History knows a lot of examples when an imbalance of armed force resulted in armed conflicts and wars. The sea is no exception in this context, as can be seen from the events of the Second World War and the post-war period. At the same time, the right operational structure of naval forces which are small, but still capable of effectively influencing vulnerable places of the enemy, has repeatedly brought victory in the fight against a stronger opponent. Now as then, it depends not only on the forms and methods, but first of all on adequacy, non-standard approaches and being ahead of the enemy, especially in a war of attrition.
Maritime powers did not become what they are now at once. They went down different paths, meeting both victories and defeats. However, at some point in history, each of these countries saw a maritime nation being born, which realized that the sea is not a natural defense in itself and that maintaining a state’s right to possess its water spaces requires constant, guaranteed and reliable protection. A maritime nation differs from a coastal one precisely in that it guarantees its own right to own the sea, which can only be provided by appropriate naval forces. Such is the nature of the national sea power.
Of course, much of these transformations depended and still depends on the elite – those who shape the meanings and motivate the nation to follow them. Experience has shown that under the influence of turbulent events, transformational processes accelerate, as nations become united by the most important motivation: to survive and strengthen. However, leadership is still decisive. Remember the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915.
It should be noted that in the history of Ukrainian independence, some attempts were made to identify the maritime interests of Ukraine and to form the tools for their protection. In this context, the naval policy of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky deserves attention, as he did much to establish the Navy of the Ukrainian State. At the same time, the weakness of the naval thinking of the naval leadership of that time and allowing our adversaries to get ahead on key issues of maritime policy led to the loss of the Hetmanate’s fleet in November 1918. Next, we had the imperial Soviet era, which encouraged the continental thinking of Ukrainians as a “naturally” sedentary farming people. Under the USSR, Ukrainians were never appointed as commanders of the Navy or separate fleets; for such was the personnel policy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Upon gaining independence, Ukraine came to possess huge sea spaces with a powerful economic potential, which is characterized by:
– a favorable geostrategic position at the crossroads of transport corridors with huge transit potential and traffic flow to Ukraine/from Ukraine standing at 320-350 commercial vessels per day;
– an opportunity to take full advantage of maritime transport which is the cheapest transportation mode in the world;
– reserves of hydrocarbons, especially natural gas, which is in high demand in Ukraine. Explored reserves of gas on the continental shelf of Ukraine (not to be confused with the so-called shelf gas as these are completely different things) can cover the needs of all coastal regions of Ukraine for decades;
– heavy cargo handling facilities for metallurgical, agricultural, chemical and other industries in the seaports, first of all, of Odesa, Chornomorsk, Yuzhne, Mykolaiv, Berdiansk, and Mariupol. It should be noted that Ukraine’s seaports have at various times brought 12 to 17 percent of GDP to the public coffers;
– the sea economy opportunities, in particular regarding catches of the valuable fish species which are absent in other areas of the Black and Azov Seas.
Winston Churchill said once: “Men occasionally stumble over their great opportunity, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” This is probably the case with us, too. Sovereign Ukrainian waters and underwater mineral wealth were supposed to exist by themselves, as little was done to guarantee the protection of the state’s right to own them. The sources of this approach should be sought in the continental mentality pervading thinking of our elite and, it should be admitted, a majority of the population as well. The roots of this continental culture can be seen in determining the fate of the military forces that remained on the territory of Ukraine after the collapse of the USSR. At that time, the land and air force units were quickly sworn to Ukraine, but the issue of the Black Sea Fleet of the former USSR was for some reason delayed and then put into some “special” format, even though the fleet served no independent function and was part of a military force located on the territory of independent Ukraine and subordinated to the South-Western Operational and Strategic Direction in the Soviet era with its chief mission being to facilitate operations on the sea flank of the land forces.
The undeveloped maritime thinking of the ruling elite was one of the key reasons behind the lack of adequate reaction at the outset of the Crimea annexation. Unfortunately, the lessons from those events have been only partly learned, and in many respects this field remains ‘unplowed.’ Even now, an official in Kyiv and an average Ukrainian see the sea about the same: from the height of a hill on a sandy beach or when looking at the beautiful shape of a warship at a naval parade. Maybe, they are right, and Ukraine will always have its coastal sea, wonderful sun and naval parades, so we have nothing to worry about?
Unfortunately, historical experience shows the opposite being the case. Few people know that the estimated trillions which Ukraine’s economy lost due to the annexation of Crimea are less than the losses which can occur if we lose the exclusive maritime economic zone of Ukraine, which is three times larger than Crimea and has much greater economic potential. The ongoing developments indicate that the loss of this potential is a real threat.
Let us stick to facts. The Kremlin is actively implementing a new southern maritime strategy that is built on strength. Russia has already deployed coastal anti-ship missile systems Bastion and Bal in Crimea. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has been strengthened with new surface ships and submarines which carry long-range cruise missiles. Land and air forces have been substantially strengthened as well, as an army corps has been created in Crimea and a modern air defense system S-400 Triumf has been deployed there. The peninsula is now home to the latest Russian long-range surveillance and electronic warfare equipment. Modernization of the Soviet-era infrastructure, arms and ammunition storage areas and other military facilities is underway. Within a short period of time, all this has provided the Russian Black Sea Fleet with powerful offensive and defensive capabilities, effectively transforming Crimea into an unsinkable aircraft carrier with force projection and long-range strike potential. It should be noted that the ships and submarines lately deployed in the occupied Crimea are carriers of cruise missiles Kalibr-NK which are designed for missile attacks on coastal objects at ranges of up to 2,000 km. If we calculate the total combat potential of the Russian cruise missiles deployed in the Black-Sea-Azov basin, it already exceeds the capabilities of the fleets of all other Black Sea countries combined. A key finding is that these assets of the Russian Black Sea Fleet are exclusively offensive in nature, and its expansion is actively continuing. Already, the leadership of the Russian Armed Forces openly speaks of the restoration of Russian military superiority in the Black Sea which was lost after the collapse of the USSR.
As a whole, the development of security situation in the Black-Sea-Azov region is becoming a growing headache not only for Ukraine and the Black Sea countries. Facts are a stubborn thing, and they indicate that the threat space has already expanded beyond the region. Unfortunately, the brute force, and not the international maritime law as established by bloody experiences of previous generations, has become a decisive factor for Russian influence in the region. Creeping forceful shifting of the limits of the exclusive maritime economic zone, restrictive and blockade-like actions in the Kerch Strait, information attacks on measures taken to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity at sea – these are all realities at present. What about the one-sided closure of the Kerch Strait by Russia and the limitations put on the size of ships of many nations that head for it? Consequently, Panamax-class ocean-going vessels can enter the Mariupol Sea Port no more, which is a gross violation of the Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 and is bringing billions of losses for the Ukrainian budget. Switching to military terminology, this is a blockade, which is typical of the prewar period.
The Kremlin’s current maritime strategy is a bet on the Anti Access/Area Denial strategy, also known as the A2/AD. Russia’s A2/AD capabilities in Crimea do not allow naval ships of any country to enter the Black Sea and operate in it unchallenged by Russian forces. The A2/AD strategy’s primary feature is the creation of combat systems that include observation and target detection means, ship- and shore-based cruise missiles, and multi-layered air defense which are reinforced by coastal aviation, electronic warfare means and other complexes or systems. Such a combat system has all the advantages of the fleet in a closed marine theater, while minimizing its disadvantages and providing an opportunity to fight in favorable conditions. It can be described as the strategy of a “fortress fleet” allowing its owner to establish control over any area of the sea, ranging from observation and isolation to the sea blockade of navigation and launching surgical missile strikes against important (priority) sea and land targets.
Of course, all this is much more serious and dangerous than the afternoon sun on the beach.
What, then, should Ukraine do in these circumstances, when Russia is extracting Ukrainian gas on the continental shelf, threatening Mariupol and Berdiansk with stagnation through the construction of the Kerch Bridge, and has every bit of the coastal waters and territories of Ukraine with all facilities they host in the sights of Russian ship- and shore-based missile systems with the flight time to target which is measured in minutes?
Firstly, one should realistically perceive an unpleasant picture currently existing for Ukraine at sea. This, first of all, concerns the political and military elite of Ukraine, which should not entertain any illusions that somehow the problem will solve itself. It is advisable to think and react, since without proper thinking and active, adequate actions we will be doomed to lose forever.
Secondly, it is known that Russia’s own southern maritime strategy relies on offensive missile systems, both ship- and shore-based. Ships and shore missile systems are considered as the main attack platforms, while submarines, as a rule, operate on sea lanes against large vessels and ships, as well as shore facilities. That is, some kind of symmetrical response on the part of Ukraine would be too costly and not realistic. At the same time, it is worthwhile to consider that modern large ships, including cruisers, destroyers and frigates, are vulnerable to the actions of so-called light forces (fast attack boats) which are equipped with anti-ship weapons. In turn, cruise missiles are not effective in fighting fast attack boats due to the latter’s low radar and thermal visibility, high speed and maneuverability. That is, we should look for an asymmetrical answer.
Thirdly, in the light of the preceding paragraphs, it is advisable to determine our own naval strategy and the appropriate missions of the navy. Now, de facto, this strategy is based on the assumption that land fighting will enable us to protect the coastal strip and in the event of an invasion from the sea, to stop the enemy’s advance into the depth of the territory. Experience suggests that this postulate is false, because the center of security turbulence is generally located not on the shore and not even near it, as blockade or other actions at sea can critically affect the economy of the coastal regions and quickly enough destabilize them, even without invasion from sea. Recent developments in the Kerch Strait convincingly testify to the reality of such a scenario. That is, we really need a strategy aimed at protecting sea lanes and neutralizing threats in the near maritime zone of Ukraine where the sovereign rights of the state apply. Accordingly, the main mission of the Ukrainian Navy should be to establish control over the exclusive maritime economic zone and ensure freedom of navigation. Control means domination, and this is the basis of the success of any action at sea, without which no effective anti-landing defense or other actions in the closed marine theater are possible. That is, anti-landing, anti-mine, and anti-submarine/anti-sabotage defenses are important, but secondary to the sea control mission.
Fourthly, the awareness of the main and other missions should underlie the programs of the purchase of sea platforms and weapons. The fast attack boat concept, the concept of light forces, the mosquito concept – whatever you call it, considering the cost-effectiveness criterion, the mosquito fleet seems to be the most appropriate approach for the near maritime zone despite all the talk of building a cruiser or a pocket frigate, which the Project 58250 ship is. That is why we direly need a well-balanced force including three types of high-speed boat platforms: patrol and attack boats armed with cruise missiles, minesweepers and amphibious boats. It is not about some dinghies or gigs, but about combat units equipped with missiles and/or other sea weapons, fast and maneuverable, with sufficient seaworthiness and range. These platforms may also include small patrol corvettes with a displacement of up to 400-500 tons. That is, we are talking here about an asymmetric A2/AD system of sorts, which should, of course, operate in close cooperation with other forces and means of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Fifthly, it is advisable to conduct an audit of all that we have to protect at sea. This is needed to create a roadmap for the transition from a state of limited naval capabilities to a perspective growth state. On the one hand, the navy has four dozen different ship platforms, but the vast majority of them are not only outdated, but also absolutely unnecessary in modern sea confrontation, because they are auxiliary vessels that stay at the berths and consume already scarce resources for their maintenance, while on the other hand, we have virtually nothing with which to protect the state from real threats from the sea. Here we are: there is a fleet, but it has few capabilities. The good news is that international agreements have been reached on strengthening the Ukrainian Navy with appropriate patrol platforms, and they should be implemented as soon as possible, and patrol and attack boats should be purchased abroad as well; this requires a huge deal of work from our sailors, who should have a representative office in Kyiv. This should be done without delay, as we should remember the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and other conflicts at sea. Of course, Ukraine must revive its shipbuilding potential, without which it is difficult to hope for success. OK, a curious reader might say, and ask: where are we to get the funds to support the fleet of the required combat capability? The answer is very simple: we need to learn to act ahead, because the economic losses of the Mariupol industry alone from the construction of the Kerch Bridge are similar in magnitude to the costs of the creation of a national fast attack boat fleet, which we direly need to dissuade everybody from interfering with the functioning of the maritime economy of Ukraine.
The best way to secure peace is to be strong. It is always relevant at sea, and for Ukraine, it is relevant now as never before.
Here is my advice for the authorities. Meanwhile, I wish the Ukrainians to become a maritime nation rather than a coastal one as soon as possible. We all will only benefit from this.
Ihor Kabanenko is admiral, a defense and security expert, and politician