The Neptune anti-ship missile is one of the iconic weapons of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine. Two of the 17-foot missiles, fired by a Ukrainian navy battery, sank the cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
But the April 13 strike on Moskva wasn’t Neptune’s combat debut. In his definitive history of the Neptune, Ukrainska Pravda reporter Roman Romaniuk reveals the missile’s chaotic combat debut.
As Russian navy amphibious ships neared Ukraine’s southern coast in late February, the Ukrainian navy’s sole Neptune battery fired its first missiles in anger.
The Luch Design Bureau in Kyiv had produced just one four-round Neptune launcher by Feb. 24, the day Russian forces attacked. The Neptune crew speeded away from the Luch factory with their precious launcher on Feb. 20, just days before Russian missiles struck the facility.
The Neptune battery—the launcher, support vehicles and at least one mobile Mineral-U radar—assembled near Odesa in southern Russia. On Feb. 26, three Russian navy amphibious ships sailed from occupied Crimea, bound for the Ukrainian coast near Mykolaiv.
“It was to defeat these ships that the first three Neptunes were launched,” Romaniuk wrote.
The missiles had to fly over Odesa to reach their targets, so—for the safety of civilians on the ground—the crew programmed them to cruise at nearly 400 feet instead of the optimal 20 feet.
But that made them easier for the Russians to detect. Russian ships and planes destroyed all three Neptunes. But in the melee, a Black Sea Fleet vessel also shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter, according to Romaniuk.
The Ukrainian general staff also reported the Russian friendly-fire incident, but outside analysts never found any direct evidence of the shoot-down.
In any event, the Neptune barrage spooked Russian commanders. They cancelled the planned landing near Mykolaiv.
Since February, the persistent threat from Ukraine’s anti-ship missiles—which only grew as Kyiv acquired Harpoon missiles from its foreign allies—has deterred a Russian amphibious assault.
The Mykolaiv near-misses were the Neptune battery’s first victory over the Russian fleet. The second, seven weeks later, was even more significant. Taking advantage of unusual atmospheric conditions, the Neptune battery zeroed in on Moskva, and sent her to the bottom of the Black Sea.
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