Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Ukrainian Lessons as Old as Time: Logistics-Auxiliaries-Prizes

We opened
Midrats last Sunday with a question to our guest Jimmy Drennan about what lessons he's taken so from from a maritime perspective during the Russo-Ukrainian War. This is a question I would like all of our navalists to think hard about. One constant we see throughout history is that small to medium wars will signal to you what you need to be ready for when the big war comes - and come it will. They always do.

Well, yesterday another Midrats alumnus, Dr. James Kraska has a tightly written overview of some takeaways for him, and as always with Kraska's work ... his observations deserve close consideration.

The setback for Russia was apparently tied to the oldest of military challenges—force sustainment during combat. The capture of Snake Island may help Ukraine to position anti-ship cruise missiles south of Odessa to weaken the Russian stranglehold on the port city.

The Attack

The resupply ship that never reached Russian forces on the island is believed to be the Russian naval tugboat Spasatel Vasily Bekh. The ship had a loaded displacement of 1670 tons. Part of the Black Sea Fleet, the Vasily Bekh was launched in 2016 and commissioned in 2017. The tugboat is designed to provide towing services for ships in distress, firefighting at sea and ashore, freshwater and electrical supply to other vessels, and to evacuate injured personnel. It carried a complement of 20 crewmembers with capacity for 36 more people and could carry tons of supplies.

Coming after the sinking of the Black Sea flagship Moskva on April 14, the strike on the Vasily Bekh underscores the Russian Navy’s inability to establish sea control in the western area of the Black Sea. The Moskva was the largest Russian warship damaged by enemy fire since 1941, when the Luftwaffe damaged a Soviet battleship in Kronshtadt. The Russian withdrawal from Snake Island also demonstrates the importance of combat logistics. While Russia maintains internal lines of communication that can feed the Russian war machine inside Ukraine, the Russian element that occupied Snake Island had to be supplied from the sea, raising questions about the rules for targeting ships supporting the armed forces in war.

If you want to know the sobering reality of war at sea - especially how we have done it in our entitled mindset of decades of dominance at sea, read close his legal outline of  "Targeting Combat Logistics" next.

I don't know about you, but it immediately makes me want to ask some very hard questions to people who I don't think are ready for them.

Then I want you to play that out for the USA vs. China west of Wake. Heck, make it globe-wide.

Later in his article, a few conversations I've had with Claude Berube and my co-host from Midrats came to mind - about Letters of Marque. 

Where does Ukraine's government stand on Letters of Marque ... because as this war drags on ... there are some interesting options for them ... and depending on how that plays out, for any - ahem - nation that may find itself at war at some time in the future with the People's Republic of China;

Russia’s plans to leverage greater support from merchant ships also implicates the law of naval warfare. Russian-flagged merchant ships are liable to capture by Ukrainian naval forces, and they may be converted to use after adjudication of prize in a court of admiralty jurisdiction.

The Russian merchant fleet has 1,155 ships and 7.7 million deadweight tons and could serve as an effective force multiplier for the Russian military services. China’s merchant fleet is among the top ten largest in the world, with 87 million deadweight tons and 4,881 ships. Decimated by uncompetitive costs of operation resulting from the Jones Act, the U.S. fleet is shockingly small and shrinking. The number of U.S. oceangoing commercial ships in the U.S. merchant fleet fell from 282 vessels to 182 ships since 2000. This means that while Russia and China can supplement their auxiliary naval forces with national-flagged merchant ships, the United States would find that option more challenging.

This situation is ironic because unlike Russia and China, which enjoy internal lines of communication, U.S. requirements for force replenishment depend on a massive logistical flow to Asia and Europe. American forces operate forward, along the first island chain running from Japan to the Philippines, and on NATO’s eastern border in Europe. Sustainment of these forces likely would require merchant shipping. Like Russia, the United States may also resort to contracts with merchant carriers to provide force sustainment. These merchant ships would also be liable to capture by the enemy during armed conflict, and they may be attacked and destroyed if they resist capture.

Yes, there are a lot of maritime lessons in this mostly land-centric war. The longer this goes - if you are willing to open your mind a bit - the more interesting the implications that may evolve for the US national strategy - or at least in the classified annexes.

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