By Graig Hooper
During the American Civil War, the South used a series of tricks to break the severe naval blockade imposed on them and to threaten the Union states at sea. Today, the Ukrainian government can use similar tactics to create problems for Russian ships (sinking or neutralizing them) in the Black Sea – and beyond.
By creating conditions that will increase the cost of maintaining the Russian Navy – and therefore the blockade – Ukraine will have the opportunity to break the siege around its ports, taking the first step in resuming exports of grain and fertilizer to world markets. Russia has deployed about 20 warships in the Black Sea, but few of them play a key role in enforcing the blockade. A war of attrition at sea will burden Russia.
The military use of merchant ships is a tactic that has proven effective. In the American Civil War, the Confederate Navy “did magic” to strengthen its military at sea. The famous Southern cruiser, CSS Florida, was built in England as a merchant ship named Oreto. As soon as it sailed from England, it changed its name and at sea was transformed into an armed cruiser, which joined the Confederate Navy. Subsequently, other “hybrid” cruisers were created.
This tactic can still work today, with Kyiv trying to break the Black Sea blockade. In fact, building a makeshift Navy in 2022 may prove easier than it was in the 1860s. showcase companies. Anti-submarine and anti-aircraft systems are more easily transported by the heavy cannons of the American Civil War era, while Stinger, Switchblade, rockets and missiles can be transhipped from one ship to another … away from prying eyes.
Tugs, fishing boats and even barges are easily modified – bringing improvised weapons – and then can sow terror, strike damage or even sink Russian ships anywhere at sea. The countries that will be the “big losers” from Russia’s illegal attack on the global “bread basket” should immediately supply the Ukrainian volunteers with the necessary vessels that will create problems for the Russians.
In time, there should be no Russian fishing vessel, oil tanker or secret service trawler sailing in the sea without worrying about being attacked.
They do not need much. Some anti-ship missiles or a kamikaze-drone fired from an ordinary boat will make life difficult for a Slava-class cruise ship, which would otherwise be performing a pleasant cruise in the Mediterranean or across the Atlantic. Russia would have a hard time reacting as the attackers would either get lost in the sea traffic or the ship would sink, with the crew crashing into speedboats and disappearing into the coastal waters of the Black Sea, the Mediterranean or the Channel.
Such a conflict could take place in the Black Sea. Turkey does not have much control over merchant ships crossing the Bosphorus, and smuggling into the region is an active “business” that would allow a pro-Ukrainian pilot to hide even a large, conventional anti-ship missile from a “bored” Turkish auditor. A large anti-ship missile is 1/3 the weight of a Ford F-150. This means that the talented smugglers could demonstrate their skills in hiding a missile, firing it and neutralizing a Russian ship.
The Russians would probably not even see where it came from.
As Ukraine’s allies prepare to send anti-ship missiles to Kyiv, the threat to Russia’s “distressed” Black Sea Fleet is real.
An NSM anti-ship missile weighs about 400 kilograms. An advanced launch system is not required for a single throw. Since this missile can autonomously search for and locate targets within a range of more than 200 kilometers, the launch pad requires minimal information to strike an “unprepared” fighter. Load NSM missiles on some boats sailing unnoticed in the Black Sea, equip them with a quick-release launcher (Ikea-type), and Russia suddenly has a safety problem.
Ukraine does not even need to carry a weapon through Turkish waters. It can only send one or two – “secretly” controlled by Kiev- vessels to the Black Sea. A small ship or unmanned platform, “sliding” out of Ukrainian waters or anywhere else, can carry some Switchblade drones, capable of neutralizing all the large warships left by Russia in the Black Sea.
With a little help and information, Russian warships and coastal guards on the Black Sea could face serious problems from Ukrainian attacks.
If the Ukrainians seem creative and technically skilled, then they can wage a more complex war at sea, defeating the declining Russian fleet. For Russia, neutralizing some radar or other sensors would be disastrous. A blow to the docks of Sevastopol could cost her dearly.
In short, sacrificing an old ship in exchange for the neutralization of a Russian warship is worth it.
The successful attack on the Russian cruiser Moskva shows that Ukraine is not a passive player at sea. The mere fact that Kyiv is considering implementing such tactics would irritate the Russian Navy. Perhaps it would be enough to force Putin to “escalate” his attack on the global food chain.
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