Ukraine’s new naval doctrine: a revision of the mosquito fleet strategy or bureaucratic inconsistency?

Frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy, the flagship of the Ukrainian Navy. Photo: mil.in.ua 

Ukraine

Article by: Ihor Kabanenko

For Ukraine, which lost more than 70 percent of its naval assets after Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea, the ability to effectively deter and adequately respond to further aggressive Russian actions at sea is extremely important. The crucial nature of properly addressing this threat was reconfirmed earlier this spring (March–April 2021), amidst the buildup of Russian heavy military forces around Ukraine’s borders, which notably included the deployment of offensive units to Crimea as well as the strengthening of its naval forces in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov (see EDM, April 13, 27 [1][2][3], May 3).

In November 2018, Kyiv adopted the “Strategy of the Naval Forces of Ukraine Until 2035” (Navy.mil.gov.ua, January 1, 2019). This planning document outlined the formation of a so-called “mosquito fleet” as a priority until 2030.

The concept of a mosquito fleet dictates a way of thinking and real actions that, in the condition of symmetrical power superiority of the enemy at sea, make it possible to restrain it asymmetrically and conduct effective countermeasures to its aggressive actions. This was a logical decision because, even in the long run, Ukraine would be unlikely to achieve ​​symmetrical parity with Russia at sea (see EDM, March 9, 2017February 21, 2019July 22, 2020).

Last March, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy approved a new “Military Security Strategy” for Ukraine. This document identifies a number of fundamental aspects of ensuring national security in the military sphere. In particular, the Strategy first calls for abandoning all efforts to achieve military parity with the Russian Federation, which would lead to an excessive militarization of the state and, accordingly, a depletion of the national economy. Second, it recommends better coordinating the resources of the national economy with defense capabilities development planning. And third, the document lays out ways of restructuring Ukraine’s defense forces to ensure they can quickly deploy to threatened areas and conduct preventive, unpredictable, asymmetric, and innovative actions so as to neutralize the numerical and technological advantage of the enemy (Rada.gov.ua, March 25).

Notably, the following month, the Ministry of Defense announced the approval of the “Doctrine of the Naval Forces of Ukraine,” which emphasizes building (or acquiring/receiving, within the framework of international technical assistance) missile boats, landing ships of various classes, patrol ships and boats, minesweepers, small submarines, unmanned underwater vehicles, and auxiliary vessels. In addition, the Doctrine provides for more robust development of the coastal defense forces and naval aviation. However, the document makes absolutely no reference to the asymmetric mosquito fleet concept—even though this was determined to be a priority by the “Strategy of the Development of the Naval Forces of Ukraine Until 2035” (Ukrinform.ua, April 29).

In other words, the April 2021 “Doctrine of the Naval Forces of Ukraine,” in contrast to the November 2018 “Military Security Strategy and the Strategy of the Naval Forces of Ukraine Until 2035,” does not focus on asymmetry; the later document instead calls for ambitious symmetric decisions and actions.

The 2021 naval doctrine does not say a word about budgetary resources for these purposes, which, according to expert estimates, would require multiple increases in defense allocations. In conditions when the government of Ukraine does not plan such budgetary hikes, the question remains: from where will the resources be redirected to satisfy the ambitions laid out by the April 2021 naval doctrine?

A number of experts agree that Ukraine should solve the acute problem of securing its open sea flanks as soon as possible. And they are convinced that the optimal way to achieve this goal is by creating a balanced mosquito fleet consisting of fast combat boats of multiple classes (Zn.ua, April 24, 2020, Day.kyiv.ua, April 28, 2020, Mil.in.ua, December 1, 2020, Rada.gov.ua, January 28). Ukraine has already received two Island-class patrol boats from the United States, and three more of these former Coast Guard cutters will be transferred to Odesa in the near future (Ukrinform.ua, March 12).

Nonetheless, the number of “mosquito” boats that are planned to be delivered to Ukraine as part of the US’s military-technical assistance programs is not enough to create robust naval mosquito capabilities. Under these conditions, Kyiv could focus on purchasing additional US Mark VI multipurpose, high-speed patrol boats with enhanced weapons, which are already extremely important for Ukraine’s maritime security. An alternative option could be for the US military-technical assistance programs to supply preexisting Ukrainian mosquito fleet platforms with weapons and equipment (especially high-precision short-range missiles, universal drones and combat-control systems) compatible with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) standards.

In addition, it is important to note that, in accordance with the defense policy of Ukraine, the naval doctrine document is a set of provisions regarding the purpose, use and role of the Naval Forces in protecting the interests of Ukraine. It should, thus, be based on the laws of Ukraine, the latest adopted military security strategy, and other state regulations. The navy doctrine should not cover the development of the Naval Forces, since this is the function of the “Strategy for Naval Forces Development Until 2035,” which was specifically adopted more than two years ago as part of Ukraine’s implementation of the well-known principle of NATO Mission Command. Relatedly, it is advisable for Ukraine to develop its military doctrines in line with relevant NATO doctrines (Nato.int, accessed May 10), which specifically emphasize joint and integrated operations on land, sea or air.

The Constitution of Ukraine explicitly sets the course for NATO membership. The goal of gaining membership in the North Atlantic Alliance is also included in the Law on the National Security of Ukraine (Zakon.rada.gov.ua, April 24). And achieving the necessary criteria for NATO membership is a priority of the Ukraine-NATO Annual National Programs (ANP) (KMU.gov.ua, February 9). Given this, maintaining logical consistency between the “Doctrine of the Naval Forces of Ukraine,” the “Military Security Strategy of Ukraine,” the “Strategy for the Development of the Naval Forces of Ukraine Until 2035,” as well as relevant NATO doctrinal documents and the NATO Smart Defense approach (Nato.int, February 20, 2017) would go a long way toward facilitating Kyiv’s goal of one day joining the Alliance.

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