Hudson Institute

Arm Ukraine to Win the War at Sea

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
Senior Fellow
Smoke rises on the horizon following missile strikes on Lviv on April 18, 2022. The missile strikes come in the wake of the sinking of the Russian Navy Flagship, Moskva, in the Black Sea. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher via Getty Images)
Smoke rises on the horizon following missile strikes on Lviv on April 18, 2022. The missile strikes come in the wake of the sinking of the Russian Navy Flagship, Moskva, in the Black Sea. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher via Getty Images)

NATO allies need to arm Ukraine so it can push back the Russian Navy and end Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on Ukraine’s economy and the world’s food supply. After more than three months of fighting, Russian troops are nearing their immediate objective of controlling Ukraine’s east. Some Western leaders hope to convince Putin he should take the win and allow Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea, heading off a global crisis. Past experience suggests that while Russia may pause its assault, fighting and the blockade could resume at any time. To avoid being held hostage by Moscow, Ukraine needs the ability to win at sea.

Although late in coming, longer-range American rockets may help arrest Russia’s advance in the Donbas. But on the Black Sea, newly arriving Danish Harpoon missiles will not make a difference against Russia’s two-dozen warships and civilian support ships without real-time targeting to guide them. Although some commercial satellite services are supporting Ukraine, they cannot provide the radar, visual, or infrared signatures and up-to-the-minute position data that missiles need to hit their targets rather than civilian ships. And even with usable targeting, the 70-mile Harpoon will only reach the approaches to Odessa’s ports, leaving Ukrainian vessels vulnerable as they transit the remaining 230 miles between Ukraine and Turkey’s Bosporus Strait.

A small supply of Harpoons will also not address the most significant challenge facing Ukrainian shipping-Russia’s four Improved Kilo submarines that remain in the Black Sea. Far from sitting on the sidelines, a Kilo reportedly launched cruise missiles last month that struck a Ukrainian training center in Lviv. Using their torpedoes or anti-ship missiles Kilos can deny access to Ukraine’s seaports.

In the absence of sensors and weapons that can reach across the Black Sea, the United States and other NATO allies are pursuing other paths to connect Ukrainian grain silos and factories to hungry nations abroad. But these routes, including rail lines and roads through Romania and Poland, can carry only a fraction of what could travel by sea and are hampered by differing rail standards, customs limitations and Russian attacks.

Instead of relying on work arounds, Ukraine needs to break Russia’s blockade. Although Putin has offered to restore Ukraine’s maritime access, the price in territory or sanctions relief may be high and he could restart the war without warning. The offer may also be a ruse to convince Kyiv’s forces to remove the mines around Odessa, allowing Russia to resume its amphibious operations in Ukraine’s south.

An option proposed by some European politicians and former US commanders is escorting Ukrainian commercial vessels through the Black Sea in a reprise of Operation Earnest Will during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. This approach is unlikely to pass muster with US or NATO leaders. Turkey would need to agree for outside warships to enter the Black Sea, which is now closed to military vessels of non-Black Sea nations. And given that merchant vessels have already been sunk off Ukraine’s coast, NATO and Russian forces are almost guaranteed to come into direct conflict, an escalation President Biden said he wants to avoid.

The United States and its allies should exploit their technological edge and Ukraine’s operational creativity in a new approach to escorting commercial vessels and clearing the blockade. Rather than putting warships and crews in harm’s way and risking a direct confrontation with Russia, NATO should enable Ukraine to arm unmanned aircraft like the MQ-1 Gray Eagle or MQ-9 Reaper reportedly being provided by the United States.

With their wider field of view and greater sensor accuracy, MQ-1s and MQ-9Bs could complement Ukraine’s existing fleet of Bayraktar TB2s to find Russian ships approaching shipping lanes and provide targeting to Harpoon and Neptune missile batteries ashore. Perhaps most importantly, these US-built drones could carry weapons able to damage Russian warships, such as GPS-guided bombs or laser-guided Hellfire missiles, and protect Ukrainian shipping beyond the reach of ground-based missiles from Odessa to the Bosporus.

US-provided unmanned aircraft could also help address the Black Sea submarine force. With no navy remaining, Ukraine lacks any anti-submarine warfare capability and Western patrol aircraft like the P-8A Poseidon would again bring NATO platforms and crews into direct conflict with Russian forces. MQ-9Bs could help Ukraine find submerged Russian Kilos near shipping lanes using sonobuoys. And although MQ-9Bs cannot yet launch torpedoes, guided bombs could be sufficient to ward off or damage a slow-moving diesel submarine in the Black Sea’s shallow waters.

The United States and NATO need to move from simply keeping Ukraine in the fight and help it present Putin with the possibility of losing at sea and ashore. As long as Moscow can hold Ukraine’s economy and the world food supply hostage, Putin will think he can always get a better deal. Showing Russia its blockade can be broken could cause the country’s leaders to realize a real end to the war is their best option.