How Harpoon V would model the Ukrainian attack on the Moskva

Sunday, April 17th, 2022

Ian B. of the Rocky Mountain Navy looks at how the latest version of the table-top Harpoon war game, Harpoon V, would model the Ukrainian attack on the Moskva:

Given that Moskva is a major combatant with a wide assortment of radars and defensive systems, the result of the attack/accident seems almost implausible. On paper this is a Ukrainian David vs. a Russian Goliath. Alternatively, how could the Russian Navy lose a ship to a fire? A closer examination of a plausible “engagement” using the Harpoon V rules reveals it’s not as lopsided as one might think.

If reports are to be believed, Moskva was struck by by two RK-360MC Neptun (Neptune) anti-ship cruise missiles. Neptune is generally reported to be a Ukrainian version of the Russian Kh-35U but with a longer body, more fuel, and a larger booster. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s use the Kh-35U which is listed as the Uran (3M24) [SS-N-25 Switchblade] in Annex D1 of Russia’s Navy: Soviet & Russian Naval Vessels, 1955-2020 (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2021). The most important data element is perhaps the damage caused by the 150kg warhead which Harpoon V rates as “35+D6/2” or 36-38 damage points. Admittedly, this number may be a bit low given the Neptune has more fuel and is larger, factors which lead to more damage in Admiralty Trilogy models.

Moskva is (was?) the lead ship of the Project 1164 Atlant class. To Cold War Grognards like me it’s perhaps better known as a Slava-class guided missile cruiser. The lead ship, Slava, entered service in 1983 and eventually was renamed Moskva in 1995. This particular ship was overhauled between 1991-2000 and was to be overhauled again in 2016. Reports indicate the overhaul stalled for lack of funds and the ship reentered service in 2019 with few—or none—of the planned upgrades completed. Full details for Moskva are found in Annex A of Russia’s Navy. Of particular concern to this analysis, Moskva is rated at 341 damage points.

There are many unanswered questions about how the Ukrainians may have hit Moskva with two ASCMs. In Harpoon V one can play out the detection, engagement, and damage results. While many pundits are saying that Moskva “should” have seen—and defeated—the inbound missiles, Harpoon V helps us understand why this may have not been an “automatic” thing.


The defensive model in Harpoon V assumes ships are at General Quarters with all sensors and weapons at the ready. General Quarters is also very hard to maintain with watertight doors secured and people constantly on edge. It is more likely that Moskva was operating in some lesser readiness condition. This of course means sensors and weapons may not have been ready (extending the Reaction Time) and watertight integrity/damage control teams may not have been set to immediately deal with damage.


The late Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.) in his book Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Second Edition (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) shared a study showing the number of Exocet equivalents (approximately equal to one 3M24) it would take to cripple or sink a warship (see Fig. 6-1, Exocet Missile Equivalents versus Full-Load Displacement for Ships Out of Action and Sunk, p. 160). The table goes up to 7,000 tons but extrapolating the data to ~10,000 tons (Moskva is 9,380 tons standard displacement) indicates that two hits are very likely enough to put Moskva out of action and four or five hits would be sufficient to sink the ship. Assuming two missiles and maybe one sympathetic detonation of ordnance that’s already three hits…with maybe a fourth from fire and flood damage. In many ways the surprise should not be Moskva sinking but if the ship somehow survives.

It’s bad enough losing a ship, but worse not losing it in combat:

At this point the Russian need to claim the ship was saturated with dozens of missiles and they heroically downed all but the last two. The story will be the Captain stood on the bridge with his middle finger raised and said, “F*ck you, Ukrainian missile!”

Tom Clancy used an earlier edition of Harpoon to game out The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising — which he did with Larry Bond, the US Navy officer who developed the game. A Forbes piece from a couple years ago describes the origin of the game:

In July 1976 a young naval officer made the short walk from his warship to a destroyer tender docked nearby. Lieutenant (JG) Larry Bond returned to the USS McKean with a precious copy of the NAVTAG wargame. And because it was a Secret document, he promptly signed it in to his ship’s classified material locker. NAVTAG (Naval Tactical Game) was an official war game used to train U.S. Navy officers how to fight with their ships. It was a great training aid, but its classified status created a bureaucratic barrier to playing it, so it rarely came out of the safe. What Bond thought was needed was a non-classified version which could be played more easily. It was the beginning of the now famous Harpoon wargame lineage.


When Bond released the first version in April 1980 it was an instant success, even winning the H.G. Wells award in 1981. Bond knew all about wargames, being an associate of Dave Arneson of Dungeons & Dragons fame. Arneson’s company even publish the first two editions. While it was popular with the civilian audience, it was also a hit with professional war fighters. It was easier to play than NAVTAG, and free from classified material, but retained the realism needed in a navy setting.

Arneson was not the only famous person associated with the game. Upcoming author Tom Clancy bought a copy of Harpoon and began corresponding with Larry Bond. Clancy used the game during his research for his first novel, The Hunt for Red October. His second book, Red Storm Rising, was based on scenarios tested out playing Harpoon. The bona fide wargaming gave the book a level of realism and credibility which sets it apart from many other Techno Thrillers. Bond was also Clancy’s co-author on the book.

Red Storm Rising was essentially a Soviet Invasion of Europe war game written as a story. It was a scenario familiar to naval planners. So if you have ever wondered why Russia’s Tu-22 Backfire bombers featured so prominently, it was a real-world concern of NATO navies. Armed with powerful supersonic missiles, these could overwhelm all but the latest warships. It was the threat that AEGIS and the F-14 Tomcat were primarily intended to counter.

In Red Storm Rising — spoiler alert — the Soviet Navy achieves a decisive early victory against a US Navy carrier group by using air-launched decoy drones to draw the carrier’s air patrol far away, while Tu-16 Badger bombers attack from another direction, causing considerable damage. Apparently the Ukrainians pulled off this trick against the Russian Moskva, with their Turkish drone.

Another tactical lesson from the book seems to be playing out, too. Three men and a jeep can race along the road, set up, fire one or two missiles, be gone before the enemy can react, then repeat the process a few hundred meters away.

(The Harpoon V Jumpstart rules are free to download.)


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    An Exocet missile strike ended the Brit’s HMS Sheffield during the conflict over some South Atlantic islands. Apparently, the loss of that ship was not due to the explosive power of the missile, but to the high temperature of the still-burning missile exhaust, which started fires that destroyed the vessel.

    We have to be very cautious in a world in which “Our Leaders” cannot open their mouths without lying and in which the Ukrainians are benefitting from an amazing propaganda campaign. Russia says the problem was a magazine explosion. Others have suggested the Moskva hit one of those Ukrainian mines which broke free in a storm and have been drifting around the Black Sea.

    The fact that the ship later capsized implies a hull breach below the water line, which would be more consistent with the mine hypothesis or a magazine explosion. But with the Fog of War hanging over a Sea of Propaganda, we may never know the whole story.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    “Apparently the Ukrainians pulled off this trick against the Russian Moskva, with their Turkish drone.”

    That does not make any sense.

  3. Mike-SMO says:

    The attack suggests that something new is involved. The missile design and manufacturing facilities are/were in the Ukraine. Missiles should have been taken out by the close-in defensive systems (a) unless they were turned off for air operations, or (b) the Ukrainians added some electronics to “spoof” the defensive radar. A vulnerability either way.

    A low impact on the hull is not surprising since most of the anti-ship missiles are “sea skimmers”. Even if floatation isn’t directly impaired, damage to the core engineering spaces is more disabling than blowing the Captain’s cabin or the radio room.

    The Moskva reportedly had 6X 30 mm close-in defense guns, so something was going on if one or both missiles survived to hit the ship.

  4. Nelson says:

    The ship lacked up-to-date missile defense packages. Oh well. Old ships don’t do well in the modern environment. Doesn’t change the strategic balance and was basically a frigate. Oh Well.

  5. Isegoria says:

    The linked article explains how the Ukrainians may have used their Turkish drone to draw attention away from the missiles:

    Part of the story of the Moskva attack includes the Ukrainians using a Bayraktar TB2 drone (Harpoon V stats found in The Naval SITREP #56) to “distract” the crew. Personally, I am unsure as to the chances that the Ukraine Navy would operate a TB2 at range (the datalink is rated in Harpoon V as 150 km range), at night, and in bad weather but it’s possible? Some allege the TB2 pulled off Moskva’s radars so they didn’t “see”the attack coming on on the other side. Note that the air search radars used aboard Moskva provide 360 degree coverage. A more plausible explanation to me is that the crew became fixated and focused on a potential TB2 threat and in turn failed (at night and in sea clutter) to see inbound sea-skimming missiles.

  6. Isegoria says:

    The linked article explains that the Moskva‘s Fregat-M is a 4th-Generation radar, so it should be able to deal with the environmental clutter of rough seas in a storm — if the crew was properly trained.

  7. Lucklucky says:

    “The linked article explains how the Ukrainians may have used their Turkish drone to draw attention away from the missiles”

    Sorry it explains nothing. Only they do not know how radar even works for a WW2 era ship to not even talk of a 80 era…

    First thing: There are 2 long range air search radars in Slava class.

    Then there are directors: 1 director for SA-N-6 VLS long range anti aircraft missiles. In each side a director for each of OSA short range anti aircraft missile launchers, and 3 more directors for each pair of 30mm gatling guns — and another director for the 130mm gun but that is not anti aircraft main mission. The search radars in Slava can track certainly more than a hundred of targets each of which the most dangerous would be handed over to the director radars of the weapons systems.

    There is no such thing of a drone “draw attention”, that is ridiculous, this ship can destroy several anti aircraft targets at same time.

    Since the pictures show that the SA-N-4 OSA are still inside their bins not deployed, the missile directors still facing stern, it seems the ship was not alerted and not properly in war fighting mode.

  8. Goober says:

    I still don’t understand how people think ATGMs in a jeep is somehow a revolutionary thing in tank warfare, never before seen or dealt with.

    I’d like to introduce you to the M10 Wolverine, the M18 Hellcat, the M3 half-track fitted with AT gun, etc… or hell, just a regular old jeep-towed AT gun.

    There have been fast, highly mobile tank destroyers and likewise fast, mobile AT guns since WWII. The fact that our current batch uses missiles instead of projectiles doesn’t really change much, IMHO. Tell me how a couple dudes in a Hilux and an ATGM somehow present a different threat than a similar number of guys in an M18 with a 76 (and later 90). You could even argue that since the M18 was armored, it was even harder to kill than the unarmored Hilux.

    Jeeps with recoilless rifle teams, or even just Bazookas… things that killed Nazi tanks in 1945.

    We have ways of dealing with these things. We’ve been doing it since 80 odd years ago. This isn’t revolutionary. The fact that Russia seems to be struggling with that the way that they are, speaks more to poor tactics than it does to the obsolescence of the tank.

  9. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    It is not vehicle portable anti-materiel ordnance that is making waves, it is man portable anti-materiel ordnance that is making waves; and it is not even man portable anti-materiel ordnance that is making waves, but autonomous fire-and-forget anti-materiel ordnance that is making waves.

    Advances in fire control, the accuracy and agency of weapon systems, have been the most significant advances in the past century on warfare to date.

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