Russia–Ukraine: Putin’s Amphibious Options Are Limited

U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE

While Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has amphibious forces it could use against Ukraine, winter weather, distance, beach topography, and the size and age of the force make amphibious landings risky.

Defense and intelligence professionals are discerning possible war plans should Russia invade Ukraine. A Ukrainian assessment in late November predicted Russia might invade via multiple land axes coming north from Belarus towards Kiev, west from Russia towards the Dnepr River, and south from occupied Crimea towards Kherson Oblast, which controls a fresh-water canal to the peninsula. Chief of Ukrainian Defense Intelligence, Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, also predicted that a Russian invasion would include amphibious assaults on the ports of Odessa and Mariupol. How feasible is that threat?

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet could establish sea control, the first prerequisite of amphibious operations, and the 810th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade would serve as its landing force. The Fleet’s amphibious lift is provided by the 197th Assault Ship Brigade with three Alligator- and four Ropucha-class landing ships.  With reinforcement by the Ropucha-class landing ships Korolev and Minsk from Russia’s Baltic Fleet, this provides an amphibious lift capability of approximately two naval infantry battalion tactical groups (BTGs).1  Eight smaller amphibious craft moved last year from the Caspian to the Black Sea.  However, this only increases the Black Sea Fleet’s amphibious lift capability by approximately four tanks and six armored fighting vehicles—a two platoon-sized mechanized company.

Several factors limit the Black Sea Fleet’s amphibious options. First, Ukraine’s coast is characterized by high ground and cliffs to the shoreline with limited beach exits and has few suitable beaches for a mechanized amphibious assault force. Coastal areas not bounded by cliffs are urbanized. These towns, if properly defended, would be difficult to fight through for a landing force going immediately from a beach assault to urban combat in a matter of meters.

Hydrography restricts operations against Mariupol. Vessels must first transit the Strait of Kerch, a narrow passage requiring pilot assistance, and then the Sea of Azov, the world’s shallowest sea with an average depth of 8 meters.

beach
Many of the beaches Russian amphibious forces would need to cross in the Ukraine present challenges for landing forces, including this one near Mariupol. Credit: photo courtesy of the author

The next challenge is weather. The Sea of Azov’s winter climate is influenced by the Siberian Anticyclone. January temperatures average between -1 and -5 °C and can decrease to -30 °C due to Siberian winds. The sea’s low salinity and shallowness favor the formation of ice during the winter.  Rough seas, ice along beaches, and wind chill conditions have hindered amphibious operations here before. A Force 8 gale and -20 °C temperatures stalled a Soviet amphibious operation across the Strait of Kerch in December 1941.2

Similar challenges are found near Odessa.  Its coastline consists of narrow beaches abutting sand-cliffs, but there are some limited landing sites to its northeast between Dofinivka Beach and Grigorevskii Beach near the town of Paluba—approximately 18-25 road miles from Odessa.  An estuary at Paluba contains Odessa’s industrial port with docking facilities for cargo ships and a commercial fuel storage capacity. This would provide a protected anchorage and wharfs for vessels to off-load supplies.

Rapid generation of forces ashore and logistics are the linchpins of any amphibious operation.   Two Russian BTGs landing northeast of Odessa could secure a beachhead but not take the city of a million. Depending on beach unloading times, weather, and reloading times back at Sevastopol, landings ships would need over 24 hours after H-Hour to bring a second wave of troops to the beachhead. This cycle must repeat itself again before the entire 810th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade with army reinforcements has landed. Its advance would depend on the rate that other shipping brings and unloads supplies to sustain the force.

Clausewitz’s “friction” in war lurks close by any amphibious operation. For the first week, Russian naval amphibious ships built between 1966 and 1990 would have to operate at a nearly continuous pace with hardly any time to rest men or machines. Mechanical breakdowns, storms, difficulties loading or unloading ships, groundings and collisions are all possible elements of friction. Ukrainian air and missile strikes could add to that friction. With an amphibious shipping capacity in single digits, the loss of one ship is a major blow. The loss of two or more would be catastrophic.

To control the air and prevent such losses, Russia would need to keep a continuous combat air patrol over the beachhead. The flight distance to Odessa from western Crimea is within range of Russian combat aircraft but leaves limited loiter time. A continuous stream of fighters would be taking off, circling the fleet, returning, landing, refueling, and rearming. It is an open question how long the Russian military could generate the sorties to support this.

Vagaries of weather and sea conditions, restrictions of hydrography and topography, limitations of amphibious lift, difficulties maintaining air superiority, and challenges of logistics all point to the risky nature of any Russian amphibious operation in the Black Sea. It would only take a few elements not in their favor to spell disaster and make any Russian amphibious operation against Ukraine a “Beach Too Far.”

https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2022/january/russia-ukraine-putins-amphibious-options-are-limited

5 comments

  1. Already in 2015, I saw fortified beaches at Mariupol. I’m sure that things have gotten much more professional there and along all exposed beaches in the country during the past six years. It would be grand to watch mafia land get a very bloody nose on Ukrainian beach heads.

    Liked by 4 people

    • In case i would control the UA military i could neutralize the invaders. I’m neither drunk nor crazy. The invaders don’t have the moralty/spirit to withstand our military defending their homes.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. A decent enough analysis, but the fact remains that it should never have been necessary in the first place. The Budapest signatories have had all these years to fortify Ukraine and make it virtually immune to the putinazis. Why haven they at least got a top notch air defence system and shitloads of javelins?
    Why haven’t they got squadrons of modern day air-to-ground attack planes and modem fighters?
    FFS pull your fingers out or forever be accused of reneging on the document that was supposed to prevent this scenario.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Because, to answer all your questions in a nutshell, the West has been led by complete buffoons who are attached to nose rings and have been and still are being led through the Ruskie arena. Only one Churchill or Reagan could have put a stop to this pathetic circus show, and this years ago already.

      Liked by 4 people

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