Forget Ukraine’s New Patrol Boats—Anti-Ship Missiles May Sink The Next Russian Invasion Fleet

David AxeContributorAerospace & Defense

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A Neptune test in June 2020.
UKRAINIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE

When Russian troops invaded Crimea in 2014, they quickly overran the Ukrainian navy’s port facilities and captured many of the fleet’s aging, Soviet-vintage ships. 

After the annexation was complete, Ukraine was left with just one large warship—the 404-foot-long frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy—plus a few dozen smaller boats.


Hopelessly outgunned by the much larger Russian navy, the Ukrainian navy launched a crash rearmament program involving several classes of gunboat. But it’s not the gunboats Russia should worry about during the next war with Ukraine—it’s the anti-ship missiles Kiev also is planning on buying.

The Ukrainian navy is acquiring no fewer than three types of gunboat. First is the locally-built Gyurza-M class. Kiev plans to build 20 of the 75-feet-long gunboats, each armed with two 30-millimeter cannons, but as of 2020, it has completed just seven. Two of the boats spent two years in Russian impound following an incident along the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait connecting the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov in November 2018. 

Meanwhile Washington donated to Kiev, as part an overall $1.5-billion aid package, two ex-U.S. Coast Guard Island-class patrol boats—110 feet long with a single 25-millimeter cannon—plus two Mark VI gunboats, each 85 feet long with two 25-millimeter guns.

And in June, the Pentagon announced the possible sale of 16 additional Mark VIs for $600 million. Kiev and Washington also are in talks to transfer another three Islands.

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Once all the boats arrive, the Ukrainian navy’s front-line fleet could include a single frigate and several dozen modern patrol boats. 

But even that expanded force is no match for the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet with its cruiser, destroyer, five frigates, seven submarines and two dozen patrol boats. Not to mention any reinforcements the Russian navy might send through the Bosporus Strait into the Black Sea.

Realistically, no one expects the Ukrainian navy directly to engage the Russian fleet during wartime. That’s not what Kiev’s fleet is for. Instead, all those patrol boats represent mobile nodes in a maritime-domain-awareness system that also includes on-shore observation posts, ground-based radars and small unmanned aerial vehicles.

In other words, the boats are part of a sensor network. And that sensor net soon could feed data to a force of road-mobile anti-ship missile systems. It’s the missiles, not the patrol boats, that Russia should worry about. 

After all, missiles don’t care where they launch from. If launching anti-ship weapons from land is cheaper and easier for Ukraine than is deploying a fleet of vulnerable missile frigates, why wouldn’t Ukraine forgo a pricey shipbuilding scheme in favor of buying cheap trucks packing somewhat-less-cheap cruise missiles?

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Ukraine’s own Luch Design Bureau is developing the R-360 Neptune missile and associated equipment. Test-firings began in 2019. Trials continued in June.

Neptune is “designed to destroy cruiser, destroyer, frigate, corvette, landing, tank-landing and transport ships, which operate both independently and as part of naval task force and landing detachments, as well as radio targets, in simple and complex meteorological conditions at any time of day and year, with active fire and electronic warfare measures of the enemy,” the Ukrainian government stated.

The stealthy, radar-guided Neptune can strike ships as far away as 175 miles, meaning Ukraine can hold at risk, from its own territory, roughly half of the Black Sea. Depending on how many Neptune batteries Ukraine deploys, it could turn the region into an inescapable missile trap for Russian ships.

“Neptune missiles are a promising Ukrainian development and, if mass production is launched, can become a significant deterrent,” the Ukrainian government stated.

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David Axe

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