside Romanian air space (and out of range of the Moskva’s anti-air SA-N-6 missiles, which are a variant of the S-300 series).

At its typical operating altitude, the P-8’s AN/APY-10 surface search radar has more than enough range to track the Moskva east of Snake Island.  If that was the data point our intelligence assets provided to Ukraine, and if it was a more recent and more confident ID, and tighter localization of the cruiser, than what the Ukrainians could compile on their own, then our assist was perhaps of some value.

I’m not sure if we had a USAF RC-135 up at the time, but if so, that would be another asset with the potential to help pin down the Moskva.  Both the P-8 and the RC-135 have sensors other than radar.  It’s possible, depending on what Moskva herself was doing, that other sensors were involved.

But two points help put that in perspective.  One is that the Ukrainians are obviously not slow learners, nor have they been ignoring the security environment of their Black Sea coast for the last 30 years.  We need not enumerate all the forms of intelligence they could be gathering themselves, to be sure that they are gathering intelligence.

There are a lot of ways to do that, and when you’re fighting for your life, you optimize those ways.  Not everything comes from a satellite or a manned aircraft; in fact, some of the best-quality targeting data doesn’t, if the target is a ship at sea.  Moskva stuck out like a sore thumb, in multiple dimensions of intelligence and detection phenomena.  A surface ship commander would be well aware of that in a claustrophobic operating environment like the one south of Odessa – and so would the littoral nations’ intel networks that track those ships all the time.

Whatever we gave the Ukrainians was probably nice to have, but not the tiebreaker between a successful and an unsuccessful attack.  I assume we weren’t using automated links with Ukrainians forces and their weapon systems; that really would be incurring belligerent status, and that’s aside from the fact that we don’t have the means to do it, at least not through the legacy systems on both sides.

The second point, meanwhile, is that I agree with the analysis published on Thursday at the U.S. Naval Institute site, which concludes that Moskva was startlingly unprepared to react to the Neptun missile attack from the Ukrainian coast.

The key point is that at least two significant search radars weren’t even in operational, “on” mode at the time the ship was listing badly to port and starting to sink (i.e., in the now-famous photo).  This suggested to the analyst, retired Navy Captain Chris Carlson, that they weren’t a factor in the engagement at all.

Last week I speculated that the lack of automated cueing between onboard sensor and weapon systems probably slowed Moskva’s combat reactions down to a fatal degree.  My assumption at the time was that the military air and/or air-surface search radars were probably making occasional sweeps.  Moskva would want to limit such “noisemaking,” especially that close to the coast, but it was unlikely the Russians were unaware of the P-8 over Romania on 13 April, and since Moskva had the advantage of the SA-N-6 anti-air missile, it was worth sweeping for aircraft at least occasionally.

The problem, I felt, was that the ship’s relatively old sensors and weapons couldn’t process a unified tracking and targeting picture on a rapid, automated basis.  If Moskva wanted to use an SA-N-4 anti-air missile against an incoming Neptun, it could take just a bit too long after initial alertment to pick the Neptun up on the SA-N-4’s own fire control radar.  The same was likely to be the case for the AK-360 auto-cannon close-in weapon system, the ship’s last line of air defense.   (The associated fire control radars, by their NATO nicknames, are TOP DOME for the SA-N-6, POP GROUP for the SA-N-4, and BASS TILT for the AK-360.)

I was an optimist, however – if CAPT Carlson is right.  (As I think he is.)  His point, based on an expert eyeball, is that it doesn’t look like the fire control radars with longer-range capability were in operation at all.  They were in “stowed” position, not activated or ready to be steered by operators.

In such a condition, Moskva would have little hope of reacting in time to an incoming missile.  The first alert would probably have been too close to the ship to start up the radars and then attempt to engage.

With Moskva’s defenses well below max profile, Ukraine could verify Moskva’s position as shortly before the attack as possible, and send the Neptuns after the cruiser.  The Ukrainians sent out a drone to operate near Moskva, which was originally reported as a distraction maneuver.  But the drone could quite obviously have provided the targeting-quality cueing for the missile launches.  (The precision hits of the missiles, just where Moskva was most vulnerable, tend to confirm visual contact by the drone just before launch.)

It’s doubtful in that case that any U.S. information made that much of a difference.  If the Russians weren’t even attempting to maintain a combat-ready sensor posture, it wouldn’t have taken anything the Ukrainians don’t have to get this job done.

(I note that this summary doesn’t mean Moskva had no radars operating.  The fire control radars for the SA-N-6 and SA-N-4 are the ones that apparently weren’t in ready status for the tactical situation.  As noted last week, the Neptun is a sea-skimmer in its target approach and may be more difficult to discriminate on general search radars at sufficient range to alert the ship for defense.  Moskva could also have been restricting search radar use to off-the-shelf commercial radars, which are harder for adversary forces to correlate with a specific ship by their emissions, but which also may or may not be adequate for initial cueing to a sea-skimming missile threat.)

Moskva in poor condition overall?

One more data point, if valid, tends to reinforce the point that U.S. assistance probably made little difference in this case.  Several sources have mentioned a status report on Moskva from early 2022, which was posted on the Russian social media site VK on 10 February.  (The dates of observations in the various categories appear to run up through 1-2 February, and to have started as early as February 2021.)

The report was almost immediately taken down, but seems to have shown the Moskva to be in very poor condition.

There’s more, though.  My initial reaction to Moskva’s sinking was that the ship’s poor showing probably had more to do with crew training and proficiency than anything else.  These tweeps express my thinking pretty accurately:

Taken together, the ship’s subpar material condition and the likelihood of poor crew performance (which is what CAPT Carlson describes if the main anti-air fire control radars were stowed) give us a picture of a gravely afflicted warship.

It’s easy to just give that a hand-wave in turn, and conclude dismissively that that’s Russia for you.  But Moskva was the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, and such appalling unreadiness is not apparently characteristic of the Russian fleet as a whole.  If it were, half the ships deploying from the Northern, Baltic, and Pacific Fleets wouldn’t make it to their first ports of destination, much less function for weeks at a time in underway conditions.

I’m not so convinced we’ve learned something conclusive about the Russian navy here.  But one very interesting thing for me is how these observations mirror the inquiry reports on two of the U.S. Navy warships that were involved in collisions with commercial vessels a few years ago.

The ships were USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S McCain (DDG-56), both Arleigh Burke class destroyers.  In both cases, the inquiries discovered that they had astonishingly pervasive problems with crew morale, performance, and ship’s maintenance.  It was particularly eye-opening that in crowded sea conditions, they failed to either set or properly react with watches that are intended to enable seamless transition to manual operation when automated systems balk.

That’s so basic it seems unimaginable that it could happen on any U.S. warship.  It made me wonder if there might be a form of remotely triggered sabotage at work that had been in process for months (or years).

USS John S McCain (DDG-56) displays ugly gash from from her 21 Aug 2017 collision, putting into Singapore. USNI News video, YouTube

Obviously we don’t have the means to come to a definitive conclusion on that.  The most the Navy ever told the public was a few carefully worded statements that there was no evidence of “hacking” or other IT attacks from off the ship somewhere, just before the collision incidents.  That doesn’t mean malware couldn’t have been introduced into ship’s systems long before, and triggered via a seemingly benign sequence at some point.

I consider it an open question.  And the bizarrely passive behavior of Moskva before the Neptun attacks – if CAPT Carlson has it right – raises a similar one.  Moskva’s crew might not have been very proficient, but they and the commanding officer probably all wanted to continue surviving.  It takes an aggressive stupor to not keep the radars for your chief defensive systems ready to use when you’re that close to a hostile coast.  It doesn’t make sense, even for crew fatigue and badly maintained systems.

The Intel Superheroes

Observers are jumping to a lot of conclusions very quickly at the moment, and conclusions about what the heck the Biden administration thinks it’s doing with these “intelligence” victory laps are a prominent form of that.

I don’t think it’s about domestic politics myself, though a lot of people do.  Frankly, the constituency for such self-congratulatory reports of derring-do is pretty small.  People who really want to assist Ukraine are more gratified to hear that artillery, missiles, and armored vehicles are being delivered.  Few people really think it’s a good idea to pop off in public about what we’re doing with targeting-quality locating information on Russian forces.

The U.S. IC chiefs: Intel superheroes take their chairborne place in eternity.

But it’s all part of a war whose “information” profile has been unlike any other.  It seems likely that this war holds a few more surprises for us.  It would be lovely to think that U.S. national security institutions are putting more into avoiding those surprises than into “leaking” a narrative about how busy we are participating.  But that wouldn’t be a natural conclusion at this point.

*Update*:  LOL – as this goes to post, reports come in that Jen Psaki says the claims about U.S. giving Ukraine intel assist on Moskva are inaccurate.  At this point you have to be unable to focus or remember anything, to take this as a “final answer” or situation-resolver.

Feature image: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Felix Garza Jr. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

4 thoughts on “TOC Ready Room 6 May 2022: Intel superheroes of America”

  1. I suspect we do have special forces boots on the ground who are doing all but pulling the trigger for the Ukrainians. We are giving them our newest drones, so of course we’d have observers at least watching how they preform. Europeans had observers on both sides during our Late Unpleasantness (which is why the horrors of the Great War are especially egregious, the European military had the knowledge.)

    But you do not say anything more than “we are selling weapons to Ukraine and providing off site training and advice. ” If the Dobbs decision doesn’t motivate Democrats this fall, I guess their fall back is WWIII.

  2. The first rule about fight club; “YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT FIGHT CLUB!”

    Tsar Vladimir and his hapless bumbling thug conscript army invaded a sovereign nation for the purposes of reimposing its rule over that nation. We don’t have to like that nation, particularly, and we certainly don’t have to cower in front of bullying threats. Both sides in this debate aren’t thinking very clearly.

    The Globalists are foolishly ignorant of the potential threat of a cornered, wounded, and heavily armed despot. It does not matter that 60% or so of Pootie Poots nukes may or may not go where they are aimed, or even detonate when commanded… but that leaves another 40% that have a high probability of working in something close to design capacity. So, starting a shooting war with Russia is amazingly stupid and dismissing the nuclear threat is dumbfounding.

    The Isolationist/Pacifist unholy alliance is a curious combination of malignantly ignorant of the threat (on the pacifists’ part) and dangerously frightened to the point of being dysfunctional cowards (on the part of the mote and bailey crew). This renders the grander scheme of deterrence functionally disabled in the face of an aggressive, paranoid, and maniacal Russian leadership. Since the pacifists have disabled our defensive capabilities the only defense that the west has against a nuclear bully is the surety that if the bully pushes the big red button, he’s signaling his own suicide. As soon as an aggressive autocrat sees a probability that an opponent is ultimately unwilling to guarantee that combination of events – he’s going to seek to advantage himself of the situation. And no amount of Libertarian grand rationalizations and “coulda woulda shoulda” ifonlys will change the current situation.

    The situation takes a great deal of bravery, a good amount of pure bravado, and a measure of ruthlessness to solve. Unfortunately, as has been demonstrated by your report, the hastily buttered over comments by “officials” have only expose the current illegitimate American Regime to be infantile, feckless, and point-blank stupid.

    So, you have to wonder if they are so married to their Globalist pipe dreams that they actually truly believe that Vladimir Putin isn’t actually Vladimir Putin KGB bully, contract murderer, and paranoid despotic autocrat. If they do, they are more dangerous than the short-sighted shallow thinkers like the Isolationist-Pacifist faction.

    With no cooler heads to find something of a solution to this mess, the only way out is going to be dictated by the worst poker players at the table going all in on a busted flush and a blind man’s bluff.


  3. Forgot to add, there is a morale problem in our own Navy. USS George Washington is in port getting refueled. 19 months behind schedule. 3 confirmed suicides amongst its sailors, all within a week, with a potential fourth in the past year.

    1. Seven total over the period. Interviews are really stark. There was one failed attempt, and her story is tragic. A complete misunderstanding of what it is to be in the military. Someone who was totally unready for hardship challenges and deferred career goals (who wants to enlist to sit in a docked damp, noisy, steel dormitory with few creature comforts and none of the “adventure” promised at enlistment?

      The problem is that the military has a millennia old culture, and post millennials have indulgence, softness, and participation trophies. How to fix it is not an easy course of action because it means being hard, making hard decisions, and enduring the consequences of those actions.

      The problem is one of many including over-deployment, tortured personnel policy, poor personnel management, poor recruiting (this one young lady turned out to be bipolar and should never have been in a uniform). The massive changes necessary to mitigate this disaster, and eventually fix it, just are not within the purview of a society that has abandoned rigor as a major portion of raising our children.

      We burn our seed corn and expect to feed the masses. It is truly dissonant and ultimately speaks of a suicide of the entire society. -OAB

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