Surface Forces: Rebuilding The Ukraine Navy

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July 8, 2020: The Ukrainian Navy is being rebuilt and the U.S. has agreed to play a major role in that effort. In mid-2020, the United States agreed to sell Ukraine sixteen Mk VI patrol boats. The U.S. proposed that these boats each be armed with two 30mm autocannon RWS (remote weapons systems) operated from inside the boat, behind the armor that would protect the crew from machine-gun fire and shell fragments. Each boat would also have an IFF (Identify, Friend or Foe) transponder similar to that used on combat aircraft. The U.S. also offered radar and an electro-optical FLIR (heat sensing) radar that would make the boat capable of spotting and identifying anything within eyesight of the crew. There would also be a LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) that would enable a crewmember to send a focused beam of sound out to five kilometers so that they could deliver verbal information or commands to anyone within range. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have found LRAD very useful. The MK VI can also launch inflatable boats from the rear for boarding parties and American sailors have demonstrated the use of small UAVs from the Mk VI. Also on offer is a two or four cell launcher for the new American LRSAM (Long Range Anti-Ship Missile), which has a 550 kilometer range and weight two tons each. That’s a lot of firepower for a 72 ton, 26 meter (85 foot) longboat with a ten man crew (plus space for eight passengers), top seed of 82 kilometers an hour and an endurance of about 28 hours cruising at 45 kilometers an hour.

The Mk VI manufacturer also offers a maintenance, spare parts and tech support package that the Ukrainians probably know by reputation is good at keeping American made vessels easily repairable with spares delivered quickly and tech support available long-distance via the Internet. This would be essential for these boats as they would probably be heavily used. Ukraine might substitute some of the American RWS with Ukrainian models, which are competitive in durability and effectiveness. Ukraine also has a local ship electronics industry which could also provide competitive items for what the U.S. is offering.

Ukraine is desperate to rebuild its fleet. The Ukrainian Navy initially, in 1991, consisted of nearly 70 former Soviet Black Sea fleet warships. The problem was that most of the officers on these new ships were Russians who did not want to change their nationality. Many simply went back to Russia, others accepted Ukrainian citizenship but that often proved superficial. In 2014 when Russia seized Crimea they also grabbed most of the fifty ships of the Ukrainian fleet. This was aided by many of the ethnic Russian officers agreeing to return to the Russian Navy. The only major ship Ukraine held onto was a Cold War era Krivak class frigate and a few dozen smaller patrol ships that were stationed at other Ukrainian ports outside of Crimea. By taking Crimea Russia was now in possession of several major naval bases and shipyards.

With the loss of Crimea Ukraine not only lost its fleet but also most of its ability to build a new one. There were still several Ukrainian commercial shipyards that remained outside of Crimea and these were put to work producing the new Gurza-M class armored gunboats. Twenty of these 52-ton boats are to be built but so far only eight are completed and two were captured by the Russians in a 2018 incident. These were returned recently, stripped of all weapons and most other equipment. It will take months to restore these Gurza-M boats to service. Meanwhile, it will take at least six years to get all twenty Gurza-M boats completed. Thus, the importance of buying the similar, but larger and faster American Mk VI boats.

With both the Mk VI and Guzra-M forces at full strength Ukraine will have 36 modern gunboats, all armed with 25mm or 30mm autocannon RWS (remote weapons stations) and a pair of modern anti-ship missiles. This will give the Russians something to worry about even if all those gunboats will not even the naval balance in the Black Sea. Not that the Russian Black Fleet is a major force. Most of the ships they stole from Ukraine in 2014 are Cold War era relics that Russia cannot afford to update.

Russia is building some new corvettes and frigates and a few of these are being assigned to the Black Sea Fleet. By the time Ukraine has its 36 modern gunboats, Russia will have a dozen or so modern frigates and corvettes plus a few operational diesel-electric submarines. All these are barely adequate to deal with the fleets of East European NATO members that border the Black Sea plus U.S. Navy warships that regularly visit their Black Sea NATO allies. Turkey is still a NATO member but barely, and technically an ally of Russia and Iran. At the same time, Turkish forces are shooting at Russians in Libya and Syria and, more importantly for Ukraine, the Turkish fleet is more concerned with what’s going on in the Mediterranean than the Black Sea.

The U.S. is also offering Ukraine larger warships, including recently retired American ships that are refurbished for another decade or so of service with an allied navy. Ukraine, like Russia, had budget problems but Ukraine also has NATO friends and still may join NATO, something Russia threatens to go to war with Ukraine to prevent. Since 2014 Russia has been at war with Ukraine so threatening more war may not be a wise move by Russia. Then again, wisdom is something you can never depend on from Russian military planners.

 


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