Black Sea Flash Point

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) sails alongside Georgian coast guard ships in the Black Sea, 25 January, 2019.

As Turkey vacillates its affections between NATO and Russia, and since the Russian seizure of Crimea and military action in eastern Ukraine, naval patrols and exercises in the Black Sea have become an intense commitment.

Since the Russian annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, and its subsequent military operations in eastern Ukraine, the Black Sea, and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet based at the Crimea port of Sevastopol In particular, has become a focal point for the United States and its NATO allies.

The Black Sea

The Black Sea is a marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean between Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Western Asia. It is bordered by Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine. The 1936 Montreux Convention provides for a free passage of civilian ships between the international waters of the Black and the Mediterranean Seas. However, Turkey has complete control over the Bosporus strait connecting both seas. Military ships are a separate category from civilian ships and can only pass through the straits if the ship belongs to a Black Sea power. Other military ships have the right to pass through the strait if they are not in war against Turkey and they can stay in the Black Sea basin for a limited period of time. The 1982 amendments to the Montreux Convention allow Turkey to close the strait at its discretion in both wartime and peacetime.

In September 2016 the US Navy Secretary stated that the United States would maintain its presence in the Black Sea despite a Russian warning that US warships patrolling there undermined regional security. Turkey and Romania have continually pushed for a bigger NATO presence in the Black Sea. This has drawn heavy criticism from Moscow which countered by stating that Russian aircraft located in the region were capable of controlling the entire territory of the Black Sea.

For much of 2018, Russia detained and inspected commercial ships sailing for Ukrainian ports, which the United States claimed was further evidence of Russia’s ongoing attempt to destabilise and undermine Ukraine.

In February 2019 the US ballistic missile defence destroyer USS Donald Cook began her second deployment to the Black Sea conducting maritime inter-operability training with the Turkish frigate TCG Fatih during which they were shadowed by the Russian corvette Orekhovo-Zuevo and the intelligence gathering ship Ian Khurs. At the same time, one of the Russian Navy’s newest warships, the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate Admiral Essen entered the Black Sea from the eastern Mediterranean.

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet

All of the Russian Navy’s new Kilo-class diesel electric submarines armed with Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) are assigned to the Black Sea Fleet, along with the latest Buyan-M class corvette, the Vyshny Volochyok which entered service in May 2019 and two of six stealthy large patrol ships being built, the second of which, the Dmitry Rogachev, being commissioned in July 2019.

Dmitry Rogachev
The Russian Black Sea Fleet’s new stealthy large patrol ship, the Dmitry Rogachev.

The Black Sea Fleet aviation assets include two strike and reconnaissance regiments in Crimea equipped with Su-30SM and Su-24Ms fast jets while four Be-12PS flying boats are used for maritime patrol and SAR duties at Kacha. The airborne eyes of the Russian Navy belong to an ageing fleet of Ilyushin Il-38 turboprop anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. Prompted by the heightened East/West tension over Ukraine, an Il-38 modernisation programme is being undertaken that involves the installation of the new Novella-P-38 target, search and track system capable of detecting airborne targets at a distance of up to 90km and surface targets up to 320km. The system allows up to 32 targets to be kept in sight simultaneously. The Novella system is mounted on three short pylons above the cockpit while an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) turret is mounted under the nose.

The aircraft has a weapons payload of 9,000kg and the upgrades will enable the Il-38N to conduct additional roles to anti-submarine warfare (ASW), these will include anti-surface warfare (ASuW), electronic intelligence (ELINT) and search and rescue as well as ecological monitoring. Ilyushin is to deliver a total of 28 Il-38N aircraft to the Russian Navy by 2020.  The aircraft are being delivered to Yeish on the Black Sea coast for flight training, type conversion and operational use.

An upgraded Il-38N, NATO codename May, with the new Novella-P-38 target search and track system mounted above the cockpit.

Maritime Exercises

In addition to regular deployment by US Navy ships, NATO also regularly deploys its Standing Naval Forces (SNFs) to the Black Sea and takes an active part in regional multilateral maritime exercises. These include the multinational Mine Counter Measures (MCM) exercises Poseidon and Sea Shield 2019 in which Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG 2) and Standing NATO Mine Counter Measures Group 2 (SNMCMG 2) took part.

The largest maritime exercise held in the Black Sea is Sea Breeze co-hosted by Ukraine and the United States. Held in July, Sea Breeze 2019 (SB19) is designed to enhance interoperability of participating nations and strengthen maritime security and peace within the region, involved two weeks of intense training involving some 3,000 naval personnel, 32 ships and 24 aircraft from 18 countries including Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Exercise Breeze 2019
The largest maritime exercise held in the Black Sea during July, Sea Breeze involved two weeks of intense training for some 3,000 naval personnel, 32 ships and 24 aircraft from 18 countries.
Sea Breeze 2019 - Romania Photos
Georgian coastguard craft Ochamcheli trained with an Odessa State Border Guard Service of Ukraine patrol boat during Sea Breeze 2019.

US participation included the Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney, the expeditionary fast-transport ship USNS Yuma, a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, US Marines from Marine Rotational Force-Europe, Navy Underwater Construction Team UCT-1B, and members of the US Naval Forces Europe-Africa and U.S. 6th Fleet staff. The Royal Navy sent Type-45 destroyer HMS Duncan to take part in the exercise.

Sea Breeze 2019 - USS Carney (DDG 64) pulls into Odesa, Ukraine
US Navy destroyer USS Carney based at NS Rota in Spain took part in Exercise Sea Breeze 2019 in the Black Sea.

Training conducted during SB19 included maritime interdiction operations, air defence, special forces operations, ASW, damage control, search and rescue and amphibious warfare. The exercise was disrupted when the Russian guided missile destroyer Smetivy steamed into an area reserved for naval gunfire serials. The Russians claimed that the ship has problems with communications.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said that increase of NATO activities in the Black Sea entails risks to the security of the entire region: “Our positions are clear: any NATO efforts in the Black Sea region are senseless from a military point of view. They will not strengthen the security of either the region or NATO itself, but will be associated with additional military risks”.

Even before SB19 was completed, the Russian Black Sea Fleet began an exercise of its own involving 10 warships. They included large landing ships Caesar Kunikov and Azov, and the missile corvettes Orekhovo-Zuevo and Mirazh, Ivanovets, and Naberezhny Chelny. According to the Russian MoD the ship’s crews practiced joint navigation and other elements of naval training, the final stage of which the ships conducted missile and artillery firing.

Exercise Sea Breeze 2019
Ukrainian Navy Ka-226 practices a simulated rescue mission at Mykolaiv-Kulbakino during Sea Breeze 2019.
Sea Breeze 2019 - Romania Photos
The Russian-built Romanian Navy missile corvette, ROS Lastunel at Odessa during Exercise Sea Breeze 2019.
Exercise Sea Breeze 2019
USN P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft from Patrol Squadron (VP) 9 was one of 24 aircraft involved in Sea Breeze 2019.

Turkeys Strategic Position

Turkey, one of three Black Sea littoral states that belong to NATO, the other two being Bulgaria and Romania, occupies a pivotal strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean, Bosporus and Dardanelles which are at the gateway to the Black Sea. Turkey has the second largest military in NATO after the United States, but relations between the two counties and the alliance is at an all time low.

Turkey is seen to be closer to Russia than it is to NATO. It supports Russian intervention in Syria and is buying the Russian Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf long-and medium-range air defence missile system. These factors have resulted in the US imposing sanctions on the export of military equipment to Turkey including the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. Turkey has been a Level 3 Partner in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme, which resulted in the F-35 Lightning II, and it has a requirement for 98 F-35s.

Adding to the rift with the United States and NATO, a wide-ranging meeting held between the presidents of Russia and Turkey in August 2019 included discussions about increased aviation and space technology transfer and closer industrial co-operation between the two countries.

“We have introduced you to a whole chain of both military and civilian production,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the MAKS-2019 air show in Moscow. “This demonstrates not only Russia’s capabilities in the aerospace sector, but also demonstrates the possibilities of co-operation. We know about your plans for high-tech development of the economy in Turkey. We could combine our efforts in those areas that are most in demand,” Putin added.

At the same time Turkey is fully involved in participating and hosting multinational maritime exercises in and around the Black Sea. These include Exercise Ariadne hosted by Turkish Naval Forces Command and the Turkish-led Blue Whale exercise in the eastern Mediterranean focussed on anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The Turkish Navy’s participation in Blue Whale 2018 included four frigates, two corvettes, five submarines, a patrol ship and a replenishment ship as well as three maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) and six helicopters.

Turkey may yet prove to be the catalyst for bringing the Black Sea nations together where maritime security, the rule of law and international order are critical to economic prosperity and regional peace.

by David Oliver