The first part of the Channel 5 documentary “Warship Life at Sea” has just been broadcast and documents HMS Duncan leading a NATO deployment to the Black Sea in the first half of 2018. There have been several TV documentaries showing life on board RN warships made in the last few years but the latest series offers a rare and close-up view of navy delivering at the operational sharp end.
The show is a great advert for the RN both as a recruitment tool and a way of showing what taxpayers money really buys. There is plenty of material in the media about the navy covering the ceremonial, charity work, honours & awards, ships returning home, aircraft carrier trials, industrial and engineering aspects etc but there is not nearly enough explanation about what the RN is for and what it can do. There have also been plenty of myths about the Type 45 destroyers supposedly broken and tied up in port. Here we see a crew with total confidence in their ship, described as “the best air defence platform in the world” operating in a high threat environment.
On arrival in the Black Sea, an elderly Russian Kashin class destroyer (Probably the Smetlivyy, built in 1969) began to shadow HMS Duncan and several Russian aircraft flew near to the ship. Later, in a significant show of strength, 17 Su-24 ‘Fencer’ and Su-35 ‘Flanker’ Fighter-Bombers approached the ship and did not respond to requests to keep their distance. Commodore Mike Utley, in command of the NATO group at the time said: “HMS Duncan is probably the only maritime asset that has seen a raid of that magnitude in the last 25 years.” The Russian consider the Black Sea ‘their lake’ and do not like lawful use of international waters, particularly by NATO warships. This was a just demonstration by the Russian air force but if they approached the ship in this manner in a combat situation, they would be easy targets for the ship’s Sea Viper missiles. If the ship was attacked for real they would be far more likely to use stand-off missiles or come in at very low level, where they are much harder to detect. The Type 45 is about the best air defence platform at sea but historical precedence suggests that aircraft attacking surface ships always have the ultimate advantage, the surest way to provide cover for any naval fleet is with its own carrier-bourne aircraft.
Tensions in the region are currently higher than ever, on 25th November the Russians blockaded the Kerch Strait with a cargo ship moored beneath a newly constructed Russian bridge. This blocks access to the Sea Azov which is an important international trade route for Ukraine. The Russian navy fired on two small Ukrainian armed patrol vessels and special forces subsequently captured them. Ukraine is not a NATO member but there is considerable sympathy for their plight in the face of the Russian invasion and continuing aggression. However, Putin is well aware there is unlikely to be the political will in Europe or the US to send what would need to be a very substantial force to support Ukraine.
If NATO was ever to really confront the Russians in the Black Sea they would be at a major disadvantage being so close to Russian airbases and shore-based anti-ship missiles. Under the Montreux Convention, Turkey controls the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles that give access to the Black Sea. Warships are only permitted to spend 21 days in the Black Sea and warships over 15,000 tons are not permitted at all, effectively excluding aircraft carriers.
You can watch the first episode of Warship Life at Sea on Channel 5 catch up here, the second episode will be broadcast on Monday 3rd December at 9pm.