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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Russia vs. Ukraine: A War At Sea That Changed History?

Neptune Anti-Ship Missile
Neptune Anti-Ship Missile. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Relearning how to fight during a war is a bit like rebuilding a plane mid-flight. Nevertheless, this three-part series has attempted to distill some lessons from the conduct of the Russia-Ukraine War to this point. In this third part, we will discuss the war at sea. (Note: Please See Part I and Part II

Ukraine War: Sea denial technologies may be outpacing sea control

The Russian Black Sea Fleet began the war with an overwhelming advantage, mostly because Ukraine’s navy nearly ceased to exist in the 2014 war.

In the opening stages of this year’s invasion, Russian warships operated off the Ukrainian coast, locking down Ukrainian forces in anticipation of an amphibious assault against Odesa and other points west. They famously seized Snake Island, taking a commanding position over Ukrainian (and NATO) riverine traffic.

Over time, however, Ukraine has built up a credible sea denial system. Their defenses are founded on anti-ship missiles of domestic and foreign make; unmanned aerial vehicles; unmanned surface vessels; and careful exploitation of satellite and aerial intelligence. These defenses have made it impossible for Russia to operate surface vessels decisively, and they have threatened the security of Russian port facilities. 

Surface ships are vulnerable, but they still matter

Perhaps the most enduring moment of the Russia-Ukraine War so far was the sinking of RFS Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. While the cruiser had only a limited impact on the war, the sinking proved that the Black Sea was not safe for Russian surface vessels. However, because Ukraine has no surface fleet of note, and because Russia still has air and sub-surface advantages, it is not clear how Ukraine can exploit this contingency. What we have seen is that the ability of the Russian fleet to operate surface vessels near Ukraine was a huge military advantage. 

Russia was unable to hold Snake Island because its surface warships can no longer operate safely in the western Black Sea. The grain deal brokered by Turkey also arguably owes its success to this reality. A surface warship has many options when encountering a civilian vessel, from warning to boarding to attacking. Submarines and aircraft have altogether fewer. Russia almost certainly does not want the heat associated with using missiles and torpedoes to destroy civilian ships carrying grain. 

Control of the maritime domain matters

It seems surprising that a war between two countries sharing a border of nearly 1,500 miles would turn on control of the sea, but here we are. Throughout the war, Russia has leveraged its maritime advantage to tie down Ukrainian forces and inflict damage on the Ukrainian economy. In the first months of the war, Russian warships strangled Ukrainian trade, struck Ukrainian targets with long-range precision munitions, and threatened to turn Ukraine’s right wing with an amphibious assault against Odesa.

While none of these operations have yet proven decisive, they have sucked up Ukrainian resources and attention. Navies, in short, have the tools to make important contributions. 

Unmanned vehicles have their day in Ukraine

This may be the first war to feature extensive operational use of unmanned surface vessels. Ukraine appears to have conducted several attacks against Russian naval vessels in harbor facilities. Although the degree of damage inflicted remains uncertain, the threat of attack will change Russian basing policy. Other naval powers are surely watching and taking notes. 

We have yet to see credible reports that either side has used unmanned undersea vehicles.

Still, there’s every reason to believe that navies will learn to surmount the difficulties of operating such craft. As with the ground and air domains, there is no question that unmanned vehicles will become part of war at sea. 

A War like no other

Naval wars are rare, meaning immense analysis is devoted to very few datapoints. The 2022 Black Sea War likely won’t yield as many or as useful lessons as the 1982 Falklands War, but it will offer clues about how technologically advanced combatants fight today at sea.

We have already learned about how shore-based defenses, advanced surveillance technology, and unmanned vehicles can combine to contest sea control in free-fire environments.

Over the next few years we are likely to learn quite a lot about the difficulties of reconstituting naval forces after significant losses. This war will shape the maritime futures of Russia and Ukraine, and it will influence naval design decisions around the world.

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money. 

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Goran

    December 1, 2022 at 11:06 am

    Russia will not be “reconstituting” its fleet in the area for quite some time as its economy is already in the red with sanctions likely not being lifted for years to come.

    As for the lessons, going unmanned and more potent is an increasingly terrifying prospect for thousands of coastal communities across the planet.

  2. Paddy Manning

    December 1, 2022 at 1:15 pm

    Unmanned craft are a force multiplier at cheap rates. Disposable, operated by small, remote cadre of skilled operatives the Drone Fleet can be a guerilla navy. Large numbers of relatively inexpensive drones in AI guided swarms seeking to use the enemies own fuel and munitions as explosives could overpower large, costly craft or provide an assymmetic loss, damage or casualty count. Think email spam, very few emails have to work to make it a worthwhile endeavour in large numbers. Serious navies need a skunk works examining guerilla sea warfare.

  3. Jacksonian Libertarian

    December 1, 2022 at 6:06 pm

    Surface warships are obsolete as they don’t dare enter contested seas. This includes insanely expensive aircraft carriers which no nation can afford to lose, and so become an unjustifiable expense. The fact that the Russian Navy is now fighting a defensive war, even though Ukraine has no Navy, is proof that surface warships are a strategic weakness, which cannot fight but must be defended. The sinking of the 13,000 ton Moskva was a strategic defeat for Russia.

    Russia has fired 4,000+ missiles at Ukraine, but they are losing territory. Russia has a 3 to 1 advantage in artillery, armored vehicles, and aircraft, but they are losing territory. Russia has a Fleet while Ukraine doesn’t, but they are losing territory.

    Conclusion: Ukraine is being supplied with a “limited number” of western smart weapons (not the best stuff), which has more than overcome their huge disadvantage in industrial age/obsolete weapons. If Ukraine was armed solely with smart weapons, the war would already be over with a crushing Russian defeat.

    Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons

  4. Ben Leucking

    December 1, 2022 at 7:16 pm

    As long as Turkey prevents Russian naval access through the Bosporus, they will remain unable to reinforce or reconstitute their Black Sea fleet. The only threat that remains is their continuing ability to resupply sea-launched cruise missiles, which are likely delivered via aircraft to Sevastopol or other “safe” Russian ports, such as Novorossiysk. The Black Sea fleet will (and should) remain a prime target of Ukraine as long as this threat exists.

    The Ukraine Navy’s development of long-range GPS-guided drone boats certainly speaks well of their amazing ingenuity. It is perhaps a unique situation where a weapon does not have to succeed to achieve an objective. I can hardly wait to see what new magic Ukraine pulls out of the hat.

  5. 403Forbidden

    December 1, 2022 at 9:43 pm

    The naval actions in the black sea / Azov sea are nothing but child’s play compared to naval battles in the Pacific war where sailor survivors were usually eaten alive by sharks or strifed and torn apart by machine guns and cannons.

    Battle of savo island, battle of the sitting ducks, battle of luzon island, battle of Santa Cruz and other big battles where thousands died and whole fleets sacrificed and where some sailors refused to be rescued.

    The battles off the Ukraine coast are more like evening hour naval exercises.

  6. Harmen Breedeveld

    December 2, 2022 at 12:06 pm

    Imagine AI, batteries, cheap drones, sensors and the like becoming much better in the next decade.

    Maybe by the 2040s, any major power war will be completely dominated and shaped by drone and robot technology (and anti-drone and robot technology), by information gathering and denial and by an absolute need for stealth, disruption, deceiving the other side, speed and flexibility/ adaptability.

    I guess we will see.

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