ODESA, Ukraine — When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, it absorbed land and people. But in the process, and with less attention, Russia also took 75 percent of Ukraine’s naval fleet, the majority of its helicopters and the bulk of the country’s ship repair capacity.
With Sevastopol Naval Base gone, the Ukrainian Navy essentially needed to start from scratch. Seventy percent of naval personnel either defected or were dismissed, and the fleet was now just one frigate — a ship that had been deployed at the time.
Since then, the United States, the United Kingdom and other NATO members have guided the Black Sea nation to rebuild its fleet as well as its ground and special operations forces. And this summer, the effort has taken another step forward by helping the nation achieve interoperability with NATO forces.
In practical terms, that support has led to a “mosquito fleet” of small vessels for near-shore operations to protect Ukraine’s territorial waters and shorelines, said Cmdr. Daniel Marzluff of 6th Fleet, one of the U.S. Navy’s experts on the region. Teams also improved Ukraine’s ability to send and receive information as well as tap into the Black Sea Maritime Domain Awareness project, which is led by the United States and involves Ukraine, Georgia, Romania and Bulgaria.
In strategic terms, the support is meant as a sign to Russia that the West backs Ukraine and its national security interests, said Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.
“In talking about the Black Sea region, you really have to start with Russia’s role in the region and how it has sought to dominate its neighbors in the Black Sea,” she told Defense News in a June 18 interview.
“In 2014, we saw Russia fomenting a war with Ukraine and occupying Crimea, an area into which Russia has brought significant military capability. So when we think about the Sea Breeze exercise, what’s interesting is it’s been around for a long time — this is the 21st iteration of this exercise, with [about 30] countries participating — but of course this shadow of Russian aggression is cast over the region. And it’s one of the reasons why we really do have to work to build the resilience of countries in the region and partner with them and ensure that our forces are interoperable with their forces.”
During the Sea Breeze 21 exercise in the Black Sea the largest ship Ukraine put to sea was a Sea Guard vessel that falls under the State Border Guard Service, an organization akin to the U.S. Coast Guard. Two Ukrainian Navy vessels played the role of aggressor, around which larger warships practiced maneuvering — a sign that the organization is still in its “mosquito fleet” phase.
Marzluff said that when Ukraine lost the bulk of its fleet, it couldn’t start over with large combatants. Instead, the country has invested in small patrol boats that make up most of today’s fleet.
Among the United States’ biggest contributions are patrol boats. The U.S. committed to donating five Island-class patrol boats, formerly used by the Coast Guard, through the Excess Defense Articles program. Two were delivered in 2018, and another three approved in a 2019 request are being prepared for transfer.
At 34 meters in length, each patrol boat is a quarter of the length of a Ukrainian frigate, and about one-twentieth of a frigate’s displacement. But the boats would still be among the larger ships in the fleet.
The U.S. also approved the sale of up to 16 Mk VI patrol boats in June 2020, which, at about 26 meters long, are similar in size to the other classes of patrol boats in Ukraine’s fleet. The U.S. Navy uses these SAFE Boats International-made craft for riverine and coastal security missions. That initial approval still requires congressional consent.
Through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, the Pentagon in March 2021 approved a $125 million aid package that included two Mk VI boats — bringing Ukraine’s fleet up to eight of the planned 16 — as well as counter-artillery radars, satellite imagery and analysis capabilities, and equipment to support military medical treatment and combat evacuation procedures.
Another $150 million package approved in June included counter-drone systems, secure communications gear, electronic warfare systems and more.
As its fleet grows, Ukraine can also invest in ways to increase ships’ presence and combat credibility by adding weapons and lengthening deployments. The country plans to eventually procure larger corvettes and frigates in the next decade.
In July, a Ukrainian official revealed on Turkish television that his country ordered two Ada-class corvettes in a December 2020 deal. Ukraine’s consul general in Istanbul, Alexander Haman, said the two vessels will be co-produced by Turkey’s state-controlled defense technologies company STM and a Ukrainian shipyard. The first vessel is to be delivered to Ukraine by the end of 2023 unfinished, and then completed in Ukraine.
The Ada-class corvette can perform location, classification, identification and destruction of air, surface and underwater targets as well as provide naval gunfire support. It can also perform maritime surveillance, patrol missions, and coastal and infrastructure protection.
The 99.44-meter vessel has a maximum speed of 29 knots. It can carry two S70 Seahawk helicopters. Its sensors and weapons include 3D radar. It will also be equipped with electro-optical sensors, an electronic support system, a laser warning system, a torpedo detection/countermeasure capability, hull-mounted sonar, and two 12.7mm guns with an electro-optical capability.
The Ukrainian Navy plans to deploy the corvettes in both the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
Additionally, the Defence Ministry announced July 15 that the Navy accepted delivery of the first Bayraktar TB2 drone from Turkish defense company Baykar. After completing acceptance tests, the armed drone, along with mobile control terminals and spare parts, will be deployed at the Navy’s 10th Naval Aviation Brigade in Mykolaiv. In May, the service’s chief of staff said the drones will operate in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
Marzluff is excited to see the focus on naval power after efforts immediately following the 2014 annexation centered on growing and training Ukraine’s ground forces.
The U.S. also accelerated assistance following a 2018 incident in the Kerch Strait, where Russia fired upon and then captured three Ukrainian naval vessels as well as their combined 24 crew members. The ships were transiting the strait that connects international waters in the Black Sea to the Ukrainian and Russian territorial waters in the Sea of Azov.
“Russia has essentially tried to take [the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov] from Ukraine, and so this is just another example of how Russia is just incrementally trying to undermine Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty,” Marzluff said.
Vice Adm. Gene Black, who commands 6th Fleet, reiterated the importance of making Ukraine’s Navy interoperable with NATO in an interview with Defense News aboard U.S. Navy destroyer Ross during the Sea Breeze exercise.
“At the highest level, it’s helping them assert their sovereignty and it supports their territorial integrity. At the sort of operational Navy level, we want them to be able to have full awareness of what’s going on in their seas, and then the ability to influence it and the ability to interact with or interoperate with partners as necessary into the future. And I think we’re on an outstanding trajectory with their plan, with their procurements and with their willingness to work so closely with us,” Black said.
As Ukraine receives new gear, its training needs are twofold: learning how to use the ships, sensors and weapons; and learning how to plan and execute maritime operations in line with NATO standards and best practices.
On the gear side, the U.S. Coast Guard has been training Ukrainian sailors in Baltimore, Maryland, to operate and maintain the Island-class patrol boats. Marzluff said the Coast Guard finished training the next three crews for the next three ships.
Arming the Island-class ships has been an issue, with Ukraine looking for a more heavily armed ship than the U.S. fielded. The U.S. is doing a full engineering analysis of the ship to figure out how to install a new weapons system that hasn’t been integrated with this class of ship, Marzluff explained.
“We think that’s a necessary piece because that … will hopefully allow them to defend themselves in the event of further Russian aggression like we saw in the Kerch Strait,” he said.
Training with the Island-class ships also covers sending and receiving encrypted communications that Russia can’t intercept, as well as using the ship’s sensors to contribute to maritime domain awareness with other vessels at sea and at the maritime operations center ashore.
More broadly, Cooper and Marzluff said, the international community has coordinated efforts to equip and train Ukraine to avoid redundancy. Cooper specifically mentioned a “world-class training program” for ground forces by the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine at a center near Yavoriv in far western Ukraine.
And the U.K. created the Operation Orbital mission in 2015 that originally focused on training ground forces but has since expanded to maritime training.
In addition, a Multinational Joint Commission was created to reform and mentor Ukraine’s police and armed forces. Cooper said this commission “speaks to the need to build strong institutions. And here we have, and our allies have, embedded advisers within the Ukraine Ministry of Defence and also with their armed forces, that are helping them transition what was a very Soviet-looking military structure into a system that is NATO-interoperable and operates according to NATO principles.”
Royal Norwegian Navy Cmdr. Harald Thor Straten told Defense News that a mentor program began in 2017, formalizing an ad hoc effort as foreign naval officers tried to help Ukrainian sailors set up and staff their maritime operations center, or MOC — a land-based command at the heart of maritime domain awareness.
Marzluff said the center in Odesa pulls information from ships and fixed radar sites the U.S. donated to the Border Guard Service, adding a multi-ministerial component to maintaining this common operating picture. An exercise like Sea Breeze then takes the creation of that common operating picture and asks the Navy and Sea Guard to process, analyze and act based on that information.
Through Sea Breeze, Cooper said, with more than 30 countries operating alongside each other, “we’re actually working through a lot of practical challenges of operating with NATO militaries and non-NATO militaries in a part of the world that some of these countries do not frequently operate in.”
“The other practical dimension when it comes to particularly Ukraine and Georgia, countries that really are under a tremendous amount of pressure from Russia, is that they are building their practical ability to have maritime capabilities to defend their countries,” Cooper added. “But most importantly [the exercise] is for strategic reasons: It’s to underscore to these nations, but also to the world and to Russia, that we do have a strategic partnership with Ukraine, we have a strategic partnership with Georgia, and that the NATO alliance is strong and united and capable.”
Operating with Ukraine
The Sea Breeze exercise is part of a larger scheme to pave the way for Ukraine to participate in larger NATO events and missions. “It’s one thing to have your own navy and to operate within yourself, but as part of an alliance, which Ukraine aspires to, there has to be that essential hand-in-hand interoperability piece, and that’s the key focus of Sea Breeze,” Marzluff said.
Based on the progress so far and the goals laid out in its recent maritime strategy, Marzluff said Ukraine could follow the path Georgia is now paving.
Georgia, which in 2008 came under attack by Russia, has long been interested in full NATO membership. Like Ukraine, it signed a Partnership for Peace agreement with the alliance. Georgia, in working up to NATO membership, has contributed to several NATO naval operations, including maritime security and counterterrorism operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean Sea.
“One of [Ukraine’s] stated goals is to get a MIO/VBSS [a maritime interdiction operations and a visit, board, search and seizure] team that can do a similar capability. I think that’s an easy win for them because there are so many countries that have that expertise that can share those techniques and then allow the Ukrainians to build up that capability, which arguably exists. It just needs to be evaluated in such a way to get that certification,” Marzluff said. A Ukrainian VBSS team showed off its skills to reporters and distinguished visitors at a maritime day demonstration the following day.
“And then from there, they can contribute to an overall NATO mission and continue to show a global audience they aspire to NATO membership, which I think is obviously a commendable goal for them.”
Burak Ege Bekdil in Ankara, Turkey, and Tayfun Ozberk in Mersin, Turkey, contributed to this report.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.