The Russians Are Losing The Naval War Off Ukraine—To An Enemy With No Warships

The Russians Are Losing The Naval War Off Ukraine—To An Enemy With No Warships

A TB-2’s view of a ‘Raptor’ patrol boat right before hitting it with a missile.

Ukrainian defense ministry

Ukraine’s navy, which after scuttling its flagship no longer has a single large vessel, continues to chip away at Russia’s own naval power in the Black Sea. With a big assist from Ukraine’s army, of course.

On Monday, a TB-2 armed drone apparently belonging to the Ukrainian sea service struck two Russian patrol boats with laser-guided missiles, heavily damaging if not destroying both boats.

Add the two 55-foot, gun-armed Raptor-class vessels to the growing list of Russian boats and ships the Ukrainians have sunk or so heavily damaged that they’re no longer relevant to the current conflict.

Moscow’s naval losses, of course, include the 612-foot missile cruiser Moskva, holed by two Ukrainian navy Neptune coastal anti-ship missiles on April 13. Moskva was the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet with its, at the time, two dozen or so major warships.

Three weeks earlier on March 24, an Alligator-class landing ship belonging to the Black Sea Fleet’s reinforced amphibious flotilla burst into flames while pier-side in Russian-occupied Berdyansk in southern Ukraine. It seems an accurate hit by a Ukrainian army Tochka ballistic missile started the chain reaction.

The 370-foot Saratov quickly sank. A pair of landing ships moored nearby also suffered damage and casualties. The attack on the Crimea-based amphibious force was an inflection point in Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, which began with heavy bombardment on the night of Feb. 23.

Down three amphibs as well as Moskva with its long-range air-defense missiles, the Black Sea Fleet no longer can concentrate a large landing force nor protect it from air and missile attack. That means the Russians almost certainly can’t open a littoral front along Ukraine’s western coastline in order to stage an assault on the strategic port of Odessa, Ukraine’s main gateway to the sea.

That could free up Odessa’s garrison, including the reserve 5th Tank Brigade with its undamaged T-72 battalions, to roll east in support of Ukraine’s campaign around the port of Kherson, occupied by the Russians since early March.

Moskva, Saratov and the other landing ships are the most significant naval casualties on the Russian side, but they’re not the only ones. On or before March 22, Ukrainian army troops in Mariupol—an historic port on the Sea of Azov, adjacent to the Black Sea—struck a Raptor with at least one Konkurs anti-tank missile as the boat patrolled close to shore.

That makes two big Russian ships sunk plus two damaged, as well as three patrol boats knocked out if not totally destroyed. This out of a regional fleet that, before the war, included just seven large surface combatants—frigates and large corvettes plus Moskva—in addition to a half-dozen landing ships, six or seven Raptors and six or so diesel-electric submarines.

Bear in mind, Turkey controls the Bosphorous Strait, the only waterway connecting the Sea of Azov and Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and thus the open ocean. Ankara is a strong backer of Ukraine’s independence—remember, the TB-2 drone is a Turkish product—and has not allowed the Russian navy to send in fresh ships to make good the Black Sea Fleet’s losses.

All that is to say, the Black Sea Fleet is getting smaller and less effective by the week as Ukraine’s forces chip away at it. And there’s no prospect of the fleet restoring its waning power until after the war ends … and Turkey reopens the Bosphorous.

The TB-2 strike on Monday underscores the Black Sea Fleet’s dire condition. It’s apparent the Russians no longer can protect their remaining warships from aerial attack.

Moskva with her 200-mile air-search radars and 64 S-300 surface-to-air missiles, each with a 50-mile range, in theory was the fleet’s main air-defender. But the cruiser couldn’t even defend herself.

Now the Black Sea Fleet leans on a trio of 409-foot Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates for aerial protection. The frigates are some of the newest vessels in the Russian fleet—and the biggest surface warships Russian industry can build owing to problems manufacturing or importing large maritime engines.

But the three frigates—Admiral Grigorovich, Admiral Essen and Admiral Makarov—each pack just 24 medium-range Buk surface-to-air missiles traveling no farther than 30 miles. Even with Crimea-based fighter jets and SAM batteries backing them up, the frigates almost certainly are struggling to maintain an air-defense umbrella along the Black Sea Fleet’s area of operations stretching along 300 or 400 miles of coastline from Odessa to Mariupol.

The Ukrainians have proved they can exploit the gaps in the Russians’ at-sea air-defense coverage. A propeller-driven TB-2 with its 39-foot wingspan isn’t a huge target, but a well-equipped, trained and motivated fleet should be able to detect it and shoot it down before it gets close enough—nine miles or so—to snipe a patrol boat with a 14-pound MAM laser-guided missile.

If a solitary Ukrainian TB-2 can sink a pair of Russian patrol boats, it’s worth asking what the combined force of Kyiv’s other drones plus its Neptune anti-ship battery or batteries, Tochka ballistic missiles and anti-tank missiles might soon do to what’s left of the Black Sea Fleet.

And that’s before the Ukrainian navy deploys the anti-ship missiles and drone boats that the United Kingdom and United States have donated. The Russian fleet is losing the naval war off Ukraine … to an enemy with no warships.

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