Surface Forces: Ukraine Rebuilds

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July 4, 2022: The United States is expediting the delivery of 35 patrol boats for river, port and coast patrol and protection. Most of these ae 12 and 14-meter patrol boats that can be obtained and shipped quickly. Some of these are several of the twelve larger Mk VI patrol boats that the U.S. Navy is in the process of retiring. The United States had earlier (2020) agreed to supply Ukraine with 16 new Mk VI boats. That order has since been increased to 18 but all of those will not be delivered until 2026. The U.S. Navy may accelerate the retirement of its twelve Mk Vis, which were all built between 2015 and 2017 but are no longer needed.

After 2014 the United States agreed to provide assistance in rebuilding the Ukrainian Navy. In 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 anti-ship missiles. That’s a lot of firepower for a 72-ton, 26-meter (85 foot) long boat with a ten-man crew (plus space for eight passengers), top speed 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 spare parts 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 was desperate to rebuild its fleet after 2014. 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 by 2022 three of these were in service with a fourth undergoing sea trials. Construction of more Guzra-Ms was halted by the 2022 Russian invasion. This increased the urgency and importance of obtaining the similar, but larger and faster American Mk VI boats. Three of these are arriving in 2022 with more to follow as fast as they can be completed or obtained from those the U.S. Navy is retiring.

Russia is building some new corvettes and frigates and a few of these are being assigned to the Black Sea Fleet. By the time of the 2022 invasion Ukraine had a few gunboats and support craft while Russia had about 20 warships and several functioning shipyards in Crimean Peninsula.

The U.S. also offered 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 wants to join NATO, something Russia threatened 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. That did not stop the Russians from invading in 2022 and that resulted in the loss of a Russian 10,000-ton cruiser (the flagship of the Black Sea fleet) and a growing number of smaller vessels.

After Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Turkey invoked a 1930s treaty governing transit of warships into the Black Sea via the deep-water entrance, which is Turkish territory. The Mk VIs can be delivered via the Romanian port of Constanta, which has a river/canal connection with the North Sea. This port is near Ukraine’s Snake Island, which was captured by Russian forces soon after the invasion began. Since then, the Russian garrison and resupply ships have been under constant attack. The Russians finally withdrew on June 12th and Ukrainian forces reoccupied it. Snake Island is about 35 kilometers from the Ukrainian port of Odessa. NATO aircraft and satellites provide constant surveillance over the waters between Snake Island, Odessa and the Crimea. Ukrainian firepower, including anti-ship missiles provided by NATO. Delivering the Mk VI boats via Constanta could still be threatened by Russian Kilo class subs based on Crimea. Only one of the four Kilos in the Black Sea is operational. The other three undergoing repairs and required maintenace in Crimea shipyards. If Ukraine can obtain enough GMLRS guided rockets from the United States, these can attack Black Sea fleet ships in Crimea. Six GMLRS rockets are carried and launched from HIMARS vehicles.

 


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