With Russia’s war in Ukraine entering its sixth month, in this opinion piece we assess the impacts of conflict from a UK perspective, try to draw out a few key lessons and look at the situation in the Black Sea.
All wars are not the same and one must be careful not to extrapolate too far and too quickly from the specific events of one campaign. They are plenty of dubious ‘hot takes’ written by commentators who have been quick to decide the main battle tank is obsolete, missiles render all ships indefensible and drones are the solution to every problem. However, as the biggest conflict on European soil since the Second World War that also includes a significant naval dimension, there are important actions to evaluate and new factors to consider in the development of future strategy.
The invasion of Ukraine can be seen as another big step in the growing division between democratic western values and the authoritarian values of Russia and China. The polarisation of the world back into two competing value systems has been happening since the post-Cold War thaw ended but recent trends have seen a hardening of attitudes on both sides. This division has now become so pronounced that the process of economic globalisation, which has brought a period of unparalleled prosperity for billions of people, is now being reversed. For the foreseeable future, this will result in shortages of energy, food and materials as well as rising costs for both the consumer and the defence supply chain. A significant downward change in fortunes for the majority of people is also likely to result in social unrest and political instability.
Some of this is the unintended consequences specific to the war such grain shortages and sanctions on Russia but there is a deeper trend. Even before the pandemic, there were the beginnings of efforts to decouple from unreliable potential adversaries. This is particularly true for Chinese manufacturing as the trend in the US towards on-shoring manufacturing either domestically or in more reliable nations had already begun. Chinese labour is no longer as cheap as it once was but political, logistical and environmental factors are now carrying as much weight as the bottom line.
Taking the long view on the great power competition game is something authoritarian powers have been doing effectively for some time, while the UK and much of Europe have been drifting. This is partly a product of the short electoral cycle but also a vague belief that the free market will always win out, that long-term strategic planning is an expensive luxury or some kind of hangover from an imperial past.
Investing in defence to project power across the world and look after UK interests is vital but needs to be considered as part of a much broader and holistic cross-governmental effort to protect the nation and sustain its long-term security, health and prosperity. The massively ambitious 2021 Integrated Review does acknowledge this but only recently started the ball rolling on the development of a ‘Comprehensive National Resilience strategy’. Such work should have always been core to government planning going back decades, as the UK has recently discovered, national resilience measures cannot be whistled up in a couple of weeks but may need years of preparation. For example, the last two defence reviews listed a pandemic a “Tier-1 threat” but when one came, little planning had been done or resources prepared, resulting in a botched response and policy-making on the hoof (to be fair this was the case in the majority of nations).
Governments cannot control global commodity prices but better planning could have lessened much of the looming cost of living crisis caused by rocketing gas prices. The 1990s ‘dash for gas’ saw plentiful domestic coal supplies used for electricity generation replaced by cleaner and ‘cheaper’ LNG alternatives. Unfortunately, this decision did not consider the inherent strategic risks of putting the UK at the mercy of foreign suppliers and increased exposure to global price fluctuations. More than half of the UK gas comes from the North Sea and Norway which are reasonably dependable but a proportion is imported from the Middle East and the US by sea. Giant LNG tankers would be easy targets in a conflict and even the undersea gas pipeline infrastructure is potentially vulnerable to interference.
The long-term answer is likely nuclear and a mix of renewable energy sources but retaining a few coal-fired power stations that could be brought on line to cover a gas shortage or ballooning gas prices would have been one of several options for better energy resilience.
Germany, the powerhouse economy of Europe was repeatedly warned against the policy but was especially foolish in becoming almost wholly reliant on Putin for its gas supply (having also rashly divested itself of nuclear energy generation). Should German industry suffer shutdowns from lack of gas, this will have a big impact on parts of the UK economy which rely on German imports. British politicians cannot take the moral high ground on the issue, given their failure after the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the Skripal poisonings to take tougher action against dirty Russian money in London.
There are many lessons from the battlefields of Ukraine which are beyond the scope of this article but it could be surmised that the Russian Army has demonstrated how not to fight a war on every level from the strategic to the tactical. If there is one lesson that needs to be re-learned by the UK it is the volume of munitions that are consumed in a live conflict. If public figures are roughly in the right ballpark, the British Army’s ammunition stocks would last for about two weeks at Ukraine’s current rate of consumption and just two days at Russian rates.
A similar paucity afflicts naval weapons stocks. Precise figures are hard to come by but it is well known that there is a shortage of complex weapons. It is not hard to imagine that in a peer conflict a typical RN combatant could fire off its full outfit of missiles in a busy afternoon. Putting aside the issues around VLS cells’ inability to replenish at sea, just how many reloads would be available in the naval munitions stores to re-arm ships returning from the fight? There is a very difficult balance to be struck between buying deep stocks of expensive missiles or greater spending on the number and quality of the more obviously visible launch platforms.
The success of the NLAW (Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon) has seen a sudden spike in demand, highlighting the lack of industrial capacity to adapt to a sudden conflict. NLAWs are wanted for further use in Ukraine, to replace more than 5,000 from UK stocks already donated as well as meet a rise in export interest. It will take some time to ramp up production again and the components and sub-systems that rely on stuttering global supply chains may also be harder to come by than in the past. Although not as economical, consideration needs to be given to keeping the production lines of key weapons open, making small numbers during peacetime but able to quickly scale up again to meet a spike in demand.
The new paradigms of ‘information age’ warfare have been demonstrated in Ukraine. UAVs allow targets to be hit more quickly and at a longer range, than before. Cheap but smart weapons can defeat expensive platforms if they are not adequately protected or deployed without paying very close attention to the tactical situation. In some cases, off-the-shelf commercial systems can quickly be repurposed and be used for decisive effect. These examples from the land battle may not always translate directly to the naval environment but the principles are similar.
Intellectual heavyweights will again be needed to make the right calls in trade-offs between a few exquisite capabilities or cheaper, more numerous and attritable alternatives. For example, the ambitious Future Maritime Aviation Force vision may come down to choices between more carrier-launched UAVs, both high-end and simpler swarming type drones, or further investment in F-35 such as long-range stand-off weapons.
The naval dimension of the Ukraine War is a strange kind of conflict, fought in littoral waters where neither side can expect reinforcements due to the closure of the Dardanelles. Remarkably the Russian Black Sea Fleet has failed to significantly influence the land war despite fighting an adversary that has no effective navy. In the early stages of the war, the BSF established sea control, quickly cutting off Ukraine from resupply by sea and strangling its trade. It was also able to poise offshore, tying down defenders to repel a possible amphibious assault.
Subsequently came the shock of the sinking of the cruiser Moskva, the largest combatant in the Black Sea, and the Russian’s failure to hold strategically important Snake Island. The threat from land-based missile systems appears to have pushed the Russian Navy away from the west coast of Crimea, and their main units are now observed operating further south and east where they have limited influence. The only substantive gain seems to be total control over the Sea of Azov. The slim chance of an amphibious operation has receded but the BSF does remain at least a ‘fleet in being’ and retains the ability to launch its dwindling stocks of cruise missiles from sea-based platforms.
On 31st July a drone was used in a minor strike on Black Sea Fleet headquarters buildings in Sevastopol. The increasing reach of Ukrainian weaponry or their special forces may even threaten the naval base at Sevastopol. The major attack on Novofedorivka air base (9th August), whether by long-range missile strike or a special forces/partisan operation threatens Russia’s hold on Crimea. It would appear a number of SU-24 (Fencer) and SU-30 (Flanker) jets were destroyed, inflicting Russia’s biggest loss of aircraft in a single day since WWII. (Probably some of these aircraft were involved in aggressive passes over HMS Defender during her Black Sea Transit in June 2021).
In a deal brokered by Turkey, the Russians have agreed to allow some trapped merchant vessels to sail from Ukraine with cargoes of grain. The Russians may have recognised that being blamed for global food shortages is not in their wider interests and they need also Turkish support to enable their own Black Sea exports
Unfortunately, as we predicted, shipowners are reluctant to send more vessels into the Black Sea to collect further cargoes. There is still a threat from stray sea mines and being caught in the crossfire of an unpredictable war. Russian ‘safety guarantees’ are virtually worthless, demonstrated by their cynical cruise missile strike on the port of Odesa shortly after the deal was signed. Insurance for vessels entering the Black Sea is still prohibitively expensive, even if willing crews can be found.
The RN has formally acknowledged it is training Ukrainian sailors in Scotland and at sea to operate the two minehunters, ex-HMS-Blyth and HMS Ramsey purchased by Ukraine before the war began. Under current conditions, there appears to be no way to get these ships into theatre. There is a waterway between Europe and the Black Sea via the river Danube but it is not quite wide enough in places to accommodate even these small vessels and water levels have been further reduced by the summer drought. If Turkey agreed to allow the minehunters to pass through the Dardanelles categorised as ‘warships of a Black Sea power returning to their base’, then there would be no way to prevent the Russians from sinking them unless they agreed to their presence.