Ukraine Update 19 April, 2021

It has been an active weekend and Monday with regards to Ukraine and the buildup of Russian military forces in close proximity to the border. Overall, it appears more people are beginning to take the threat of armed conflict there seriously. With the movement of Russian military forces continuing on with no end in sight, and diplomatic efforts to calm tensions not yet producing results, the situation in and around Ukraine remains volatile.

Senior advisors to the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia are holding meetings today in an effort to reduce tensions in eastern Ukraine and discuss a restoration of the ceasefire between Russian-supported separatists and Ukrainian forces. Another topic expected to be discussed will be laying the ground work for a summit intended to resolve the issues at the core of the crisis between Ukraine and Russia. Quite frankly, the subject matter of these meetings seem to make it clear that Germany and France are tip toeing around the heart of the matter: Russia’s military buildup and the Kremlin’s intentions.

The weakening health of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny is becoming a concern across Europe. As scrutiny on Navalny’s condition has intensified, he has been moved to a prison hospital. Navalny is now 20 days into a hunger strike that has weakened his health state, as have the conditions of his imprisonment. The situation has brought on international warnings that the Russian government will face consequences should Navalny die in prison. The Russian government said today it would retaliate against further sanctions and rejected foreign countries’ statements on the Navalny case. “The state of health of those convicted and jailed on Russian territory cannot and should not be a theme of their interest,” a  government spokesperson said.

Great Britain will be sending warships to the Black Sea in May amid the rising tensions in the area. A pair of ships, one Type 45 destroyer and one Type 23 frigate, will detach from the Royal Navy’s carrier task force in the Mediterranean and head north through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus into the Black Sea. A timetable for the expected move has not been revealed in detail. The British move comes just a few days after the Biden administration cancelled the planned movement of two US destroyers into the Black Sea.

Britain Receives Its First P-8A Poseidon

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Earlier this week the first of the Royal Air Force’s new P-8A Poseidon MPA (maritime patrol aircraft) touched down at Kinloss, Scotland. It is the first of nine Poseidon aircraft purchased by the Ministry of Defense and marks Great Britain’s return to the fixed wing ASW (anti-submarine warfare) game. The RAF and Royal Navy have been without shore based MPAs for over a decade following the retirement of the Nimrod in 2009. During the eleven year period between then and now, Britain was forced to rely on its allies to provide ASW coverage around the British Isles, and in the North Atlantic. The gap in coverage came at a critical time, as tensions with Russia rose following the annexation of Crimea, and the Ukrainian intervention in 2014. Russian naval operations in the North Atlantic and Norwegian Sea increased shortly afterwards, reemphasizing the importance of the waters to NATO.

This is a step in the right direction for the Brits though. Over the past three years or so, Britain has become serious about redressing their military deficiencies. The British armed services had become a hollow shell as weapons systems were cut, and units disbanded in order to foot the bill for Britain’s commitments overseas such as in Afghanistan. Like many other European powers, British military power diminished. The Royal Navy was especially hard hit by the budget and force cuts and is presently rectifying the situation. The final three Astute class attack submarines are under construction, as well as the first of the new Dreadnought class SSBNs. On the surface side, the second Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales was recently commissioned. The first two City class frigates are also under construction and will help enhance the escort forces for the carriers.

This is certainly progress considering how much combat power had been gouged out of the British military between 2005 and 2014 or so. A lot of work still needs to be done but the Brits are moving in the right direction.

British Tanker Seizure Raises the Stakes

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Iran’s actions in the Strait of Hormuz over the last 24 hours threaten to move the current standoff between Tehran and the West into dangerous waters. The seizure of a British-flagged tanker yesterday by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has stoked tensions in the region. A second tanker owned by a British company but Liberian-flagged was also stopped and boarded but subsequently permitted to move on. Iran claims the seizure is a “reciprocal” action, apparently in response to Britain’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker bound for Syria on 4 July. An IRGC spokesman released a statement claiming that this was the case. However, a government message put out via Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency) claims the tanker was seized because it rammed an Iranian trawler in the Strait of Hormuz.

For the moment, London appears to be ruling out military action as a response. Given the current state and dispositions of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, this does not come as a surprise. Britain will not move unilaterally. The Queen’s aircraft and warships will only go into action in concert with a US effort. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt described Iran’s actions as “destabilizing and illegal.” He also warned of  “serious consequences” for Tehran.

The tanker seizures also serve as a warning to the United States and the West that commercial vessels using the Strait of Hormuz are at the mercy of Iran. The Iranian government’s threats to close the strait and attempt to strangle the global economy have gained more credibility over the last few days. Tehran’s hope is that the tanker seizures will lead to European pressure for the US to scale back its economic sanctions in place against Iran.

Meanwhile, the United States is preparing to ensure the safe passage of vessels operating in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf through a multi-national maritime effort. This will be discussed later in the weekend.

Royal Navy Woes Come at the Worst Possible Time

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The decline of the Royal Navy in ship numbers, and capabilities since the end of the Cold War has been well documented. British participation in the Global War on Terrorism was funded in large part by the systematic cutting of RN assets as a cost cutting measure to ensure the troops on the ground were funded. Promises were made regularly about the cuts being rectified one day when the money was available. Unfortunately, that day has yet to come.

Now Great Britain finds itself facing a maritime crisis in the Persian Gulf. Iranian gunboats attempted to intercept a British oil tanker and had to be driven off by a Royal Navy frigate that had been shadowing the tanker. Following the incident, the Ministry of Defense announced that a second warship, the destroyer HMS Duncan will be heading to the Persian Gulf to reinforce the frigate HMS Montrose, and the mine countermeasures vessels currently on station.

As far as major deployments go, this one is anything but. Moving a single British warship from the Mediterranean to the Gulf should not be considered anything but routine, and standard. Unfortunately, given the current condition of the RN, redeploying a single warship is about the extent of what the once mighty Royal Navy can accomplish at the moment.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Royal Navy presence in the Persian Gulf was consistent with the Armilla patrols. British warships patrolled the Gulf waters regularly in response to the increased danger to British shipping and interests in the region. At least one warship, and one Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship were present in the Gulf at any time. During times of high tension, the force was bolstered by an aircraft carrier or task group. Today, such a reinforcement is almost impossible. Britain only has one aircraft carrier at the moment and it has yet to reach initial operational capacity. Therefore, any fixed wing support for the Royal Navy will have to come from the US Navy aircraft carrier operating in the area.

With British shipping in the Persian Gulf now facing threats from Iran, additional RN warships are desperately needed. Unfortunately, it will be quite some time before enough are available and deployed to the Gulf to make a difference.

Are Western Navies Facing a Readiness Crisis?

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High-profile accidents involving warships from First-World nations since 2016 suggest the existence of a readiness crisis in Western navies. The ramming and sinking of the Norwegian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad by a commercial oil tanker earlier this month only highlights the fact that there is an issue. Maritime operations are dangerous, even in the best of times. Accidents happen, and sailors inevitably lose their lives. Yet the number of incidents that have taken place in the past twenty-four months suggest a deeper problem.

The readiness issue  has been smoldering for decades in most Western navies. In many cases it goes back to the end of the Cold War in 1991 when the dissolution of the Soviet Union consequently removed the predominant naval threat facing the navies of the West. Thus began a period of force downsizing, and budgetary restrictions. The Global War on Terror relieved some of these pressures temporarily. However, since Islamic terrorist groups, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq failed to mount a legitimate maritime threat, the navies of the United States and her allies have played secondary roles through the duration of the GWOT.

In truth, Western navies continue to move about aimlessly with no clear picture of what their goals need to be, or how to reach them. The main purpose of a navy is to fight and win a war at sea. Sadly, this is the mission that a frighteningly large number of Western navies appear ill-equipped to take on.

Since today is Thanksgiving, my intention was to keep this post limited to 300 words. This topic deserves more attention though. I’m going to come back to it a few times between now and Christmas and delve deeper into the naval readiness issue.

I hope everyone has had a wonderful Thanksgiving.