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How Ukraine is fighting its war at sea

Staff Writer Sam Bryan unpacks Ukraine’s unconventional approach to naval warfare in the Black Sea, exploring its applicability in future maritime conflicts.

Putin’s war in Ukraine has been raging for almost two years and has been closely watched by military thinkers and strategists who are questioning whether recent technological advancements have altered the character of war. The war in Ukraine has been marked by the extent to which drones, missiles and AI have dominated the battlefields, moving modern combat further away from traditional battlefield tactics and strategy. Ukraine is by no means the first war to have implemented technologies as such (the recent conflict in Nagorno -Karabakh was heavily influenced by Uncrewed Aerial Systems, or UAS). However the scale and significance of this conflict (combined with even more widespread documentation and recording online) have thrust these technologies into the spotlight. This phenomenon has been particularly prevalent in the maritime environment. The Ukrainian “Mosquito Navy’s” war at sea has become an interesting case study in what the future of modern naval combat could look like. Gone is the age of large fleets, broadsides and dominance of space; as utilisation of land-based, long range missiles and small drones by the Ukrainians have fought an effective campaign for naval supremacy of the Black Sea.

What makes this ‘Mosquito’ Navy special is the fact Ukraine is fighting a war of denial with an almost shipless navy against the second largest maritime power in the world. This has been achieved through the use of precise western intelligence, with the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zarachova saying “There is not the slightest doubt that the attack [on Sevastapol] was planned in advance using Western intelligence assets, NATO satellite equipment and reconnaissance aircraft,”. Furthermore the effective utilisation of sea drones/long-range missiles to strike key ports, effectively creating an area denial of the Black Sea. Ukraine has seen great success in this kind of sea war, launching an effective missile attack against the Russian Black Sea HQ in Sevastopol utilising British Storm Shadow cruise missiles and inflicting extensive damage to dry dock infrastructure and a submarine in September of this year.

Attacks of this nature have had harsh consequences for the Russian navy. Destruction of key dry docks have slowed repairs and maintenance of their fleet and the targeting of vessels such as the Black Sea Fleet’s Flag ship Moskva (which was badly damaged in April by a drone attack) have been a huge embarrassment for the Kremlin. As a result Russia has gone into effective retreat from the Black Sea, building a new base for its fleet in Abkhazia, Georgia, some 500 miles from Crimea to escape the 180 mile range of Ukrainian missiles. Ukraine has now achieved functional control of the Black Sea through the denial of the Russian ability to project power in the region. This makes Russian attempts to support their ground troops in Crimea increasingly difficult, and removes access to a key warm water port, the pursuit of which was a central reason for the Kremlin’s invasion in 2014.

Ukraine has achieved what many thought would be impossible by fighting the war at sea their way. In the same way a smaller fighter aims to evade the heavy punches of their larger opponent, Ukraine has jabbed from range with their own style of lighter, faster, target-based combat. This asymmetric warfare has been affordable relative to the steep costs that would have followed by attempting to match the Russian fleet in raw capability, with some sea drones costing as little £197,000. The geography of the Black Sea further facilitates this kind of fighting. Former Ukrainian Admiral Ihor Kabanenko described the situation saying ‘Open oceans favour big warships, while closed seas such as the Black Sea favour small, fast and highly manoeuvrable boats, special forces operations and drones.’

The future of naval warfare?

So has Ukraine really ushered in a new age of naval warfare with such specific geographical factors at play? Deeper analysis would suggest not. This strategy would not suit a country with ‘blue water navies’ who are capable of operating globally across open oceans with larger fleets to project power across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The US and French navies are examples of such. Attempting to fight in the Pacific or Atlantic in this manner would be untenable because the drones require constant communication with their controller and any issues with streaming over longer distances can impact their operational capabilities.

While the use of new technology has enabled Ukraine to effectively fight their kind of warfare, it’s unlikely to become the standard of fighting for all navies. The use of drones and land to sea missiles is too dependent on geographical and intelligence factors as the small field of view from the on board sensors make tracking moving or camouflaged targets much more difficult without accurate data. Furthermore, just because Ukraine has denied Russia naval superiority an area it does not mean they have themselves have acquired naval dominance. The grain ships which contribute so much to Ukraine’s GDP are still not running full capacity, and a de facto blockade remains in the Black Sea. Returning maritime trade to the levels seen before the war can only be achieved by an actual naval presence in the area, which Ukraine cannot achieve without deploying capabilities it does not have. Therefore, Ukraine’s unconventional style of naval warfare is an unreliable method for many states to fight war in the future, a response to necessity rather than the articulation of a new, dominant doctrine.

Although maritime warfare has not been completely changed, Ukraine has shown how effective this new technology can be. Larger navies must adapt to the impact this technology will make and should harness drones to increase their maritime capability and mass. As Clausewitz said, the character of war is ever changing and the developing technologies will certainly have an effect on the ways modern navies fight, but the nature of war will remain constant.

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