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Floating a new flotilla – The Ukrainian Navy

June 3, 2016

The internal collapse of the USSR by 1991 led to the division of the Crimean based Soviet Black Sea Fleet into The Ukrainian and Russian Federation (Black Sea) Fleets – both remaining based in Crimea.  The 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and its subsequent looting of the Ukrainian Navy ships and related equipment further reduced in size the naval units and their projection capabilities for Ukraine – notwithstanding some losses of personnel of varying experience.

The past 2 years of Russian occupation following the illegal annexation of Crimea has seen the Kremlin increase the military presence on the peninsula changing the defence and security environment for Ukraine – and some NATO members a little further afield.

Indeed nations such as Romania who are directly effected by the increasing militarisation of Crimea by The Kremlin have sought to assemble a permanent NATO naval force in the area, despite NATO ally Turkey remaining by far the largest naval presence in the region.

(A reader should note that much of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet inherited and divided between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, and the subsequent “maintenance” of these fleets by both nations over the decades that followed, left tourists in Crimea surveying a number of rusting hulks amongst the warships and auxiliary vessels year on year.)

The Ukrainian Navy (or what is left of it after looting and/or rusting away) has moved to Odessa.

The increased and energetic cooperation between Ukraine and NATO since the Crimean annexation and war in the nation’s east has more dimensions than to simply see Ukraine holding the line in The Donbas.  There appears to be a qualitative effort at pursuing NATO standards and interoperability – which is no bad thing whether Ukraine ever joins NATO or not when considering any regional “coalitions of the willing” that appear will certainly involve some NATO members.

navy

Last week Ukraine announced that its navy will receive/acquire 30 new vessels by 2020.

This announcement raises many questions – not only that of whether 30 vessels can actually be built/bought and equipped by 2020.

The 30 new vessels, whatever their type, class and operational remits/expectations, will have a predicted working/seafaring life measured in decades.  Therefore it is necessary to question the strategic thinking behind what will be in effect, a new navy.

The threats to Ukraine are abundantly clear at the time of the announcement last week.

Those threats will remain for at least as long as the current Kremlin occupants remain – probably for decades beyond that.  Ukraine (and the West) are engaged in a war of exhaustion with The Kremlin (on many fronts, not just militarily).  The Kremlin is betting it will not  be the first to be politically or militarily exhausted over Ukraine and its future, even if confrontation (in whichever theatre(s) – political, diplomatic, economic, military, espionage, media etc.) has to continue for decades.

It can be reasonably expected that the majority, if not all, of the 30 vessels Ukraine intends to bring into the service of its navy by 2020 (as fanciful as that number may appear on the presumption these vessels are more than canoes) have the sole purpose of countering Kremlin military projection from a reinforced and increasingly offensive (rather than purely defensive) occupied Crimean peninsula.

Ergo it is hoped that not only do these 30 vessels seek to leverage whatever advantages they may be perceived to have over what The Kremlin currently has in occupied Crimea (and the possibilities those assets now provide The Kremlin), but also that those ordering these vessels have one eye upon what The Kremlin could place on the peninsula in the years (indeed decades) ahead.  In short, what capabilities and remit will these vessels have, not only for 2020, but for 2030 and 2040 in order to remain strategically relevant?

What are the relevant weaknesses any Kremlin naval presence has in Crimea?  Do the newly announced vessels adequately exploit those weaknesses now – and will they do so in the future?  If so, for how long into the future?

What role will they effectively play in any Ukrainian military doctrine now – and in the future?

How are they to be used?  Is speed and punch-power far more important than armour and self-defence capability?  Are they primarily to defend Odessa and other Ukrainian ports, or more generally to retain control of Ukrainian waters, or have expeditionary projection ability – such as a number of landing craft, 2 of which have recently been ordered from domestic shipyards?  Are they to be able to do all or any combination thereof?

What of suitability for secondary roles – immigrants, piracy, smuggling patrols, or participation in humanitarian missions during their decades of projected seafaring?

What of technology?  How extensive will technology transfer be between Ukraine and NATO when equipping these vessels?  Compatible communication systems?  Weapons, guidance systems, defensive capabilities?  How seamless the interoperability with NATO members?

What role can these vessels play in any “coalition of the willing” upon the Black Sea (and beyond)?  How well would what will (hopefully) be delivered to the Ukrainian Navy in 2020 fit into any larger international naval force – tactically specific, or strategically?

How do the current Ukrainian civilian and military leadership see Ukraine’s role without (rather than within) the Black Sea regionally?  Is there a projection capability with the new vessels that matches any aspirations  for operations in other waters?

Within the EU Association Agreement, Ukraine has certain ratified obligations regarding the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (should the Europeans ever arrive at a common security and defence policy).  If Ukraine were to offer naval hardware and personnel to the EU (as Ukraine does to the UN with MiG helicopters and pilots) would what is offered be of any use whatsoever?

In short,  on the presumption that the new vessels will meet NATO standards when considering their projected decades of operational sea life, together with robust Ukrainian efforts to move toward NATO standards, it would be extremely foolish to bring into service 30 new vessels that don’t make the grade.

Are these new vessels ordered with tactical shortsightedness, or longsighted strategic vision – or a bit of both?

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