The future of cruise missiles: What you need to know

Anti-ship missiles are an important part of any country's armed forces armory. These missiles are a huge threat to surface ships, which have very distinct silhouettes whilst sailing around the oceans.
Interesting Engineering

There are many dates in history that mark the turning point in military history. But one of the most crucial was May 4, 1982. 

On this day, the British Type 42 guided-missile destroyer, the HMS Sheffield, was dealt a fatal wound by an Argentinian aircraft-deployed anti-ship missile. 

Even though the HMS Sheffield had very advanced radar and ship defense systems, they were not enough to stop the most advanced anti-ship weapons of the time. The missile in question, the French-made Exocet, was able to penetrate the defenses of the Royal Navy task force and send one of their most advanced warships to Davy Jones’ locker.

Fast forward to 2022, and the mighty Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskova, was equally defeated by the Ukrainian-developed, aptly-named R-360 “Neptune” missile.

Named after the capital of Russia, this ship was the pride of the Russian fleet. She had a crew of about 500 people and was fully stocked with anti-ship, anti-aircraft, and air defense missiles. Yet, despite having the best air defense systems in the fleet, the Moskova could do nothing to save itself from a pair of relatively cheap anti-ship missiles. 

The missiles, developed by Ukraine in 2014, were based on the Soviet X-35 Zvezda missile and incorporated significantly improved range and electronics. Specifically designed to hunt and destroy targets with displacements over 5,000 tons, these missiles can be launched from land-based, surface-based, or air-based launchers. 

The missile has an updated target-seeking device, altimeter, starting engine, wings and fins, gyroscopes, and navigation system, too, meaning that once a ship is in its sights, its fate is already sealed. Like other anti-ship missiles, the “Neptune” skims the sea surface at high speed at the height of around 150 feet (50 meters) or as low as 15 feet (5 meters).

This makes them very difficult to detect at long range, reducing the ability of a target ship to respond before it is too late. Ships are lumbering beasts in comparison, and unless they can counter with their own missiles or automated guns, they have little hope of getting out of the way. 

Officially adopted in 2020, the Neptune missile cost around $40 million to develop. By Western standards, that is a genuine bargain. 

While the missile comes in a variety of flavors, even its most advanced and expensive versions cost around $1.5 million apiece. To put that into perspective, this missile is able to destroy vessels that cost significant multiples of that. 

Talk about asymmetric warfare. 

The loss of Moskova was a very real morale boost for Ukraine, but it also raised eyebrows around the world. This is especially the case with reports that China is developing its own anti-ship missiles, like the Dong Feng 21.

To this end, many nations are now working feverishly to find ways to keep their surface fleets safe from weapons like the “Neptune.” Until reliable systems can be developed, they will remain vulnerable to these relatively cheap ship killers.