Back in October I cautiously suggested that the tide was turning in the battle for the Black Sea and that Russia, hit repeatedly by innovative and daring attacks, was then withdrawing ships ever further east in an uncoordinated and undignified manner.
Two months later, and with something approaching freedom of navigation for commercial shipping restored in the western Black Sea, it is possible to point to this as a fairly major success story in an otherwise attritional conflict.
Ukraine has mixed up its tactics well. ‘Normal’ anti-ship missiles, cruise missiles, special forces and maritime drones have all been used to keep the Russian Navy guessing.
There have been notable successes along the way with perhaps the most totemic being the sinking of the Black Sea flagship Moskva on 14 April 2022. Putting up a drone to track and distract Moskva worked so well, the position of the ship’s fire control radars as she sank suggests the Russians may not have seen the actual missiles coming at all.
October 2022 saw the first multiple unmanned attack with both air and sea drones surging into Sevastopol and damaging the Admiral Makarov.
In September this year, Sevastopol was hit again. Ukrainian special forces took out Russian S400 air defence radars, allowing UK-supplied Storm Shadow missiles to hit and damage a Kilo-class submarine, an amphibious craft and the dry docks in which they were berthed. Shortly after, the headquarters to which the leadership had retreated was hit, killing 33.
This forced many Russian vessels to leave Sevastopol and relocate to Novorossiysk in pre-2014 Russia. A ship is a web of networked logistics that reaches far inland. You can’t just leave all this behind without disruption. What I can only imagine were embarrassing discussions were then held about building an entirely new base in Georgia. British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey described it ‘the functional defeat of the Black Sea Fleet’.
Attacks continued using French supplied SCALP missiles (SCALP and Storm Shadow are the same weapon under different names – a lightly updated version of the 1980s French APACHE runway-buster fitted with a British bunker-buster warhead). Early last month, a SCALP strike damaged one of Russia’s newest Kalibr cruise missile firing corvettes, the Askold, and also the infrastructure in which she was being built.
Having been forced back, Russia is now having to expend significant resources in providing layered defence to stop the waves of attacks. On 10 November this failed when two more ships were sunk in Chornomorske, Crimea, this time by Magura V5 drone boats. The Russians saw them coming and fired plenty of rounds at them, they just missed.
The use of uncrewed vessels is not new. Fire ships were used as far back as AD 208 and regularly ever since, though fire ships are normally crewed until the final part of their journey. More recently Iran has built thousands of fast attack craft, some of which are autonomous. I deployed to the Gulf in command of a frigate that had an automated 30mm cannon fitted specifically to help defeat this threat. So, while its ideas have not been entirely new, Ukraine has moved this way of fighting along, combining better and better equipment with what is clearly an excellent intelligence picture.
There are four ways to defeat this sort of attack that Russian military planners will now be wrestling with.
The first, and always the best, is before it leaves the wall. If you can find the base and destroy that, then the problems of defeating the system at sea are rendered moot.
Second, as you do with missile systems, try to operate outside their maximum range. This isn’t simple for the Russians: the Magura V5 to name just one threat has an operating range of 200 nautical miles, which covers two thirds of the Black Sea.
Once you know you are under attack, the third is speed and manoeuvre – or running away to put it more simply. The Magura can do about 35 knots, so it’s faster than most warships, but in anything above a sea state three (waves taller than 1.25m) this speed advantage will disappear. The other advantage of manoeuvre is that if the vessel follows you as you do it, then you have now established intent and the gloves can come off.
Fourth is the obvious one – hard kill, that is shooting it with weapons. The issue here is one of numbers – how many of these things need to be coming at you before your systems are overwhelmed? This is where lasers, or other directed energy weapons, come into their own for those lucky enough to have them.
Fifth is soft kill – the ability to confuse or distract targeting systems, as with chaff and flares, or by jamming communications and/or sensors electronically. With offensive drone technology developing faster than defensive ways to destroy them, this is an area of focus for everyone right now, not just the Russians.
The trouble, as the Black Sea Fleet is finding, is that the minute you are tied up alongside, you lose nearly all of these advantages. You are now immobile and will only have a few of your weapons available – possibly none of them. These layers of defence now need to be provided by someone else, at significant cost.
The net result of the ‘pushing back’ of the Black Sea Fleet to the east is that the water between the Ukrainian port of Odesa and Snake Island is now fairly safe for merchant shipping. South of Snake Island, ships can remain in the territorial waters of Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey – all Nato members. This means that cargoes can be shipped between Odesa and the Bosporus strait, giving access to all the world’s oceans and markets.
Ever since the summer, when Putin withdrew from a previous agreement that Ukrainian grain could be shipped out without interference, the Black Sea Fleet has been trying to blockade Ukraine. It has failed.
Latest figures suggest that over 200 ships have now used the western corridor, carrying in excess of 7 million tons of cargo from Ukraine, much of it grain for countries desperately in need of it. Overall figures are still some way down on what they should be but this is a brighter picture than many had predicted. It often seems that the outside world can’t see why it should care about Ukraine’s battle for existence, but we should all be glad that grain prices are being kept down, and starvation for many kept at bay, thanks to the Ukrainians’ efforts.
Whilst Putin’s attempt to weaponise food is failing, this is not to say that it has failed totally. His ships and aircraft may have been beaten back but there are still fishing vessels and submarines that can lay mines. In October, a Turkish-flagged oil tanker struck a mine 11 nautical miles north of Sulina in Romania. There is also the ever-present Kalibr missile whose range is greater than the width of the Black Sea. That threat will never entirely go away, but it’s not clear how many Kalibrs Russia has left and in order to use them against a ship the Russians need to have a good idea of that ship’s location, course and speed.
A ship needs to be quite nearby to locate another ship. A well-equipped long range maritime patrol aircraft doesn’t, but it’s known that Russia cannot spare any of its capable Tupolev Tu-142 Bear-Fs or Bear-Js for the Black Sea just now. The big planes would seem likely to be fully tied up in the constant, silent struggle in northern waters in which Russia and the Nato navies try to get their deterrent submarines to sea and back again without them being tracked by the opposition. The Black Sea Fleet has only antique 1950s-vintage Beriev flying boats, which aren’t likely to be providing a decent intelligence picture of the dangerous northwestern Black Sea waters, probably covered by US-supplied Patriot batteries.
Choke points are in vogue with people wanting to disrupt free trade just now. The Bab el Mandeb at the bottom of the Red Sea is alive with Houthi missiles, drones and pirates and it’s only a matter of time before the Iranians attempt something in the Strait of Hormuz again: though the presence of a US carrier group in the Gulf is probably putting them off a bit. Ongoing Chinese bullying in the South China Sea and around Taiwan adds to this picture and means that even the massive US Navy is stretched thin at the moment.
The flow of international trade should never be considered something that is ‘over there’ and the ability to move goods around the world underpins our free market economy. The Ukrainians are showing us, yet again, how important freedom of the seas is.
This is why we need and have navies. However, they are not a free gift and treasuries the world over are going to have to stump up more cash to ensure that their fleets are maintained at the right standard, with the right blend of equipment and with full and motivated ship’s companies. It is too easy for malign actors to disrupt global trade otherwise.
Ukraine has shown what can be achieved with innovation and derring-do. Russia has shown what happens if you don’t innovate, don’t stay on top of your game and allow morale to plummet. The Russians’ declared intent to conduct an amphibious landing and capture Odesa must now seem a distant memory.
As Ukraine prepares for another long struggle against the most dangerous Russian commander – General Winter – at least the war on the maritime front is going their way.