Jun 8, 2022
In the American Civil War, Southern rebels used all manner of subterfuge to try and break a tight naval blockade and threaten Union shipping at sea. Today, the Ukrainian government can employ similar tactics to harass and, potentially, sink or disable Russian vessels in the Black Sea and beyond.
By raising the costs on the Russian blockading force and the Russian Navy, Ukraine has the potential to break the Russian blockade—a first step towards getting much-needed grain and fertilizer into world markets. Russia has about twenty military vessels in the Black Sea, and just a handful of those are relevant in terms of enforcing a blockade. For Russia, attrition at sea really matters.
Military employment of civilian vessels is a proven tactic. During the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate Navy often used sleight-of-hand to arm itself at sea. The notorious southern commerce raider, CSS Florida, was built in England as a merchant ship called Oreto. Upon leaving England, the ship promptly changed its name and used at-sea transshipments to convert itself into an armed commerce raider, commissioning into the Confederate Navy. Several other ersatz raiders followed.
Similar tactics can work today, setting the stage for a far more kinetic effort at opening the Black Sea. Ironically enough, Ukrainian diplomats might even find the task of building an improvised navy even easier than it was back in the 1860s. Today, utility and cargo vessels can be bought and sold in an instant, with their ultimate ownership effectively hidden in a nest of front companies. Antiship and basic anti-air systems are far more portable than heavy civil war cannons, and, at sea, these systems—Stingers, Switchblades, rockets and missiles—can be passed from one ship to another without much notice.
Tugs, fishing-boats, and even barges can be modified easily to hide all kinds of improvisational armaments, endowing almost any platform with the delightful capability to scare, harass, and even sink Russian vessels—almost anywhere in the world. Those countries that have the most to lose from Russia’s illegal attack upon the world’s breadbasket should rush to quietly slip Ukrainian volunteers the floating assets necessary to discomfit Russia’s maritime presence.
In time, no Russian fishing boat, oil tanker, or intelligence trawler should cruise any sea without at least some measure of concern.
It doesn’t take much. A few basic anti-ship missiles or loitering suicide drones launched from an ersatz workboat-like “combatant” can seriously complicate life for any Slava-class cruiser that might otherwise be enjoying a balmy Mediterranean cruise or Atlantic transit. Russia would be
hard-pressed to respond as their attackers either disappeared into nearby maritime traffic or scuttled themselves, with the crew vanishing into the Black Sea littorals, the Mediterranean, the English Channel or elsewhere aboard high-speed craft.
This type of conflict could even play out in the Black Sea. Turkey doesn’t spend much effort searching civilian craft that pass through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, and, with regional Black Sea smuggling an already vibrant enterprise, it should be relatively easy for a skilled operator on the Ukrainian payroll to hide even a big, conventional anti-ship missile from an unmotivated Turkish inspector or channel pilot. With big conventional anti-ship missiles clocking in at about 1/3rd the weight of a Ford F-150 pickup, there’s room for talented smugglers to demonstrate their skill set in hiding, running-out a missile, and firing on a Russian vessel of opportunity.
With Ukraine’s allies preparing to offer Ukraine anti-ship missiles, the threat to Russia’s rag-tag Black Sea Fleet is real.
The Naval Strike Missile, for example, is only about 900 pounds. For a single use, the missile doesn’t require a sophisticated launch system. Since the missile can independently seek and discriminate various targets out to more than 200 kilometers, the firing platform requires little intelligence information to be a true threat to an unready combatant. Get Naval Strike Missiles hidden aboard a few boats quietly circulating in Black Sea traffic, and equip them with a quick-assembly, single-use, Ikea-like launcher, and Russia suddenly has real security problems.
Ukraine doesn’t even need to move a weapon through Turkish waters. It may just be enough to get an “undercover” Ukrainian-controlled boat or two to the Black Sea. A small ship or unmanned platform, sneaking out from Ukrainian waters or from somewhere else, can easily transfer a few Switchblade drones capable of meting out a mission-kill—or worse—upon one of Russia’s few remaining large surface combatants in the Black Sea.
And with a little bit of intelligence and targeting assistance, Russia’s surface combatants and other Black Sea maritime outposts could end up having a very bad day.
With a little bit of creativity and derring-do, Ukrainians can wage a much wider, much more complex war at sea, nibbling away at the slowly-decaying Russian Black Sea fleet. For Russia, a mission kill on a few radars or other sensors is a real catastrophe. A strike on Russia’s Sevastopol naval docks at the wrong time could be quite costly.
In the Black Sea, trading an old workboat or other hulk for even a mere mission-kill on a Russian combatant is eminently worthwhile.
The successful attack on Russia’s Moskva cruiser shows that Ukraine is no passive player in the maritime. The mere prospect that Ukraine is thinking of such strategies would be enough to raise the blood pressure of Russian sailors. It might even be enough to force Vladimir Putin to ease his illegal assault on the world’s food supply.