Tag Archives: Russia

Why The Moskva-Class Helicopter Cruiser Is Not the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era

By Benjamin Claremont

In a recent article titled “Is the Moskva-Class Helicopter Cruiser the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era?” author Przemysław Ziemacki proposed that the Moskva-class cruiser would be a useful model for future surface combatants. He writes, “A ship design inspired by this cruiser would have both enough space for stand-off weapons and for an air wing composed of vertical lift drones and helicopters.”1 These ships would have a large battery of universal Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) to carry long range anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles. The anti-ship missiles would replace fixed-wing manned aircraft for strike and Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), while surface-to-air missiles would provide air defense. Early warning would be provided by radar equipped helicopters or tilt-rotor aircraft, while vertical take-off UAVs would provide target acquisition for the long range missiles. A self-sufficient platform such as “a vessel inspired by the Moskva-class helicopter carrier and upgraded with stealth lines seems to be a ready solution for distributed lethality and stand-off tactics.” The article concludes that inclusion of this type of vessel in the US Navy would make “the whole fleet architecture both less vulnerable and more diversified.”

The article’s foundation rests on three principles: aircraft carriers are, or will soon be, too vulnerable for certain roles; manned naval aviation will be replaced by shipboard stand-off weapons; and drones have fundamentally changed warfare. From these principles the article proposes a more self-sufficient aviation cruiser would be less vulnerable in enemy Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) zones and able to effect “sea denial” over a large area of ocean, becoming an agile and survivable tool of distributed lethality, rather than “a valuable sitting duck.”2 Both the foundational principles and the resulting proposal are flawed.

The article names itself after the Moskva-class. They were the largest helicopter cruisers, but like all helicopter cruisers, were a failure. They were single-purpose ships with inflexible weapons, too small an air group, too small a flight deck, and awful seakeeping that magnified the other problems. Their planned role of hunting American ballistic missile submarines before they could launch was made obsolete before Moskva was commissioned: There were simply too many American submarines hiding in too large an area of ocean to hunt them down successfully.

The article’s ‘Modern Moskva’ proposal avoids the design’s technical failures but does not address the fundamental flaws that doomed all helicopter cruisers. Surface combatants such as cruisers, destroyers and frigates need deck space for missiles, radars, and guns. Aviation ships need deck space for aircraft. Fixed-wing aircraft are more efficient than rotary-wing, and conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) – particularly with catapults and arresting gear – more efficient than vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). Trying to make one hull be both an aviation vessel and a surface combatant results in a ship that is larger and more expensive than a surface combatant, but wholly worse at operating aircraft than a carrier.

Consequently, helicopter cruisers were a rare and fleeting type of surface combatant around the world. Only six of these ungainly hybrids were ever commissioned: France built one, Italy three, the Soviet Union two. The Japanese built four smaller helicopter destroyers (DDH).3 In every case the follow-on designs to these helicopter ships were dedicated aircraft carriers: the Soviet Kiev-class, Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi-class*, and Japanese Hyuga-class. France’s Marine Nationale chose not to replace Jeanne d’Arc after her 2010 retirement.

Moskva-class, Mikhail Kukhtarev, 07/28/1970 (the pennant number 846 implies this is Moskva in 1974, the photo may be misdated)

The Moskva-class was a striking symbol of Soviet Naval Power. These vessels epitomize the aesthetic of mid-Cold War warship with a panoply of twin arm launchers, multiple-barrel anti-submarine rocket-mortars and a forest of antennae sprouting from every surface save the huge flight deck aft. They are also poorly understood in the West. The Soviets were never satisfied with the design, cancelling production after the first two ships in favor of dedicated separate aircraft carriers and anti-submarine cruisers, the 6 Kiev and Tblisi-class carriers and 17 Kara and Kresta-II-class ASW cruisers in particular.4

The Moskva-class, known to the Soviets as the Проект 1123 “Кондор” Противолодочная Крейсера [Пр.1123 ПКР], (Project 1123 “Condor” Anti-Submarine Cruiser/Pr.1123 PKR) was conceived in the late 1950s. Two ships, Moskva and Leningrad, were laid down between 1962 and 1965, entering service in late 1967 and mid 1969 respectively. The Moskva-class was conceived as anti-submarine cruisers, designed to hunt down enemy SSBN and SSN as part of offensive anti-submarine groups at long ranges from the USSR.5 The primary mission of these groups was to sink American ballistic missile submarines, the 41 for Freedom, before they could launch.6

USS George Washington (SSBN-598), lead boat of the 41 For Freedom (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

The requirements were set at 14 helicopters to enable 24/7 ASW helicopter coverage, and a large number of surface to air missiles for self-protection. The resulting ships were armed with (from bow to stern):7

  • 2x 12 barrel RBU-6000 213mm ASW rocket-mortars
    • 96 Depth Bombs total, 48 per mount
  • 1x Twin Arm SUW-N-1 (RPK-1) Rocket-Thrown Nuclear Depth Bomb system
    • 8 FRAS-1 (Free Rocket Anti Submarine) carried
  • 2x twin-arm launchers for SA-N-3 GOBLET (M-11 Shtorm)
    • 48 SAM per mount, 96 total
  • 2x twin 57mm gun mounts, en echelon
  • 2x 140mm ECM/Decoy launchers (mounted en echelon opposite the 57mm guns)
  • 2x quintuple 533mm torpedo mounts amidships
    • One per side, 10 weapons carried total
Primary organic weapons of the Moskva-class warship Leningrad. Click to expand. (Image from airbase.ru, modified by author.)

This concept and armament made sense in 1958, when submarine-launched ballistic missiles had short ranges and SSBNs would have to approach the Soviet coast.8 In 1964 the USN introduced the new Polaris A-3 missile, which extended ranges to almost 3,000 miles.9 By the commissioning of Moskva in December 1967, all 41 for Freedom boats were in commission, with 23 of those boats carrying the Polaris A-3.10 The increased range of Polaris A-3 meant that US SSBNs could hit targets as deep in the USSR as Volgograd from patrol areas west of the British Isles, far beyond the reach of Soviet ASW forces.11 The Project 1123 was obsolete in its designed mission before the ships took to sea, as they could never find and destroy so many submarines spread over such a large area before the SSBNs could launch their far-ranging missiles.

Leningrad sensor fit. Click to expand. (Attribution on image, edited by author)

The defining feature of the Moskva-class was the compliment of 14 helicopters kept in two hangars, one at deck level for two Ka-25 (NATO codename: HORMONE) and a larger one below the flight deck for 12 more of the Kamovs. The greatest limitation of this hangar and flight deck arrangement was the relative inefficiency compared to a traditional full-deck carrier. There was only space on the flight deck to launch or recover four aircraft at any one time. This was sufficient for the design requirements, which were based around maintaining a smaller number of aircraft round-the-clock. However, the limited space prevents efficient surging of the air group, and the low freeboard forced central elevators, rather than more efficient deck edge designs. The Soviet Navy found the aviation facilities of the Moskva-class limited and insufficient for its role.12 The third ship in the class was to be built to a differing specification, Project 1123.3, 2000 tons heavier, 12m longer and focused on improving the ship’s air defenses and aviation facilities.13 Project 1123.3 was cancelled before being laid down and focus shifted to the more promising Project 1143, the four ship Kiev-class aircraft carriers.

Leningrad showing her typical seakeeping in 1969. (forums.airbase.ru)

Among the chief reasons for the cancellation of all further development of the Moskva-class was the design’s terrible seakeeping. The very fine bow pounded in rough seas, shipping an enormous amount of water over the bow.14 On sea trials in 1970, Moskva went through a storm with a sea state of 6, meaning 4-6m (13-20ft) wave height calm-to-crest. For the duration of the storm the navigation bridge 23m (75 ft) above the waterline was constantly flooded.15

A Moskva in drydock awaiting scrapping, showing the rounded lines aft. (forums.airbase.ru)

The Moskva-class also had a broad, shallow, round-sided cross-section aft. This caused issues with roll stability in all but moderate seas. This meant that flight operations could be conducted only up to a sea-state of 5, or 2.5-4m (8-13 ft) waves, especially when combined with the excessive pounding in waves.16 In addition, the class shipped so much water over the bow that the weapons suite was inoperable in heavy seas and prone to damage at sea state 6.17 The Moskva-class failed to meet the requirements for seakeeping set by the Soviet Navy.18 It could not effectively fight in bad weather, a fatal flaw for ships designed to hunt enemy submarines in the North Atlantic.

Moskva in the North Atlantic. Pennant number indicates 1970 or 1978 (forums.airbase.ru)

Project 1123 stands among the worst ship classes put to sea during the Cold War. The Moskva-class had too few aircraft, too small a flight deck, poorly laid out weapons, shockingly bad seakeeping, and was generally unsuitable for operation in regions with rough seas or frequent storms, despite being designed for the North Atlantic. They were not significantly modernized while in service and were scrapped quickly after the Soviet Union collapsed. Many knew the Moskva-class cruisers were bad ships when they were in service. The Soviets cancelled not only further construction of the class, but further development of the design before the second ship of the class, Leningrad, had commissioned.19 In place of Project 1123 the Soviets built Project 1143, the Kiev-class, an eminently more sensible, seaworthy, and efficient ship with a full-length flight deck which saw serial production and extensive development.20

Part II: Whither the Helicopter Cruiser?

Having explored the development and history of the Moskva-class helicopter cruiser, let’s examine the proposed ‘Modern Moskva’. The goal of the ‘Modern Moskva’ is to have a self-contained ship with drones, helicopters, stand-off anti-ship and strike weapons, and robust air defenses.21 The original article calls this a helicopter cruiser (CGH), helicopter carrier (CVH), or helicopter destroyer (DDH). This article will describe it as an aviation surface combatant (ASC), which better reflects the variety of possible sizes and configurations of ship. The original article then explains that such a self-contained ship accompanied by a handful of small ASW frigates (FF) would be the ideal tool for expendable and survivable distributed lethality to carry out sea denial in the anti-access/area denial zones of America’s most plausible enemies.22 Both the design and operational use concept are flawed, and will be examined in sequence.

The argument made in favor of aviation surface combatants in the article rests on three fundamental principles: that the threat of anti-shipping weapons to carriers has increased, that naval aircraft will be supplanted by long-range missiles, and that unmanned and autonomous systems have fundamentally changed naval warfare. These foundational assertions are false.

The threat of anti-ship weapons has increased over time, in absolute terms. Missile ranges have increased, seekers have become more precise, and targeting systems have proliferated, but the threat to aircraft carriers has not increased in relative terms. As the threat to aircraft carriers has increased, shifting from conventional aircraft to both manned (Kamikaze) and unmanned anti-ship missiles, the carrier’s defenses have also become more powerful. The Aegis Combat System and NIFC-CA combine the sensors and weapons of an entire naval task force, including its aircraft, into one single coherent system. Modern navies are also transitioning towards fielding fully fire-and-forget missiles, such as RIM-174 ERAM, RIM-66 SM-2 Active, 9M96, 9M317M, Aster 15/30, and others. Navies are also moving towards quad-packed active homing missiles for point defense, such as RIM-162 E/F/G ESSM Block 2, CAMM and CAMM-ER, or 9M100. These two developments radically increase the density of naval air defenses, pushing the saturation limit of a naval task force’s air defenses higher than ever before.

USS Sullivans, Carney, Roosevelt, and Hue City conduct a coordinated launch of SM-2MR as part of a VANDALEX, 12/1/2003 (US Navy Photo)

The article is correct that anti-ship weapons have become more capable, but the defenses against such weapons have also benefited from technological advances. The aircraft carrier is no more threatened today than has been the case historically. That is not to say that aircraft carriers are not threatened in the modern era, but that they always have been threatened.

The article claims that naval fixed-wing aircraft will soon be supplanted in their roles as stand-off strike and attack roles by long range missiles. While it is true that modern missiles can strike targets at very long ranges, naval aircraft will always be able to strike farther. Naval aviation can do so by taking the same missiles as are found on ships and carrying them several hundred miles before launch. For example, an American aviation surface combatant as proposed in the article would carry 32 AGM-158C LRASM in VLS, and fire them to an estimated 500 nautical miles. A maritime strike package with 12 F-18E Super Hornets could carry 48 LRASM to 300 nautical miles, and then launch them to a target another 500 miles distant, delivering 150% of the weapons to 160% the distance.23 Unlike VLS-based fires, which must retreat to reload, carrier-based aircraft can re-arm and re-attack in short order. The mobility, capacity, and persistence of aircraft make it unlikely that naval aviation will be replaced by long range missiles.

AGM-158C LRASM flight test (NAVAIR photo)

Finally, the article claims that there is an ‘unmanned revolution’ which has fundamentally changed naval combat. This point has some merit, but is overstated. Unmanned systems typically increase the efficiency of assets, most often by making them more persistent or less expensive. However, this is not a revolution in naval warfare. There have been many technological developments in naval history that were called revolutionary. Other than strategic nuclear weapons the changes were, instead, evolutionary. Though they introduced new methods, new domains, or increased the mobility and tempo of naval warfare, these were evolutionary changes. Even with modern advanced technology, the strategy of naval warfare still largely resembles that of the age of sail. As Admiral Spruance said:

“I can see plenty of changes in weapons, methods, and procedures in naval warfare brought about by technical developments, but I can see no change in the future role of our Navy from what it has been for ages past for the Navy of a dominant sea power—to gain and exercise the control of the sea that its country requires to win the war, and to prevent its opponent from using the sea for its purposes. This will continue so long as geography makes the United States an insular power and so long as the surface of the sea remains the great highway connecting the nations of the world.”24

Control or command of the sea is the ability to regulate military and civilian transit of the sea.25 This is the object of sea services. Unmanned and autonomous systems enhance the capability of forces to command the sea, but they do not change the principles of naval strategy.

Sea Hunter USVs sortie for Unmanned Battle Problem 21 (UxS IBP-21) with USS Monsoor DDG-1001 astern. (Photo 210420-N-EA818-1177, April 20, 2021, MC2 Thomas Gooley via DVIDS/RELEASED)

Having examined the underlying assumptions of the article, we must now examine how these ships are proposed to be used. The concept is that task groups of “two of the proposed helicopter carriers and at least 3 ASW frigates… would be most effective… [in] the South-West Pacific Ocean and the triangle of the Norwegian Sea, the Greenland Sea and the Barents Sea.”26 These waters are said to be so covered by enemy anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities that “traditional air-sea battle tactics” are too dangerous, requiring these helicopter cruisers groups to change the risk calculus.

The article’s use case for the aviation surface combatant has three interlocking assertions. First is that China and Russia will use A2/AD. A2/AD refers to “approaches that seek to prevent US forces from gaining or using access to overseas bases or critical locations such as ports and airfields while denying US forces the ability to maneuver within striking distance of [the enemy’s] territory.”27 Next, that A2/AD represents a novel and greater threat to naval forces which prevents typical naval tactics and operations, therefore new tactics and platforms are needed. Finally, that aviation cruisers leading frigates into these A2/AD zones for various purposes are the novel tactic and platform to solve A2/AD.

The article is flawed on all three counts. Despite the popularity of A2/AD in Western literature, it does not actually correlate to Russian or Chinese concepts for naval warfare. Even if A2/AD did exist as is proposed, it does not represent a relatively greater threat to naval task forces than that historically posed by peer enemy forces in wartime. Finally, even if it did exist and was the threat it is alleged to be, the solution to the problem would not be helicopter cruiser groups.

Launch of SS-C-5 STOOGE (3K55 Bastion) coastal missile system. (Photo via Alexander Karpenko)

A2/AD is a term which evolved in the PLA watching community and has been applied to the Russians.28 Indeed, there is no originally Russian term for A2/AD because it does not fit within the Russian strategic concept.29 Russian thinking centers around overlapping and complimentary strategic operations designed “not to deny specific domains, but rather to destroy the adversary’s ability to function as a military system.”30 While there has been a spirited back-and-forth discussion of the capabilities of Russian A2/AD systems, these center around “whether Russian sticks are 4-feet long or 12-feet long and if they are as pointy as they look or somewhat blunter.”31 By ignoring the reality of how the Russian military plans to use their forces and equipment this narrative loses the forest for the trees.

The term A2/AD comes from PLA watching, perhaps it is more appropriate to the PLAN’s strategy? Not particularly. The Chinese concept is a strategy called Near Seas Defense, “a regional, defensive strategy concerned with ensuring China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.”32 Defensive refers to the goals, not the methods used. The PLAN’s concept of operations stresses offensive and preemptive action to control war initiation.33 Near Seas Defense has been mixed with the complimentary Far Seas Protection to produce A2/AD.34 As with the Russian example, the actual strategy, operational art and tactics of the PLA have been subsumed into circles on a map.

If A2/AD existed as more than a buzzword it would not necessarily pose a new or greater threat to aircraft carriers than existed historically. The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean and the US Navy off Okinawa and the Japanese Home Islands during the Second World War experienced threats as dangerous as A2/AD. The constrained waters in the Mediterranean, especially around Malta, kept Royal Navy forces under threat of very persistent air attack at almost all times. At Okinawa and off the Home Islands, the Japanese could launch multi-hundred plane Kamikaze raids against exposed US forces thousands of miles from a friendly anchorage. These raids were the impetus for Operation Bumblebee, which became Talos, Tartar and Terrier and eventually the Standard Missiles and Aegis Combat System.35 The US Navy has been aware of and striving to meet this challenge for nearly a century, just under different names.

Since 1945, the defense has required:

  • Well-positioned early warning assets, such as radar picket ships or aircraft,
  • Effective fighter control,
  • Large numbers of carrier-based fighters relative to incoming launchers (shoot the archer) and weapons (shoot the arrow),
  • Heavily-layered air defenses on large numbers of escorts and the carriers themselves. In the Second World War, these included 5”/38, 40mm, and 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Today, these include SM-2ER/SM-6, SM-2MR, ESSM, RAM, Phalanx, Nulka and SRBOC.
  • Well-built ships with trained and motivated crews, skilled in fighting their ship and in damage control.

This methodology does not wholly prevent ships being lost or damaged: There is no such thing as a perfect defense. What it does do is optimize the air defenses of a task force for depth, mass, flexibility, and redundancy.

Aviation cruiser groups are not the appropriate solution to the A2/AD problem. The cruiser groups proposed have far less air defense than the US Navy’s Dual Carrier Strike Groups (DCSG), the current concept to push into “A2/AD” areas.36 The paper implies that these aviation surface combatants would be smaller targets and would not be attacked as much, but if they were attacked, they would be expendable. However, the enemy decides what targets are worth attacking with what strength, not one’s own side. If a carrier strike group with 48 strike fighters, 5 E-2D AEW&C aircraft to maintain 24/7 coverage, escorts with 500 VLS cells, and the better part of two dozen ASW helicopters is too vulnerable to enter the A2/AD Zone, why would two aviation cruisers and five ASW frigates with 200-350 VLS cells, some drones and 4 AEW helicopters be able to survive against a similar onslaught?37 If a carrier cannot survive the A2/AD area, deploying less capable aviation surface combatants would be wasting the lives of the sailors aboard. The rotary-wing AEW assets proposed are too limited in number and capability to provide anything approaching the constant and long-range coverage the USN feels is necessary.38 Even if A2/AD existed as the threat it is alleged to be, the proper response would not be to build helicopter cruisers and send them into harm’s way with a small ASW escort force. The appropriate response would be to build large numbers of competent escorts to reinforce the carrier task forces, such as the Flight 3 Burke-class or the forthcoming DDG(X).

Conclusion: Neither Fish Nor Fowl

The Moskva-class represented the largest and most obvious failure of the helicopter cruiser concept. Their weapons were inflexible and their air group too small, compounded by horrible seakeeping. Beyond the failings of the design itself, their doctrinal role was made obsolete before the first ship commissioned. While the proposed ‘Modern Moskva’ avoids these failings, the concept does not address the problems which doomed all helicopter cruisers. Efficiently operating large numbers of aircraft requires as much flight deck as possible. Surface combatants require deck space for weapons and sensors. Trying to combine the two requirements yields a ship that does neither well. A ‘Modern Moskva’ finds itself in a position of being larger and more expensive than a normal surface combatant, but wholly worse than a carrier at flight operations.

If the aircraft are necessary and supercarriers unavailable, then a light carrier (CVL) is a better solution. Specifically, this light carrier should be of conventional CATOBAR design with two catapults capable of operating two squadrons of strike fighters, an electronic attack squadron and an ASW helicopter squadron, plus detachments of MQ-25 and E-2D. In addition to the previously mentioned increased anti-shipping and land attack strike radius, the CVL’s fixed wing air group can fight the outer air battle, the modern descendant of the WWII-era “Big Blue Blanket,” and do so in excess of 550 nautical miles from the carrier.39 A task group with a single CVL and escorts could exercise command of the sea over a far greater area than a helicopter cruiser group, and do so with greater flexibility, persistence, survivability, and combat power. The range of carrier aircraft allows the carrier to stay outside of the purported A2/AD bubbles and launch full-capability combined arms Alpha strikes against targets from the relative safety of the Philippine or Norwegian Seas.

USS Midway, CV-41, with CVW-5 embarked, 1987. The modern CVL could approach Midway in displacement and deck area. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

The world is becoming less stable. Russia and China are both militarily aggressive and respectively revanchist and expansionist. They are skilled, intelligent and capable competitors who should not be underestimated as potential adversaries. American and Allied forces must be ready and willing to innovate both in the methods and tools of warfare. Rote memorization, mirror imaging and stereotyping the enemy lead to calamity, as at the Battle of Tassafaronga. It is important to remember that these potential enemies are just as determined, just as intelligent, and just as driven as Western naval professionals. These potential enemies will not behave in accordance with facile models and clever buzzwords, nor will they use their weapons per the expectations of Western analysts. They have developed their own strategies to win the wars they think are likely, and the tactics, equipment and operational art to carry out their concepts.

English speaking defense analysis tends to obsess over technology, but war is decided by strategy, and strategy is a historical field.40 We must not forget that “The good historian is like the giant of a fairy tale. He knows that wherever he catches the scent of human flesh, there his quarry lies.”41 Historical context focuses on the human element of warfare: the persistent question of how to use the weapons and forces available to achieve the political goals of the conflict. By removing history, and with it strategy, operational art, and tactics, proposals often drift toward past failed concepts mixed with the buzzword du jour. War has only become faster and more lethal over time. The stakes in a conflict with the probable enemy will be higher than any war the US has fought since the Second World War. Novelty and creativity are necessary and should be lauded, but they must be balanced with historical context, strategic vision, and a candid and realistic understanding of potential adversaries.

Benjamin Claremont is a Strategic Studies MLitt student at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. His dissertation, Peeking at the Other Side of the Fence: Lessons Learned in Threat Analysis from the US Military’s Efforts to Understand the Soviet Military During the Cold War, explored the impact of changing sources, analytical methodologies, and distribution schemes on US Army and US Navy threat analysis of the Soviet Military, how this impacted policy and strategy, and what this can teach in a renewed era of great power competition. He received his MA (Honours) in Modern History from the University of St. Andrews. He is interested in Strategy, Operational Art, Naval Warfare, and Soviet/Russian Military Science.

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

*Correction: The Italian carrier was of the Giuseppe Garibaldi class, not the Vittorio Veneto class as originally stated.

Endnotes

1. Przemysław Ziemacki, Is the Moskva-Class Helicopter Cruiser the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era?, CIMSEC, 7/9/2021, https://cimsec.org/is-the-moskva-class-helicopter-cruiser-the-best-naval-design-for-the-drone-era/

2. Ziemacki, Moskva Class for the Drone Era. All quotations in this and the preceding paragraph are from Mr. Ziemacki’s article.

3. The French Jeanne d’Arc, the Italian Andrea Doria, Caio Duilio, and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Soviet Moskva and Leningrad, and the Japanese Haruna, Hiei, Shirane and Kurama.

4. Yuri Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, 2010, МОРКНИГА, p. 79, 98 The Tblisi class became the Kuznetsov class after 1991.

5. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 18

6. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 17

7. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 22,

8. USN Strategic Systems Programs, FBM Weapon System 101: The Missiles, https://www.ssp.navy.mil/fb101/themissiles.html#I

9. USN Strategic Systems Programs, FBM Weapon System 101: The Missiles, https://www.ssp.navy.mil/fb101/themissiles.html#I

10. The first to be built with Polaris A-3 was USS Daniel Webster, SSBN-626. In addition, the 10 SSBN-627 boats and 12 SSBN-640 boats all carried 16 Polaris A-3 each for a total of over 350 missiles.

11. Determined using Missilemap by Alex Wellerstein, https://nuclearsecrecy.com/missilemap/

12. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

13. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

14. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

15. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

16. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

17. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

18. Apalkov, Противолодочные Корабли, p. 28

19. Work was halted on Pr.11233 in 1968, Leningrad commissioned on June 22nd, 1969.

20. Yuri Apalkov, Ударные Корабли, МОРКНИГА, p. 4-6

21. Ziemacki, Moskva Class for the Drone Era.

22. Ziemacki, Moskva Class for the Drone Era.

23. Xavier Vavasseur, Next Generation Anti-Ship Missile Achieves Operational Capability with Super Hornets, USNI News, 12/19/2019 https://news.usni.org/2019/12/19/next-generation-anti-ship-missile-achieves-operational-capability-with-super-hornets

24. Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, quoted in Naval Doctrine Publication 1: Naval Warfare (2020), P. 0 accessible at: https://cimsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/NDP1_April2020.pdf

25. Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Naval Strategy, p. 103-4

26. Ziemacki, Moskva Class for the Drone Era.

27. Chris Dougherty, Moving Beyond A2/AD, CNAS, 12/3/2020, https://www.cnas.org/publications/commentary/moving-beyond-a2-ad (clarification in brackets added)

28. Michael Kofman, It’s Time to Talk about A2/AD: Rethinking the Russian Military Challenge, War on the Rocks, 9/5/2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/09/its-time-to-talk-about-a2-ad-rethinking-the-russian-military-challenge/

29. Kofman, It’s Time to Talk about A2/AD. The Russian term is a translation of the English

30. Kofman, It’s Time to Talk about A2/AD

31. Kofman, It’s Time to Talk about A2/AD

32. Rice, Jennifer and Robb, Erik, “China Maritime Report No. 13: The Origins of “Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection”” (2021). CMSI China Maritime Reports, p. 1

33. Rice and Robb, CMSI #13, p. 7

34. For more on the interactions between Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection see RADM Michael McDevitt, USN (Ret.), Becoming a Great “Maritime Power”: A Chinese Dream, CNA, June 2016, https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/IRM-2016-U-013646.pdf

35. The technical advisor for Bumblebee, 3T, Typhon, and Aegis was the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who also developed the VT fuse. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA229872.pdf

36. USS Theodore Roosevelt Public Affairs, Theodore Roosevelt, Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups conduct dual carrier operations, 2/8/2021, https://www.cpf.navy.mil/news.aspx/130807

37. A nominal CSG has 1x CG-47 and 4x DDG-79; CGH group has 2x 96 Cell CGH and 5x ASW LCS or 5x FFG-62

38. This is due to the payload, fuel efficiency, speed and altitude limitations inherent to rotary wing or tilt-rotor aircraft compared to fixed wing turboprops.

39. Based on estimated combat radius of c. 500 nautical miles for the F-18E, plus 50 nautical miles for the AIM-120D.

40. Hew Strachan, ‘Strategy in the Twenty-First Century’, in Strachan, Hew, ed., The Changing Character of War, (Oxford, 2011) p. 503; A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Seapower on History, (Boston, 1918) p. 7, 226-7; Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, (London, 1911) p. 9, Vigor, ‘The Function of Soviet Military History’, in AFD-101028-004 Transformation in Soviet and Russian Military History: Proceedings of the Twelfth Military History Symposium, 1986 p. 123-124; Andrian Danilevich, reviewing M. A. Gareev M. V. Frunze, Military Theorist, quoted in Chris Donnelly, Red Banner: The Soviet Military System in Peace and War, p. 200

41. Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, (New York, 1953), p. 26

Featured Image: April 1, 1990—A port beam view of the Soviet Moskva class helicopter cruiser Leningrad underway. (U.S. Navy photo by PH3 (Ac) Stephen L. Batiz)

Sea Control 263 – Western Military Capability in Northern Europe with Eva Hagstrӧm Frisell & Krister Pallin

The Swedish Defence Research Agency’s Eva Hagstrӧm Frisell & Krister Pallin join the program to discuss their comprehensive report on the military balance of power in Northern Europe!

Download Sea Control 263 – Western Military Capability in Northern Europe with Eva Hagstrӧm Frisell & Krister Pallin

 

Links:

  1. Western Military Capability in Northern Europe, Part I Collective Defence, by Eva Hagstrӧm Frisell et al., FOI, March 10, 2021.
  2. Western Military Capability in Northern Europe, Part II National Capabilities, by Eva Hagstrӧm Frisell et al., FOI, March 10, 2021
  3. Bursting the Bubble? Beyond A2/AD in the Baltic Sea Region: Capabilities, Countermeasures & Implications, by Robert Dalsjӧ, Christofer Berglund & Michael Jonsson, FOI, March 2019. 
  4. Beyond Bursting Bubbles: Understanding the Full Spectrum of the Russian A2/AD Threat and Identifying Strategies for Counteraction, by Michael Jonsson & Robert Dalsjӧ (eds), FOI, June 2020. 
  5. Sea Control 211 – Beyond Bursting Bubbles with Robert Dalsjӧ & Michael Jonsson, CIMSEC, November 15, 2020. 

Contributors

  • Jared Samuelson
  • Eva Hagstrӧm Frisell
  • Krister Pallin

Jared Samuelson is Executive Producer and Co-Host of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at Seacontrol@cimsec.org.

The Norwegian Thunderbolt: Vice Admiral Peter Wessel

By LCDR Jason Lancaster

Introduction

Peter Wessel was only 10 when the Great Northern War started, and he was 30 when it ended in 1720. In nine brief years he rose from naval cadet to Vice Admiral. I first learned of Peter Wessel, also known popularly known as Tordenskjold (Thunder Shield), in a Danish film, Satisfaction 1720. The film depicted Tordenskjold as a depraved and lecherous idiot exploiting wartime victories which were stumbled upon through accident, and pursues a novel theory into his untimely death in a duel. This film led me to further explore both the Great Northern War and the life of this remarkable naval officer. Unsurprisingly, the movie’s account of his personality vastly differs compared to the few English language books about him. Although Denmark and Norway share streets and warships named after Tordenskjold, his name and deeds are largely unknown in the English speaking world. His exploits along the Baltic coast deserve remembering.

Sweden Ascendant

Sweden’s main political goal of the 17th century was the establishment of Dominium maris baltici, or Swedish domination of the Baltic Sea. Sweden’s defense of Protestantism and its major military contributions to the outcome of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) had enabled Sweden to acquire a sizable portion of the Baltic coast and operate as the dominant power in the Baltic Sea. However, the British and Dutch prevented Sweden from exercising complete domination of the Baltic coast.

Sweden’s preeminence was resented by the other Baltic powers. In 1697 King Charles XI of Sweden died, leaving his fifteen year old son, Charles XII, on the throne. The other Baltic states saw their opportunities for territorial expansion. That year, Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia and Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, met in Dresden. The two men shared much in common; they were both tall, incredibly strong, and fond of drinking. They agreed to an alliance against Sweden. But despite their mutual desire for war, both needed time to prepare. Augustus had just been elected King of Poland with Peter’s help and needed more time to solidify his rule. Peter needed to conclude a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire before he could turn his attention to the Baltic. Both Peter and Augustus sought additional allies for war and found King Frederick IV of Denmark. The three nations formed an alliance to attack Sweden from all sides, overwhelm the boy-king, and divide the Swedish empire.

Map showing the development of the Swedish Empire in Early Morden Europe, 1560-1815. (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately for the allied powers, despite Charles XII’s youth, he was no pushover. Charles XII demonstrated his military prowess by defeating each power in turn. Denmark was forced out of the war by August 1700, after the Swedes almost captured Copenhagen. The Saxon/Polish forces invaded Livonia, but were defeated, and Saxony/Poland was driven out of the war by 1706, with Augustus the Strong forced to cede the throne of Poland to a Swedish puppet. From 1702-1710, the Russians and Swedes fought over the coasts of Ingria and Karelia. Initially, the Swedes had the upper hand, winning victories at Narva (1700), but the Russians eventually pushed the Swedes back, and Peter established the city of Saint Petersburg in 1703 with the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress. After Sweden’s crushing defeat at Poltava (1709), Augustus the Strong and Frederik IV rejoined Peter the Great along with George I, Elector of Hannover. In 1714, George was crowned King of Great Britain, bringing Britain into the conflict. In 1712, Frederich William Elector of Brandenburg and King in Prussia also joined the conflict, setting the stage for a rapidly escalating war. 

Peter Wessel joins the Navy

Peter Wessel was born the 14th child of a Trondheim merchant. His family owned multiple ships and several of his elder brothers served at sea in the Danish Navy or merchant marine. Peter wanted to follow in their footsteps, while his mother wanted him ashore either as a cleric or a member of whichever guild would accept him. School bored Peter, and he spent a great deal of time fighting bullies instead of studying his ablative absolutes. During the winter of 1704, at the age of 14, Peter ran away from apprenticeships as a tailor and barber-surgeon and set off on foot for Copenhagen to find himself an appointment to the Danish Naval Academy.

In 1704, King Frederick IV visited Trondheim, offering an opportunity. Peter Wessel hid himself amongst the royal retinue for the trip to Copenhagen. During the arduous trek across Norway, Peter observed how the king had cheerily received audiences of common people and spent time with them in stables and around campfires. Peter decided that he could reach out to the approachable king for help.

When Peter arrived in Copenhagen he called on his father’s old classmate, Dr. Jespersen, the King’s Chaplain. Peter told him his story, and asked for help getting into the Naval Academy. The king often visited Dr. Jespersen, and on one summer’s day in 1705, Peter asked the king for a naval academy appointment during his usual visit to Dr. Jespersen’s stable. Unfortunately, that year’s class had been shrunk by half to 52 cadets and there were no vacancies. King Frederick promised Peter that he would get a spot. While waiting for an appointment, Dr. Jespersen tutored Peter and taught him to channel his bountiful energy. Another year passed and still no appointment. Dr. Jespersen returned home from the palace one day with the king’s response, “no vacancies.”

Peter’s brother Henrik was a Danish Navy Lieutenant, although he had never actually served aboard a Danish warship, rather he had served on a Dutch man-of-war and was heading east to serve aboard a Russian warship. Henrik said Peter would benefit from time at sea aboard a merchant ship gaining experience until his appointment. Henrik had a Dutch shipmate who was Chief Mate aboard a Danish West Indiaman, Christianus Quintus, shortly bound for the West African coast for a cargo of slaves to sell in the Americas. Henrik got Peter a berth as the most junior of five cabin boys. Peter received valuable experience during the voyage in seamanship, gunnery, and navigation which prepared him for the Naval Academy and future voyages.

After two years at sea, Peter returned to Copenhagen. With still no naval academy appointment awaiting him, 18-year old Peter again wrote King Frederick detailing his experiences at sea and the king’s promise of an appointment. The letter failed to produce results, however, Peter was allowed to take the entrance exam and then join the Naval Academy as a volunteer with no pay or uniform until a billet opened in the class. Peter knew his father would pay his expenses and that he could continue to live with Dr. Jespersen.

Just as things were looking up, Peter received a letter from Trondheim. His family’s property had been destroyed during a fire. With no way to maintain himself at the naval academy, Peter signed on as a deck hand on a Danish East Indiaman bound for India. On October 5, 1708 Peter sailed for India, and during the journey his appointment as a cadet at the naval academy was signed by the king on January 11, 1709. During the voyage Peter was promoted to Boatswain’s Mate and then to 3rd Mate. In May 1710, Peter’s ship arrived off the Norwegian coast to learn that Denmark had re-entered the war against Sweden. The ship’s master was unwilling to risk the passage to Copenhagen through swarms of Swedish privateers and pulled into Bergen to await a convoy. Peter displayed the impatience which would bring him future battle glories and signed on as a sailor aboard a neutral British merchant ship bound for Germany via Copenhagen.

Major cities and scenes of battle for Peter Wessel in the Baltic (Author graphic)

Again, misfortune followed Peter. The ship became wind-bound in the Kattegat and pulled into Marstrand, Sweden. Peter was a Danish officer, not in uniform and dressed in English clothing meaning Peter could have been hung as a spy. Peter decided to have a look at the town while the ship was in port. He posed as a Dutch sailor and spoke to sailors, soldiers, and townsmen in the taverns and waterfront and observed the placement of batteries throughout the area. Once the British ship put to sea, Peter found a Danish warship to carry him to the Danish squadron under the command of Admiral Barfoed carrying the Governor-General of Norway Baron Løvendal. Peter reported aboard and then made his report to the two leaders. Baron Løvendal was impressed with both Peter’s demeanor and his clear reports on Swedish dispositions at Marstrand. The Baron had Peter assigned to his personal staff until Peter was able to be delivered to the naval academy.

Junior Officer

Peter started at the naval academy in September 1710. After three years before the mast, Peter found the curriculum boring. Again, he wrote to the king detailing his experiences and asking for a commission. In April 1711, Admiral Sehestad, the naval academy superintendent handed Peter his commission as a temporary sub-lieutenant and his orders to report to Postilion. Postilion’s executive officer billet was gapped, and Peter’s experiences at sea made him the most qualified officer aboard to fill the gapped XO billet. In less than a year, Peter had gone from naval cadet to XO of a frigate.

Postilion was a 26-gun frigate purchased from the French and assigned to convoy duty. The French had equipped Postilion with 26 twelve pounders, but the Danish Navy had downgraded them to six and eight pounders. The administrators of the Danish Navy preferred smaller cannon because they consumed less gunpowder which saved money. The tactical disadvantage was not a concern to them. The Postilion‘s convoy duties were slow, boring, and frustrating. Protecting merchant ships that might or might not want to stay in formation from one port to the next was not the exciting duty that an active junior officer sought.

After escorting a convoy to the town of Langesund, near Christiana, Peter went ashore with dispatches. He heard of a Norwegian, Jørgen Pedersen, constructing small ships called snows in Langesund for General Løvendal. Warships had not been constructed in Norway since the Vikings, but Peter was one of only two naval officers to visit the shipyard. The two Norwegians got along well, both because of Peter’s interest in the snows under construction and because Jørgen Pedersen had helped construct Postilion in France. The two discussed Peter’s current ship.

Peter knew that he would not make his name as XO of a frigate on convoy duty, but he had a plan. The new snows that Jørgen Pedersen was constructing needed captains. Who better than himself to take a small ship to harass the Swedes along the rock strewn coasts of Sweden? The governor general of Norway was still Baron Løvendal, whom Peter had served with before starting at the naval academy, and Peter brought him dispatches from Denmark. The two former shipmates discussed Peter’s rapid promotion, the Baron’s plans for the new snows being constructed, and the war in Norway. Peter left the Baron with an order to take command of one of Pedersen’s new snows, Ormen, which boasted a crew of 46 and mounted five cannons including two 4 pounders, two 2 pounders, and a single one pounder. After less than 12 months in the navy, Peter was captain of his own ship.

Løvendal’s Galei

Jørgen Pedersen not only constructed four snows for the Norwegian defense forces, but he also constructed an 18 gun frigate. In typical Danish fashion, she was under armed, boasting 12 six pounders and 6 four pounder guns. When the frigate was completed, Baron Løvendal appointed Peter the captain. In honor of his friend and patron, Peter named the ship Løvendal’s Galei. Peter desired to continue his depredations along the Swedish coast, but his frigate was often busy supporting the fleet in the Baltic campaign against Stralsund and convoy duty in the North Sea.

Previously as captain of the Ormen, Peter operated along the Swedish coast, capturing Swedish privateers and scouting for Baron Løvendal. Later, on 26 July 1714, Peter earned his most famous exploit from his time as captain of Løvendal’s Galei; a single ship duel with the 28-gun Swedish privateer Olbing Galei. The Swedish privateer was English built and captained by an Englishman. The two ships both approached under false colors. Olbing Galei under the English flag, and Løvendal’s Galei under Dutch colors. Once the vessels had neared they replaced the false flags with the flags of Sweden and Denmark. Despite the disparity in broadside, Løvendal’s Galei hit Olbing Galei hard causing major damage to the rigging, and then the two ships fought for 14 hours until Peter ran out of powder and shot.

With ammunition gone, Peter sent a messenger to Olbing Galei stating that the only reason he was not discontinuing the action out of cowardice, but only because he was out of ammunition. Peter asked for powder and shot to continue the fight. Captain Bachtman declined to give him the ammunition, ending the fight. The two captains then toasted each other as they sailed away.

Peter wrote his dispatches to two people, General Hausman, now in charge of Danish forces in Norway, and King Frederik in Denmark. From Norway, General Hausman sent Peter his hearty congratulations. From Denmark came court martial proceedings. Peter’s rapid promotions had created many enemies in the Danish Navy. The dispatch for the king was taken by one of Peter’s enemies and subsequently distorted to damage his career. Peter was charged with recklessly endangering his command by fighting a ship superior to his own and for disclosing valuable military secrets by telling the enemy ship that he lacked ammunition, and other unspecified charges. The Judge Advocate General proposed demoting Peter to sub-lieutenant and forfeiture of six months’ pay.

On December 15, 1714 the court martial concluded. 10 of 14 members of the court voted for acquittal. The court martial was composed of eight admirals and six commodores and captains. The four most junior members voted for Peter’s demotion. This vote reflected the bifurcated reputation of Peter Wessel. His rapid rise threatened many of his peers from sub-lieutenant to captain, however, admirals approved of his victories. Upon conclusion of the court martial Peter visited King Frederik. He brought two documents with him; acquittal papers from the court martial and an application for promotion to captain, which the king accepted. On December 28, 1714 Peter Wessel was promoted to captain.

Dynekilen

King Charles arrived in Stralsund, Swedish Pomerania in 1714 after having spent the past five years in Turkey. The city had been under siege since 1711. King Charles wanted to use Swedish Pomerania as a launching point for a renewed offensive against the Saxons and Russians. Unfortunately, Peter and the Danish fleet prevented Sweden from reinforcing Stralsund. Multiple times Peter’s ship fought larger more heavily gunned ships and prevented their relief of Stralsund. In December, 1715 the city fell to the Dano-Saxon-Prussian forces besieging the city. Charles XII might have been losing the war, but he was not going to make peace. Instead, he escaped from Stralsund and returned to Sweden to continue the war.

In October, 1715, in honor of Wessel’s work preventing the Swedish Navy’s reinforcement of Stralsund, he was knighted. His new name and title, Tordenskjold, meant thunder shield, in reference to his thundering attacks against the Swedes and his defense of Denmark.

In March, 1716, King Charles decided to invade Norway. He split his forces to simultaneously to attack Christiana and Frederikstad. The roads in this part of Norway were poor and often impassable, therefore Swedish supplies had to come by sea. Swedish forces took advantage of the rocky islands strewn across coastline between Marstrand and Frederikstad to run supplies from fortified point to fortified point to reach the army’s supply depots outside Frederikstad. The Swedes used shallow draft galleys that hid in inlets and coves where the deep draft Danish squadron could not go. If Denmark could sever the Swedish sea lines of communication (SLOCs) they could isolate the Swedish army and end the campaign. Danish Admiral Gabel wrote to Tordenskjold explaining the situation. Characteristically, he immediately sought action.

On 7 July 1716, Tordenskjold discovered a Swedish force at anchor behind a battery in deep in the Dynekilen Fjord, which featured between 14 and 29 Swedish transports as well as 15 escorts ranging from 24 to 5 guns each as well as a battery of 6 twelve pounders. Tordenskjold advanced into the fjord with four frigates and three galleys. Tordenskjold subsequently landed soldiers on the island to take the battery. The fire from his frigates overpowered the escorts; Stenbock surrendered, and the galleys crews attempted to ground and fire their vessels. Tordenskjold proceeded to take or burn as many transports as possible. Swedish soldiers began to arrive and threaten his position, but Tordenskjold calmly took his prizes and destroyed any ships he could not cut out and then sailed out of the fjord.

Disposition of forces at the Battle of Dynekilen (Author graphic)

The battle was a decisive victory for Denmark. According to Danish records, Tordenskjold had captured seven warships and 19 transports, but Swedish records however list Tordensjkjold as having captured seven warships and 14 transports. The actual numbers are less important than the result of the battle. Swedish forces besieging Frederikstad halted the siege and withdrew. Sweden’s offensive capabilities were crippled until 1718. As a result of his success, King Frederik promoted Tordenskold to Commodore (Rear Admiral).

Conclusion

Between 1716 and 1720 Tordenskjold continued to fight the Swedes. He attacked Swedish forces in Stromstad, Marstrand, and Goteborg. In nine brief years he rose from a naval cadet to the rank of Vice-Admiral in the Danish Navy. His seamanship, calmness amidst chaos, and intrepid leadership created opportunities for victory. His men loved him for his demeanor, but his rapid rise created enemies in the Danish officer corps. He was not the buffoonish character as seen in the film Satisfaction 1720; that man would never have succeeded at sea. 

In 1720, Denmark’s role in the Great Northern War ended. His heroism and seamanship played a major role in ensuring Denmark was on the victorious side of the conflict. Later, Peter contemplated marriage with an English aristocrat and service in the Royal Navy. But at the age of 30, Peter Wessel Tordenskjold was killed in a duel with Colonel Jacob Stael von Holstein over a game of cards. Tordenskjold’s second was Lieutenant Colonel Georg von Münchhausen, father of the famous Baron von Münchhausen. Today, Norway and Denmark both claim Tordenskjold as a hero. Both Denmark and Norway named warships after him, and today he is buried in Denmark. 

Monument to Peter Wessel Tordenskiold, Trondheim, Norway. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sweden began the war as a major European power, and ended the war reduced to the status of a second rate power. With the exception of Swedish Pomerania, Sweden lost the entire southern rim of the Baltic. Russia demonstrated her arrival as a leading European power, gaining dominance over the eastern Baltic and a window to the west: the port cities of Saint Petersburg, Reval, and Riga.

Although Denmark was on the winning side of the war, she did not achieve her objectives. Although Denmark occupied Swedish Pomerania for five years after Stralsund fell, the province was returned to Sweden at the making of peace. The territories of Bohuslen and Scania remained Swedish. The maritime powers of Great Britain and the Netherlands would not allow one nation to control Øresund, the Kattegat, and Skagerak. The Baltic trade included valuable commodities for sea power, including cordage, tar, and trees. In order to maintain their maritime dominance, the maritime powers of Britain, France, and the Netherlands would not let a single nation control the entrance to the Baltic Sea and monopolize the trade. Denmark won the war, but lost the peace.

LCDR Jason Lancaster is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and has an MA from the University of Tulsa. He is currently serving as the N8 Tactical Development Officer at Commander, Destroyer Squadron 26. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Bibliography

Adamson, Hans Christian. Admiral Thunderbolt. Philadelphia and New York: Chilton Company, 1959.

Anderson, M.S. Peter the Great. New York: Longman Group, 1995.

Anderson, Roger Charles. Naval Wars in the Baltic during the Sailing Ship Epoch, 1522-1850. London: C. Gilbert Wood, 1910.

Bjerg, Hans Christian. “På kanoner og pokaler.” Dankse Tordenskjold Venner. July 24, 1964. https://archive.is/20130212170512/http://www.danske-tordenskiold-venner.dk/tordenskiold/artikler/02_kanon_pokal.htm (accessed October 12, 2019).

Denner, Balthasar. “Portrait of Peter Jansen Wessel.” Danish Museum of National History. Portrait of Peter Jansen Wessel. Frederiksborg, Denmark, 1719.

Jonge, Alex de. Fire and Water: The LIfe of Peter the Great. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1980.

Molstead, Christian. On Guns and Cups, 1925.

Featured Image: “Paa kanoner og pokaler” (On guns and cups), depicting the episode 27th july 1714 where the danish frigate Lövendals Galley commanded by norwegian officer Tordenskjold encounters the swedish-owned, former english frigate De Olbing Galley on the swedish westcoast. After a long fight the danish ship runs out of gunpowder, and the ships part after a toast between the two opponents. (Book Strömstad : gränsstad i ofred och krig by Nils Modig, page 134, via Wikimedia Commons)

From the Azov Sea to the Black Sea: Russia’s Maritime Campaign

By Jonathan Hall

Almost five years following the Minsk Agreements, the war in Ukraine has claimed the lives of over 13,000 individuals. While much of the attention has been on the annexation of Crimea and continuous fighting throughout the Donbas region, Russia has more recently added a maritime component to its campaign with aggressions in the Sea of Azov. The Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, sees the possibility of the region being used as a “springboard for further expansion,” a land invasion of Mariupol being his greatest concern. While many may fear expansion into the land environment, the far more likely scenario is westward progress by Russian naval forces, furthering their disruptive campaign off Ukraine’s coastline.

Linking the Seas

Western defense planners and analysts often refer to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov as independent entities. Distinct in their own rights, the latter largely unknown until recent events, what is important to note is the Russian government views them as inextricably linked. In 2003, President Putin reiterated this in stating, “the Azov-Black Sea basin as a whole…the zone of our strategic interests.”

Within this context, a useful analytical framework of inspection would be Russia’s “Boa Constrictor Strategy” (Тактика Удава). Attempting to economically strangle the Ukrainian government, the blockade of the Kerch Strait serves as the first example to do so in the maritime environment. Hamstringing shipment to and from the port cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk, located in the Sea of Azov, Russia is likely to continue these economically disruptive and militarily aggressive activities in the greater Black Sea region. The object of such operations would invariably be the littoral waters near Ukraine’s western port city – Odessa. While maintaining the status quo – relative restraint in deploying land forces – the Kremlin could similarly hamper maritime commerce, endanger sea lines of communication (SLOC), and therefore dissuade future investment in the region. Loss of industry and access to the sea via de facto Russian control of the remaining Ukrainian coastline could both financially cripple Kyiv’s economy and, in effect, landlock the country.

Fighting in the Gray Zone: From Land to Sea

Discussions of Russia’s operations often refer to its “gray zone” approach to warfare. Defined as, “Those covert or illegal activities of non-traditional statecraft that are below the threshold of armed organized violence; including disruption of order, political subversion of government or non-governmental organizations, psychological operations, abuse of legal processes, and financial corruption as part of an integrated design to achieve strategic advantage.”

In the Sea of Azov, there are already observed Russian gray zone methods in the maritime domain. Therefore, while the threat of a Russian land invasion should be considered, the threats facing Odessa – and the Ukrainian coastline writ large – likely will remain in the Sea. For several reasons, these incrementally disruptive hostilities, akin to ongoing naval tactics being employed by the Chinese in the South and East China Seas, should be Kyiv’s greatest worry.

First, an overt incursion on Odessa would necessarily involve Russia telegraphing the movement of its Black Sea Fleet – serving as host to a sizeable contingent of sea and land forces. Due to the augmented defensive capabilities installed by the Ukrainian military – its newly developed anti-ship “Neptune” cruise missile and modernized S-125 Neva/Pechora surface-to-air missile system – Kremlin strategists would likely advise against such a move. Although Ukraine’s personnel and equipment in the region would not ensure victory over a would-be invading Russian force, they provide the conventional deterrence required to allay concerns that Moscow believes it can quietly seize the region.

Route of Ukranian vessels seized by Russian vessels in late 2018 near the Sea of Azov (BBC)

Second, despite doubts regarding open invasion, concerns abound that Russia may attempt similarly subversive activities in Odessa to what occurred in Crimea and throughout Donbas. The tactics used in the early years of the conflict – in annexing the Crimean Peninsula and creating the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – were both geographically and demographically dependent and unlikely to be as successful if applied in western Ukraine.

In Crimea, the Kremlin’s “little green men” were able to assume control without widespread violence due to favorable conditions which do not exist in Odessa. The political environment on the peninsula, conducive for a Russian takeover, hosted a citizenry which was, for the most part, either emboldened by Russia’s sudden presence, indifferent, or silenced by fear.

Throughout Donbas, the disinformation campaign and political saboteurs were able to stoke the flames of discord required to launch the creation of the so-called autonomous republics. With Russian-backed separatists, private military contractors, and Russian regulars all taking part, control was effectively fractured from Ukraine’s federal government.

Geographically proximate to the Russian border, the Kremlin was able to either leverage the political environment preexisting in Crimea or, in the case of Donbas, fabricate one through its disinformation campaign, funding of separatist fighters, and covert transportation of Russian regulars across the border. According to a 2015 study by the International Republican Institute, roughly 25 percent of Odessa’s citizenry are ethnic Russians, with 78 percent citing Russian as the primary language spoken at home. The presence of ethnic Russians, often referred to as a fifth column – or minority group which can be leveraged – in Odessa has sparked concerns that a similar situation which unfolded in the east could be incited. However, the geographic conditions and element of surprise required are missing. Additionally important to note, the general political situation in the country was diametrically different to what it is today. When Crimea was annexed, and subsequent fighting in Donbas began, Ukraine’s federal government was dysfunctional and divided. Following the Euromaidan protests and deposition of then-president Yanukovych, several top officials abandoned their posts. Among them were the Ministers of Defense and Internal Affairs, the commander of the Internal Troops of Ukraine, and the commander of the Ukrainian Navy in Crimea (who convinced over 5,000 Ukrainian sailors to defect with him).

Finally, one possible reason for escalations in the Sea of Azov – Russia’s first major foray into the maritime environment against Ukraine – would be the Kremlin’s decision that further subversion on land would be either impossible due to increased Ukrainian resilience, or inadvisable due to international backlash. Regardless, the fact Moscow has chosen to add this maritime component to continue its incrementally aggressive gray zone approach supports the argument that any activities to Ukraine’s west – a “harder target” in military parlance – would similarly remain offshore.

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, after suffering two decades of decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has undergone more than a decade of serious reform, doubling its offensive capabilities since 2014. Prior to the annexation of Crimea, Russia had a basing agreement with the Ukrainian government. However, this agreement stipulated categorical limitations on personnel and equipment. Along with access to the port of Sevastopol, Moscow was allowed to garrison 25,000 troops, in addition to 132 armored combat vehicles, 22 military aircraft, and 24 pieces of artillery. In 2013, Russia was stationing 12,000 troops, zero tanks, 24 pieces of artillery, and 22 military aircraft. By 2018, those numbers rose to 32,000 troops, 40 tanks, 174 pieces of artillery, and 113 military aircraft – in addition to S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems, Bastion and Bal coastal defense missile systems, and Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems.

The Fleet, also host to several new advanced surface combatants and submarines – along with many warships transferred from the Caspian Sea Flotilla – is fulfilling the guiding principles highlighted in Russia’s 2015 maritime doctrine: “In the Black and Azov Sea, the foundation of the National Maritime Policy is the accelerated modernization and comprehensive reinforcement of the strategic position of the Russian Federation.”

These tenets were further discussed in the 2017 Naval Fundamentals document, emphasizing improvement of combat capabilities and joint operability with other branches of the military in Crimea. Moscow’s recent development of its Special Operations Forces (SSO) command is the most likely suspect to be used in a combined arms operation in the Black Sea. An example can be seen with the oil derricks near Odessa, which were illegally seized by special operations forces and are subsequently being guarded by several small warships – preventing any attempt by the Ukrainian military to retake them. While a less severe example, this low-risk operation represents one of many lessons for the Kremlin that this sort of incremental approach pays dividends. These “stealth seizures,” i.e. annexation of Crimea, naval blockade of the Sea of Azov, and the capture of the oil derricks are the hallmark of Russia’s approach in the region but by their nature are limited in scope.

Area of Operations: The Black Sea

Unlike the proximate waters of the Sea of Azov, the Black Sea is busy with international activity and with all parties involved interested in keeping the sea lines open for trade and joint military cooperation. In addition to the western littoral states (Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey), the navies of the United Kingdom and United States have operated in the Black Sea in recent months. The Royal Navy’s HMS Echo entered the Black Sea and arrived at Odessa on 19 December, 2017. The UK’s Defense Minister, Gavin Williamson, later announced joint exercises would take place with the Ukrainian Navy in early 2019. In early January, the USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) made a regularly scheduled sail through the Black Sea. The Fort McHenry, an amphibious ship, equipped with defensively oriented weapons, was followed more recently by a visit to Georgia by the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75), an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer – sending a much more clear message to the Kremlin. Backing up this show of resolve, the U.S. announced it would send additional lethal aid to the Ukrainian military.

While international presence in the region is a possible deterrent, many factors complicate the helpfulness of foreign vessels in the region. First and foremost, there is a perennial question mark in regard to what form(s) of Russian aggression will incite a Western response. And even then, showing diplomatic support of the situation is of little good to an embattled Ukrainian military. Second, the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, an agreement signed in 1936, presents a logistical impossibility to an ever-present U.S. Navy in the Black Sea. The agreement stipulates that an aggregate tonnage of all non-Black Sea warships in the Black Sea cannot exceed 30,000 tons (or 45,000 tons under special conditions), and they are permitted to stay in the Black Sea for no longer than twenty-one days. Russia, undoubtedly monitoring the U.S. Navy’s days at sea, could conceivably coordinate an operation during a lull of U.S. activity.

Defending Ukraine

The onus of defense, therefore, falls on the Ukrainian military. Prior to the aggressions in the Sea of Azov, for all intents and purposes the Ukrainian Navy lacked a coherent maritime doctrine within the overall military strategy. Suggested to have a “continental mindset,” the greatest cause for concern is always from the next impending land invasion. The most recent example was the build-up of Russian forces in its Western Military District, from which came no invading force. Rather than an abnormal development, prior to the annexation of Crimea, roughly 40,000 troops were amassed on Ukraine’s eastern border – used for purposes of intimidation and to mask subsequent asymmetric operations, rather than to be conventionally deployed.

Despite these issues of threat assessment, the Ukrainian Navy has maintained steady success in developing itself into a competent fighting force, notwithstanding losing the majority of its assets during the annexation of Crimea. The guiding principle toward renewed maritime capacity building in the Ukrainian Navy can be seen in the “mosquito fleet” concept first proposed by Captain Andriy Ryzhenko, the Navy’s deputy chief of staff for Euro-Atlantic integration. His idea is that despite budgetary pressures the navy should plan for “near-term procurement of small, fast, low-signature, well-armed boats and craft for various purposes.” The highly mobile proposed flotilla would serve well in the face of uncertainty presented by Russia’s subversive maritime activities.

Toward this goal, the Ukrainian Navy plans to commission two Gyurza-class armored boats and two Centaur-class fast assault craft sometime in 2019, and to assume command of two U.S.-built Island-class patrol cutters this summer. These efforts toward naval capacity building are the key component of the “New Strategy of the Naval Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to 2035,” introduced by the Commander of the Naval Forces of Ukraine, Admiral Ihor Voronchenko in November 2018.

Moving Forward

As this gray zone approach continues to permeate the maritime environment, these aggressive asymmetric operations must remain an integral component of Ukraine’s military calculus. They are incremental in their approach, and below the threshold of war in their character. For these reasons they will be difficult to predict, deter, and defend against. However, the Ukrainian military has been and will continue to undergo reform with these very tenets in mind. Analyzing the tactics used in the Sea of Azov by Russia, similar operations in the South and East China Seas by China, and how they may be adapted to fit the Black Sea is the most advantageous starting point toward an effective plan of defense. As the Ukrainian military remains resilient, and its allies supportive, the defense of Western ideals and international rule of law will come through the sober realization that these low-scale acts of force and subversive maneuvers are here to stay both within Ukraine’s borders and off its coast.

Jonathan Hall is a security and political risk analyst focused on Eurasian geopolitics, military affairs, and emerging technologies. He can be found on Twitter @_JonathanPHall.

Featured Image: Military base at Perevalne during the 2014 Crimean crisis. (Wikimedia Commons)