Here we take a brief overview of the current naval situation following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In moves that were obvious for the world to see since early 2022, the Russian were pre-positioning naval units ahead of their planned attack on Ukraine. Drawing in ships from the Baltic, Northern and Pacific fleet they have placed their forces in a way that would complicate any attempt by NATO navies to intervene. Centred on their Slava class cruisers, they have 3 Surface Action Groups (SAG) ready, in the Black Sea is the Moskva and the eastern Mediterranean are the Varyag and Marshall Ustinov supported by frigates and conventional submarines.
During the initial attack on Ukraine, submarine-launched cruise missiles were likely fired from the Black Sea Fleet. Today the Russian navy launched an amphibious assault in the Sea of Azov with troops landing and heading west towards Mariupol. The cruiser RFS Moskva and corvette RFS Vasiliy Bykov used naval gunfire to attack the Ukrainian garrison on Snake Island about 100 km to the south of Odesa, killing the brave defenders that refused to surrender.
A Turkish cargo ship MV Yasa Jupiter was caught in the crossfire, suffering minor damage off the coast of Odesa yesterday. Two more merchant ships were hit by Russian attacks in the Black Sea today. The Japanese-owned bulk carrier MV Namura Queen was hit by a rocket while at anchor off Yuzhne and the Moldovan-flagged chemical tanker MV Millennial Spirit was hit and set on fire 12 miles to the south. Commercial shipping in the Black Sea has almost come to a halt. The region is a major grain producer and the interruption to marine traffic is already impacting world food prices.
Although of no value right now, it should be noted that last year Britain approved a £1.5Bn loan to Ukraine buy military equipment as was in the process of preparing two ex-RN minehunters for transfer. In addition, the first of a planned class of 8 Fast Attack Craft was to be built at Rosyth for the Ukrainian Navy. Babcock were to support the development of their naval shore facilities and possibly construct a Type 31 frigate. Anti-ship missiles in the form of maritime Brimstone were also promised to the Ukrainians.
Sending warships into the Black Sea obviously implies a greater risk than usual due to the proximity of an active combat zone. No major NATO warships have entered the Black Sea since January and the alliance appears to lack a meaningful Black Sea strategy. Ukraine has asked Turkey to close the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to Russian ships and submarines. This puts the Turks in a difficult position. Diplomatically they have previously tried to have their cake and eat it as a NATO member but maintaining close ties to Russia. In the short term, it would make little difference as the Russians vastly outmatch the Ukrainian naval forces in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
Boris Johnson stated on the 10th of February that a Type 45 destroyer would be sent to the Black Sea. HMS Diamond was earmarked for this duty but subsequent events may have changed that plan. Unfortunately Diamond has had at least 4 planned departures from Portsmouth cancelled since 16th February. Initially, this was blamed on the extreme weather but the RN has admitted she has encountered “technical problems”. Diamond’s struggle to leave has had a minimal strategic impact and of course, a warship must be in all aspects ready for sea before sailing. However, the optics matter and is symbolic of a Navy overstretched to sustain a significant force (besides an OPV) on scene in the Mediterranean where needed. Both HMS Diamond, HMS Defender and HMS Richmond sail today for the first time since returning in mid-December from the 7-month CGS21 deployment.
The most significant force in the eastern Mediterranean region is the USS Harry S Truman carrier strike group which has recently been operating in the Adriatic. The carrier is supported by a cruiser and four destroyers with another 5 destroyers of the US 6th Fleet also thought to be in the Med. US Navy assessments note that while the Russian weapons appear imposing, the Aegis cruisers and destroyers outmatch the 1970s and 1980s-era Russian weapons, although there are concerns about the sheer quantity of Russian missiles. Around 10 European warships, including the Standing NATO Maritime Group Two task group are participating in anti-submarine exercise Dynamic Manta to the South of Sicily. OPV HMS Trent is assigned to SNMG2, obviously lacking any ASW capability but able to perform other roles in the task group and can, at least refuel helicopters to extend their operating range.
The Truman CSG was slated to join exercise Cold Response (CR22) off Norway which begins in mid-March but will remain in the Mediterranean. The light carrier ITS Garibaldi will make a rare foray by the Italian Navy to the high North and act as the Amphibious Task Force command ship. HMS Prince of Wales, the NATO Response Force flagship, was also due to head to Norway and act as the overall command platform for the exercise but events may see the destination of the carrier and her escorts change. The planned involvement by HMS Albion and RFA Mounts Bay is likely to go ahead. Royal Marines have been in the Arctic conducting cold-weather training ahead of CR22 since the new year although 350 men of 45 Commando were redeployed from Norway to Poland in early February.
At this important moment, the UK potentially has the ability to field two aircraft carriers, very welcome and well-timed news, particularly from a US perspective. The composition of the air groups assigned to the RN carriers will doubtless be the subject of lively speculation but a double deployment would make a big statement. CR22 will still go ahead but likely with a reduced naval component, NATO is still keen to demonstrate it can reinforce its Northern flank. Elements of the Russian Northern Fleet have been sent to the Mediterranean but it is still a potent force. The flagship nuclear-powered battlecruiser RFS Peter the Great recently conducted exercises off Severomorsk and the frigate RFS Admiral Gorshkov test-fired another hypersonic (Mach 8) Tsirkon missile on February 19.
It should be noted that in all cases NATO forces are not being positioned for any direct involvement in Ukraine and naval or military movements are intended to strengthen and reassure its member nations on Russia’s borders. From a Royal Navy perspective, expect plans to evolve and pre-announced deployments may be subject to changes as the situation develops.
Main image HMS Diamond sails from Portsmouth today (Photo: RNPics_)