Time To Give Ukraine Cruisers
I have a plan to give Ukraine a fleet capable of breaking Russia’s criminal blockade, allowing badly needed food exports to resume.
The war in Ukraine is an absolute nightmare for the global food system, with serious and escalating knock-on impacts that will only get worse unless something changes, and soon.
One of the first Russian military efforts at the start of its criminal invasion was to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea. This has been an essential aspect Putin’s plot to destroy Ukraine from day one, because shipping goods over water remains far more efficient than sending them by rail.
This was why the now-sunk cruiser Moskva was immediately dispatched to Zmiinyi Island, what most in the Anglosphere calls Snake Island, to take control of it before Ukraine could reinforce its border garrison. This island acts as a gateway to Ukraine’s main ports, and if Putin’s orcs are able to install defense systems of sufficient power it will be nearly impossible to remove them.
It is becoming clear that Moscow knew a food crisis was likely when the war began and incorporated one into its long-term planning. Global inflation caused by everyone having to shift supply chains puts direct pressure on the United States and most NATO members, undermining support for Ukraine in the long run.
Russia’s blockade is a direct violation of international law that the United States and NATO refuse to contest. Laws pertaining to ships and shipping are some of the oldest and, unusually for international relations, widely respected rules in the world, which is why the USA makes a big deal about maintaining “freedom of navigation” in international waters.
This right is why the US so often sends ships through the Taiwan Strait and parts of the South China Sea the People’s Republic of China claims. So it is has been painfully ironic to watch the past three months as Putin’s genocidal assault on Ukraine kills thousands of civilians and sends global food prices into the stratosphere.
This dangerous precedent will have an impact on American diplomacy elsewhere, and the fact the US and NATO are clearly so fearful of intervening will not be missed by threatened allies like Taiwan. Put bluntly, it is simply criminal that no one is doing anything to block Russia’s illegal blockade. For all the big talk about stopping Russia and beating Putin, cowardly leaders like Biden are still too afraid of Putin’s nuclear arsenal to stand on longstanding principles of international law.
They’ll pay a hefty price for this, sooner or later —but for now, what matters is breaking Russia’s blockade of Ukraine so food exports can resume.
That being said, there is one good reason why NATO and the US have done so little so far — a piece of international law called the Montreaux Convention. This protocol governs what ships can move through the Turkey-controlled straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and allows Turkey to ban the passage of all military vessels operated by foreign powers in times of war.
That’s why neither Russia nor NATO can send warships into the Black Sea right now. This severely limits any international military effort to lift the blockade of Odesa, but also prevents Russia from replacing Moskva with one of its two sister ships, presently near Russia’s rented naval base in Syria.
But as world food prices skyrocket on the wings of an epic global food crisis, the world can’t stand by and let Ukrainian grain rot in silos. Even if Putin relents and allows some ships to move, the danger posed by mines and Russian weapons on Zmiinyi Island are likely to keep ships stuck in port because they can’t get insurance.
Leaders in some countries, like Lithuania, are calling for an international effort to escort ships safely out of the conflict zone as the US Navy did during the Persian Gulf tanker wars of the 1980s. This is an excellent idea, but likely impractical because of Turkey’s restrictions on warship movements. And these need to remain in place to stop Russia from reinforcing its Black Sea Fleet.
Yet there’s a solution to this frustrating conundrum, and it’s dead simple.
The United States Navy must be authorized by Congress to immediately transfer a fleet of cruisers and the funds needed to sustain them in action for two years not to Ukraine or any other country… but to me. :)
Or, more accurately, to a non-profit organization I’ll set up, named comething cool like Black Sea Vikings Incorporated, overseen by a board willing to commit to full transparency, unlike private sector security organizations.
Our mission? Take ownership of six Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers the United States Navy aims to retire by 2024: Bunker Hill, Mobile Bay, Antietam, Leyte Gulf, San Jacinto, and Lake Champlain.
After a period of refitting and training in the Black Sea this summer, they will be placed under the control of Ukraine’s military while in international waters. Once ready, the ships will enter Ukrainian territorial waters and support an operation to retake Snake Island from Russia, securing Ukraine’s coast against further Russian attacks.
So, about these cruisers— back in the Cold War, if it ever went hot, the US Navy intended to sail a quartet of supercarriers carrying several hundred strike jets up into the Arctic to lay waste to Russian military facilities on the Kola peninsula. The Soviet response to this threat was classically Russian: deploy a hundred bombers capable of launching a swarm of cruise missiles that would overwhelm the fleet’s air defenses and put holes in all the carriers.
[ Quick Gamer side note: The old wargame Harpoon, co-designed by Larry Bond, who with Tom Clancy was the co-author of the novel Red Storm Rising, let me wargame this out from both sides hundreds of times as a teenager. If you ever wanted a tutorial in how American supercarriers are little more than expensive fireworks displays nowadays, do check it out.
And a book side note as a bonus: Red Storm Rising basically predicted what the war in Ukraine has actually looked like from the perspective of the individual on the battlefield. Yet more proof that creators really can predict the future :) ]
The Ticonderogas were specifically built to stop these massive Soviet cruise missile strikes. They were equipped with a powerful radar system and battle management software known as Aegis, armed with up to 122 long-range surface to air missiles in (except for the first batch, now retired) vertical launch systems. These innovations have become almost standard in modern warship design, and even China’s recent builds look much more like the Ticos than the top-heavy Slava class the Soviets were producing at the time… its lead ship was the Moskva.
Ukraine faces overwhelming numbers of Russian combat aircraft and is subjected to a daily barrage of cruise missiles — many launched from the Black Sea. So it stands to gain immensely from ownership of dedicated air defense ships like these. Ukraine’s coastline from Odesa to Romania spans about 160km, or 80 nautical miles. The base model RIM-66 Standard missiles that comprise the cruisers’ main armament have a range of around 75km, meaning that a single ship positioned near the halfway point can cover nearly the entire stretch.
Now, critics are sure to point out that, in US service, these cruisers have also been used to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles, an unambiguously offensive weapon. But, just like the rocket launchers the ever-fearful Biden Administration has been so reluctant to give to Ukraine, claiming their range gives them ability to strike Russia (though that’s technically true of rocks, as the two countries share a border, Joe), the launcher is only as good as its ammunition.
In both cases, you simply don’t give Ukraine long-range land attack missiles, and all is well. A simple solution for a mostly made-up problem.
Ukraine’s security requires a fleet of vessels capable of stopping Russia from threatening the Odesa region’s coastline. Transferring six cruisers to Ukraine with VLS cells full of surface to air missiles cannot be construed as a threat to Russia or even an escalation. These ships’ other weapons — Harpoon anti-ship missiles, a pair of 5-inch (127mm) guns, short range anti missile defenses, torpedoes, and up to two support helicopters — are not categorically different than anything else Ukraine is being sent and pose no threat to Russian territory.
Basically, old American cruisers without land attack missiles are defensive weapons, plain and simple. They are an ideal solution for protecting Ukraine from attack and reopening its territorial waters to commercial shipping.
The only real impediment to sending naval vessels to Ukraine are A. finding ones someone is willing to part with; B. getting past the Montreaux Convention.
A is why I’m focused on the six Bunker Hill flight Ticos. Like any piece of equipment, ships wear out over time. The sea is an incredibly harsh environment, the salty air constantly trying to corrode away anything metal. Even the hull of a warship eventually wears out, and the older it gets the more costly it becomes to maintain.
The US Navy has been trying to divest itself of pretty much the entire cruiser fleet for a decade, because it needs newer ships designed to handle the next generation of threats. In fact, this year alone the Navy is planning to decommission a slew of cruisers from the class that are newer than the ones they’re set to eliminate because these were never modernized.
Truth be told, much of the US Cold War era Navy is in dire need of replacement, but Congress has long been obsessed with raw ship numbers. So it pushes back whenever the Navy wants to cut costs by retiring older hulls that are sucking down maintenance dollars in exchange for new construction.
You might think it strange that I’m suggesting giving a grip of worn-out cruisers to Ukraine, but remember: a ship that can’t safely go to sea can still use its radars and defense systems when moored in port. The RIM-66 Standard is the Navy’s equivalent of the more famous Patriot and is very reliable. It and the Aegis system that controls it would make even laid up vessels powerful fixed air defense batteries.
And just because the U.S. Navy doesn’t see a financial benefit in paying the maintenance costs to squeeze another year or two out of the ships, does not mean Ukraine would see the costs quite the same way. U.S. Navy ships have to be prepared to sail thousands of nautical miles on routine patrols where having to return to base causes a serious headache for naval planners. If Ukraine is able to maintain just two of the six cruisers at sea while another pair was in port for repairs but with their air defense systems active, the entire coastline would be well covered.
Ukraine can simply wear out the cruisers over the next year or three or however long they can sustain operations. Not having to sail more than a few hundred kilometers on any given cruise, the vessels should stay useful for quite some time. Plenty of less wealthy countries have a long history of buying old warships and giving them a new lease on life, in fact former US Navy vessels built in the 1960s are still serving in navies across the world.
Ukraine doesn’t need a navy capable of blockading Crimea or even leaving home waters, it simply has to make sure that no Russian ships, aircraft, or submarines can attack shipping. Six cruisers, two on constant patrol for the next few years, achieves this objective, because their anti-submarine warfare suites and Harpoon anti-ship missiles are nearly as potent as their air defenses.
Especially if they are operating within range of friendly land-based anti-ship missiles, it will be extremely difficult for Russia to hit them unless it relies on its hypersonic arsenal. And that assumed they even work as billed against moving, maneuvering targets near a complex radar background.
Sending a fleet of cruisers to Ukraine is the very definition of a win-win for the good guys and their bumbling half-ally
- U.S. Navy gets to cut costs and hopefully get funding to boost production of the new Arleigh Burke Flight III destroyers, which are more capable than the cruisers anyway.
- Ukraine gets a coastal system that all but guarantees Russia can never hope to land near Odesa, and cover to clear the coast of mines so civilian shipping can safely resume.
This is a vital lifeline to the rest of the world Ukraine absolutely must have to ensure its national security now and into the future.
As for obstacle B, that’s somewhat easier to bypass because the Montreaux Convention only applies to sovereign states and their warships.
What the United States Navy needs to do is transfer the cruisers — once suitably scrubbed of classified gear — to a third party: Black Sea Vikings Inc. Organized as a public non-profit organization overseen by a board comprised of Ukrainian and American members, BSVI will classify the cruisers as privately owned “large maritime security vessels” so Turkey can’t object on Montreaux grounds: they won’t be warships, or owned by any sovereign state.
Having a third party effect the transfer also achieves something else of importance, given Russian threats to attack anyone supplying Ukraine: plausible deniability to the provider nation.
Unlike a land border, no one is responsible for stopping unauthorized movement into territorial waters except the State that claims them. So if some private party chooses to run the Russian blockade of Odesa, Russia has no justification for coming after their equipment’s country of origin.
What BVSI will do is simple: with the authorization of the United States Congress and sufficient financial backing to maintain operations for two years, we’ll take ownership of six cruisers set to retire in the next few years and recruit crews to sail them to the port of Constanta, Romania. There the vessels will spend as many weeks as necessary working up to become combat capable, installing whatever off the shelf equipment is needed to make them ready to fight.
These crews will initially be drawn from former service members with experience on the Ticos. Across their four decades of service, the cruisers have been home to thousands of officers and enlisted personnel. Several hundred can surely be found to undertake one last cruise, where they will be paid to train a group of volunteers from Ukraine.
They will then train the trainers, teaching Ukrainian sailors on temporary assignment how to run the vessels. Given that Ukraine’s navy has been largely disabled, I’m sure a thousand or so personnel can be found willing to train to fight for their territorial waters on former US Navy cruisers.
And as soon as they are ready, the operation to get them into Ukrainian hands can begin: the recapture of Snake Island.
Ukraine has done an epic job of preventing Russia from entrenching too deeply in this strategic location. Taking out Moskva was clearly part of a broader effort, unfolding over many weeks, to contest this tiny yet crucial piece of real estate.
If Russia can deploy long-range surface to air and anti-ship missiles here, Ukraine risks being cut off from the sea forever. So Ukraine has been launching daring air strikes with Bayraktar drones and even Sukhoi fighters — the latter in a low-level raid that gave me shivers after spending hours as a kid defending Ukraine in Janes Navy Fighters. Like, seriously, if you haven’t seen this video you really should — these Ukrainian pilots are amazing.
Clearing Ukraine’s waters means doing something about Snake Island. Fortunately, the capabilities offered by six ex-American cruisers coupled with the aid Ukraine is finally starting to receive would make retaking the island with minimal casualties a distinct possibility.
Here’s how the operation goes:
Step 1: Prepare the cruisers. Once the vessels are crewed by enough trained Ukrainians, BVSI will be shocked, shocked to discover that Kyiv has ordered them to take control of these ships in international waters for the glory of Ukraine.
Step 2: Any BVSI employees who don’t wish to join Ukraine’s Navy or act as contractors are flown off by helicopter. The fleet turns and races north, preparing to enter Ukraine territorial waters just past where they meet Romania’s, south of the target island.
Step 3: Ukraine launches as intensive a series of sustained air strikes as it can on Snake Island. Drones, jets — whatever can be mustered will smash any anti-ship and SAM installations over the course of several hours as the cruisers approach.
Step 4: Artillery units — 155mm guns and possibly rocket systems if and when Ukraine finally gets them — operating from the Danube Biosphere Reserve also bombard the island. Their range is 40km, which is just enough to reach across the strait to suppress the defenders.
Step 5: The cruiser group enters Ukrainian waters, joined by minesweepers. They come to within 20km of Snake Island and begin shelling it with their 5-inch cannons. Aegis air defense systems active, they repel any Russian attempts to intervene from the air or underwater while Ukraine’s anti-ship missile systems ashore near Odesa ward against any surface ships moving in.
Step 6: Ukrainian special forces troops arrive by low-flying helicopter on the island, covered by the fire from the cruisers. They then proceed to retake it piece by piece, and once secure Ukraine can begin moving its own defensive systems ashore — including anti-ship missiles — to turn it into a fortress.
From here, two of the cruisers can patrol near the island while the others proceed to the port of Odesa with the minesweepers. Once a channel is clear and protected, Ukraine’s coastline will be secure, as Russia will be forced to deploy dozens of strike jets and hundreds of anti-ship missiles if it hopes to break the cruisers’ defenses.
Weapons that would be unavailable for use elsewhere. And in the attrition warfare Russia has resorted to to slowly force Ukraine out of Donbas, this matters.
Even if Russia was able to destroy the fleet, if that is to be these cruisers’ fate, this is a far better one than the scrapper’s torch. At least this way, they would go out forcing Russia to expend much of its fast-diminishing arsenal of precision weapons, and evacuating sailors would be close to friendly shores.
The pathetic fact that the Biden Administration, the self described defender of a rules-based international order, can’t find a way to stop an illegal blockade that risks the lives of millions of people means Ukraine’s defenders and true allies must find another way.
I call on the United States Congress to enact my Cruisers For Ukraine Act immediately. Give my organization a fleet of ships and enough funds to keep them operational for two years and I’ll relieve the Navy of a burden while protecting Ukraine and innocent people around the world.
Fail, and even more blood is on Western leaders’ hands. Stop playing Command and Conquer with Ukraine, politicians, and finally give it the means to protect itself.
Unless Ukraine’s access to the sea is restored and Putin’s attempt to blackmail the world defeated, a needless global famine may kill millions. Act now, Congress, and in three to four months Ukraine’s exports can continue again, unfettered by Russian hostility.
Putin loses. The world wins. It isn’t a difficult equation, even for Americans. And failure means direct complicity in all the misery that follows.