Ukraine Will Easily Destroy or Sideline Russia’s Navy with Game-Changing Anti-Ship Missiles

Just twenty anti-ship missiles and their accompanying systems could wipe out all of Russia’s big warships in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.  Anti-ship missiles that were announced yesterday will soon be deployed in significant numbers in Ukraine will be a game-changer much like Javelin and other anti-tank missiles have been for Ukraine against Russian armor thus far in Russia’s failing war. Russia’s window to effectively use its navy in this war in combat or to support its forces on land is now effectively closed.

(Russian/Русский переводBy Brian E. Frydenborg, April 10, 2022 (LinkedIn, FacebookTwitter @bfry1981) *Correction appended April 10; slight edit April 13 to qualify estimate of location of Russian naval presence; this article was condensed and adapted as Why Russia’s Navy in Ukraine War is Doomed (or Irrelevant), published by Small Wars Journal April 13, in turn featured by Real Clear Defense on April 14, SOF News on April 15, and Indian Strategic Studies April 18; see his related, April 24 article, How Ukraine Can Take Back Crimea from Putin’s Reeling Russian Military, and see all of Brian’s coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine here.

An RGM-84 surface-to-surface Harpoon missile launches from a cruiser of the U.S. Navy. (U.S. Department of Defense)

SILVER SPRING and WASHINGTON—We are now clearly seeing a new phase of the Russia-Ukraine war.  The bear has been unmasked, and nobody is impressed (it’s more like a rabid, angry cub with birth defects).

In fact, I could write a whole other article (and maybe I will!) about how challenging it is to find a situation where the ostensible number-two military power in the world or thereabouts (and let’s be honest, the ranking is now, far far lower) has done more to reduce its power and expose its military weakness against a far weaker foe in a mere six weeks, but without a doubt, we are witnessing one of the only—perhaps the only—example of something like this to this degree in history.

Rapidly Changing Dynamics

Yes, Russia’s insane, hubristic, carelessplan”—to commit forces to multiple fronts, dividing and weakening its forces over these many fronts, none of which individually succeeded in their main goals—is failing and suffered its greatest setbacks when its entire Kyiv front, itself consisting of multiple subfronts and lines of advance, and two other whole fronts in north-central Ukraine collapsed entirely, all Russian forces in the area having been destroyed, decimated, pushed back, or routed in disorder.  As they have been thrown out of Ukraine, many Russian units are committing war crimes along their paths of retreat if they were not committing them there and elsewhere already.

This sudden collapse of the Russian positions on three nearby fronts has freed up a huge portion of Ukraine’s military to go and relieve other fronts to the east, and, indeed, this is already happening, as was the case with the Chernihiv and Sumy fronts right after the Kyiv front collapsed.  Obviously, some forces will have to stay to keep Russian forces from reopening these fronts, but not too many: retreating forces are heavily demoralized and/or damaged, and will take significant time to rest, refit, and rebuild before approaching and serious level of combat effectiveness (however, abysmal Russian leadership is fairly likely to just throw their lives away in ill-planned, ill-timed offensives with troops not ready or prepared, as already happened earlier in the war over and over again under much better conditions for the Russians than they presently face; if so, Ukrainian forces will maul them again as they did before).

The way I see it (and I am in good company), the Russians will not only be lucky not to be routed from all their gains made since February 24, but are at serious risk of losing the Donbas—Luhansk and Donetsk—and Crimea, as well as having most of their current army destroyed.  Talk of some sort of possible Grand New Russian Offensive in the east seem fantastical to me and others who put the big-picture together: with which troops, and of what quality (what elite unites haven’t sustained significant casualties?), and with what equipment?  Will it be the remaining equipment that has already proven ineffective and easily destroyed especially by Ukraine’s western-supplied anti-tank and anti-air missiles?  The units shattered and barely functional or not functional that managed to escape from Ukraine’s counteroffensives?  Non-shattered but non-elite units that have also been deployed for months and are still exhausted?  Conscripts almost finishing their termsNew conscripts who have never seen combat??

Yet as major Russian ground fronts have collapsed, attention is drawn away from an area where, with not much additional assistance from the West or perhaps even with aid already just now promised, Ukraine can easily achieve a resounding victory that would combine massive substantive defeats for the Russians with tremendous symbolism and loss of prestige for Russia in addition to greatly affecting the way ground combat plays out in the south and east.

I am talking about the near-annihilation of the Russian Navy presence in the Black Sea, including almost the entirety of the Black Sea Fleet.

Russia’s Big Ships Near Ukraine: Easy Targets…

Unlike armies, with thousands of soldiers, hundreds of units, and thousands of subunits, navies are mostly tied to a very finite number of vessels, almost always dozens or hundreds of vessels per navy at most.

Meaning: take out the ships, and the navy pretty much does not exist.

Russia has cannibalized its other three fleets (Northern Fleet, Baltic Fleet, and Pacific Fleet) and its one flotilla (the Caspian Flotilla) to reinforce the Black Sea Fleet and support its Ukraine effort, and, with Turkey closing the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to the Mediterranean in early March to incoming military vessels under the 1936 Montreux Convention, that Caspian Flotilla is the only possible source of reinforcements to what is in the Black Sea, coming in though canal from the Caspian Sea, as other possible reinforcements coming in from the Mediterranean are now blocked.

As far as sizable surface ships in the Black Sea, by mid-March there were only twenty-one, according to a “senior defense official”: just twelve naval-combat-focused ships along with nine amphibious assault ships, accompanied by numerous far smaller patrol and support boats and, of course, submarines that are harder to track.

But that total was before the daring Ukrainian strike on the morning of March 24, which mysteriously destroyed a large Russian amphibious ship, the now sunk Alligator class Saratov,docked in the eastern Ukrainian Russian-occupied port of Berdyansk.  Two other large amphibious ships, the Caesar Kunikov and Novocherkassk, were damaged and fled the port.

So scratch one, Russia is down now to just twenty major surface vessels.

That is not a large number.

…For the Right Weapons (and They Are Coming)

I had finished a version of this section before yesterday’s information that the UK and U.S. would be sending anti-ship missiles to Ukraine.  But, for now, keep that low number of major Russian surface ships in mind when considering following:

For starters, as my old War Is Boring editor David Axe notes in detail, Ukraine has been developing its own anti-ship cruise missile, the Neptune, since 2013.  It began testing in 2018, and has since tested successfully repeatedly.  The system has a range of 174-180 miles (280-300 km) and operates as a sea-skimmer, flying low and close to the water to make it almost undetectable until just before it hits its target.  It was scheduled to be deployed this month with a full division of six launchers, seventy-two cruise missiles (more than three for each remaining major Russian surface vessel), and accompanying radar systems. But Russia’s seems to have derailed this timetable, and it is unclear when it will be able to safely deploy its system and have it and its crews be operational.  Details are few and far between as Ukraine obviously would want to keep Russia guessing.

Secondly, this must have been part of the discussion over the past month between Ukraine and NATO nations, and taking into account the issues with the Neptunes, NATO has been working to arm Ukraine with anti-ship missiles for weeks.  Reports from early April indicated United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been keen to arm Ukraine with anti-ship missiles, that these would most likely be truck-mounted versions of its U.S.-supplied Harpoon missiles, its version having a range of  80 miles (128 km) and also capable of hitting land targets (Ukraine has actually been asking for these for some time).

Well, yesterday, when I took a nap after nearly finishing this article, Johnson met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv in a surprise visit and the UK announced it actually would be sending anti-ship missiles*, among other aid.  Also reported yesterday was that the U.S., too, will apparently be sending Ukraine anti-ship missiles.  Options besides the Harpoon missile from within NATO include Norway’s Naval Strike Missile (NSM), already in several NATO arsenals (including the U.S.) and with a range of 115 miles (185 km), and its Penguin anti-ship missile launched from helicopters with a range of 21-34 miles (34-55 km).

UK PM Boris Johnson with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, April 9 (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service)

Russian Naval forces are hardly concentrating along the Turkish coast of the southern Black Sea: they are mostly, perhaps virtually all, off the coast of Ukraine to varying degrees in the northern half of the Black Sea or Sea of Azov, trying to offer support and, presumably, debating whether or not to launch amphibious assaults, particularly on Ukraine’s main port in its West, Odesa (the fact that they have not yet shows how confident they are in such an assault’s chances of success; Putin may not care much about throwing his soldiers’ lives away recklessly, but his larger naval vessels are expensive and take time to construct).

As the above map shows and implies, Ukraine would have excellent coverage with many of these systems.  For most of these systems, many, perhaps even all, of Russia’s twenty remaining large warships in the region—including Russia’s most powerful naval ship, the Slava class cruiser Moskva—are well within striking range from Ukrainian-controlled territory.  Even if Ukraine will receive only Harpoons, though they have much smaller range than the Neptunes, they should effectively prevent any Russian naval assaults if the Russians are smart (but they are not).   After such Harpoons would arrive, they would still secure Ukrainian coastline and push Russian naval operating areas far from Ukrainian-controlled coastal territory (unless Russia is stupid and keeps its ships within range, inviting their destruction) all while, presumably, the Neptune rollout, training, and deployment finishes, possibly in just a few weeks if the invasion has not derailed Ukraine’s timetable.

At this crucial moment, when Russia is desperate to turn the tide in the face of its massive failures, the soon-to-arrive unspecified anti-ship missiles have effectively killed any realistic Russian hope of a successful naval assault on Odesa or elsewhere on the Crimea-to-Moldova (where Russia illegally has some military forces in another breakaway region, Transnistria) corridor.  These missiles will either prevent any assault from happening or virtually doom any would-be assault.  This new round of aid with these anti-ship missiles has, thus, basically closed the gap between the Russians collapsing on three fronts and the Neptunes’ presumed deployment.

If (and hopefully when) Neptunes can be eventually deployed, a large portion of the entire Black Sea, including both the west and east coasts of Russian-occupied Crimea—where many of Russia’s naval vessels are based and resupplied—as well as the Sea of Azov, would be vulnerable.  And if Ukraine is able to push Russian forces back closer to Crimea, even missiles with shorter range could threaten Russia’s ability to dock its ships and even the southern coast of Crimea and beyond can be vulnerable. 

Soon, Russia’s navy will almost certainly have to turn tail and run to the southern Black Sea, unable to offer meaningful support in the ground war, or even move to port back in Russia proper (as in, the non-illegally occupied/annexed parts of Ukraine) to avoid near-total destruction.  If there will be any problems or delays deploying the Neptunes, NATO should ensure longer-range anti-ship missiles, including some of the Norwegian NSMs, are provided to Ukraine so they can either destroy Russia’s navy or render it irrelevant, putting more Russian ships under range or pushing them even further back than would be the case with just, say, Harpoon missiles.

We should not expect details of these upcoming transfers to be broadcast in detail publicly before they happen, as, ideally, NATO would get Ukraine these missiles quietly, so Russian naval vessels will still be well within range and not expecting their use.  With a few coordinated deployments, and with open-source intelligence (OSINT), U.S. & other NATO satellite and other intelligence aiding the Ukrainians, most, perhaps all of Russia’s twenty remaining large surface vessels could be targeted and heavily damaged or destroyed with just twenty missiles, insurance only being forty or slightly more missiles. 

Around forty missiles is hardly a large number, and it hardly needs to be as successful as one missile, one ship destroyed; even if we allot three missiles for each ship, that is just sixty missiles.  The first volley could be fired in a few minutes and hit its targets in not much longer than that.  It is also extremely unlikely these missiles, given their technology and Russian capabilities, can be countered, and insurance and, even, double-insurance to effectively damage and destroy a huge portion of the entire Russian Navy, including most of its heavy hitters, is, again, just sixty missiles.  And even just arming Ukraine with the shortest-range missiles would make any naval assault suicidal for Russia, any competent use ensuring many or all of the amphibious landing ships would be sunk before reaching land and severe damage or destruction for any other major ships that would venture close to support if Russia would not be smart enough to withdraw its vulnerable ships far away from Ukraine, or, as stated, would ensure such assaults do not take place if Russia is behaving less stupidly than it has been for this entire war.

A True Game-Changer: “Bye-Bye Russian Navy!

These anti-ship missiles will either annihilate the Russian Navy in the Black Sea or push it far away to near-irrelevance (other than its ability to affect commercial shipping).  This will absolutely humiliate Putin and the Russians, crush Russian morale, severely hamper the entirety of the logistical situation for the Russians as well as overall Russian efforts in southern Ukraine and on its coast, allow far more supplies to reach Ukraine’s people and military far more easily, perhaps destroy any hope of building a land bridge for Russia to Crimea (let alone one to Moldova), and also severely hamper Russia’s efforts to secure the Donbas.  It could even help precipitate the collapse of the entire Russian war effort and perhaps even mutiny and revolt in the Russian military.

If you scoff at such an idea, consider the last time Russia suffered such a humiliating naval defeat, in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese war, that defeat precipitated massive loss of prestige, unrest, military revolt, and revolution in 1905 and was a major nail in the coffin of Tsarist Russia; among the units that mutinied was the crew of the battleship Potemkin, stationed at—of all places—Odesa, an event immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film.

Ukraine might very well be able to succeed without destroying the Russian Navy in the Black Sea or pushing it so far away it can only exert marginal influence on the war, but it would sure be a lot easier, happen a lot faster, and save a lot of Ukrainian lives to remove the Russian Navy from the picture.  The easiest way to do this is the deployment of anti-ship missiles for the reasons outlined above.  And the cost for the West and Ukraine would only be relatively inexpensive and cost-effective anti-ship missile systems, along with the logistics to get them safely to Ukrainians and ensure Ukrainians can operate them effectively.  But the cost for Russia?  The bulk of their navy or their ability to use it to significantly support the war.

With the introduction of a serious supply of anti-ship missiles on the side of Ukraine, the Russian Navy is doomed to near-irrelevance at best or a watery grave at the bottom of the Black Sea or Sea of Azov, whether it or Putin knows this or not.

*Correction appended: Yesterday, the Guardian article I cited specifically noted that Harpoon missiles (link is for archived version) were being sent by the UK:

The Guardian has since removed the word “Harpoon” (as shown above) from the current article. This was my basis for earlier citing that Harpoons were the missiles the UK was sending. My article has since been corrected. Proper journalistic practice, which The Guardian clearly did not follow, would be for a correction to be issued, as is being done here. Instead, the article was stealth edited to make it appear as if there was never a mention of Harpoons at all. I call on The Guardian to issue a proper correction and to be more transparent with making corrections or being unable to confirm specific information, as should be standard practice (but sadly is not as standard as it should be).

© 2022 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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