According to reports out of Ukraine, the U.S. is looking to offer the country an unknown number of currently mothballed Oliver Hazard Perry frigates in an attempt to help Kiev bolster its presence in the Black Sea and possibly around the entrance to the increasingly contested Sea of Azov. If Ukraine agrees to receive the ships, the transfer would occur through the Excess Defense Property program which commonly funnels surplus U.S. military gear to foreign allies.
Although the ships may come free of charge, there will be a cost to bring them up to whatever standard Ukraine and the U.S. have in mind. Before the U.S. Navy controversially passed over returning the retired Perry class frigates it still had to active service, it figured they could be brought back to an operational state to serve in rudimentary interdiction and basic sea control roles at a relatively low cost. Meanwhile, other navies around the globe have spent far more money successfully upgrading their second-hand Perry class frigates with enlarged hangar bays, updated sensors and combat systems, refreshed mechanics, and vertical launch missile systems. If Ukraine were to go this route, the revamped frigates would be the most advanced and capable assets in their fleet.
Currently, a single 25-year-old Krivak III class frigate, the Hetman Sahaydachniy (U130), represents the Ukraine Navy’s heaviest hitting ship. That vessel displaces 3,500 tons, while a Perry-class frigate displaces 4,200 tons, for a comparison. It’s also worth noting that no less than 17 ships were left behind when Russia annexed Crimea. It’s not clear what the condition of those vessels are today, but Ukraine is only interested in getting them back if they come along with its territory.
But regardless, as Russia becomes more belligerent in regional waters, Ukraine will need more vessels larger than the patrol boats it is producing indigenously today and the aging but hardy Perry class design could give them a much-needed boost in this regard.
As of September of 2017, there were ten Perry class frigates set aside for foreign sales and four more—some of the youngest of the Perry class production—set aside for sinking drills. One of these ships, the ex-USS McClusky (FFG-41) has already gone down.
Of the ten available for export, seven are said to be in the best condition. So a number of these ships could end up in Ukrainian hands—an act that Russia wouldn’t be pleased with.
Russia enjoys a massive naval advantage over Ukraine, with its increasingly capable Black Sea Fleet being stationed primarily in Sevastopol, located on the southern end of the Crimean Peninsula—a body of land that Russia illegally seized back in early 2014. The U.S. has had a near-constant naval presence in the Black Sea since that action, but that presence usually consists of one or maybe two surface combatants. Beyond operational demands elsewhere, the Montreux Convention limits how many vessels the U.S. Navy can deploy to the Black Sea at any given time and for how long. This is likely another reason for giving Ukraine Perry class frigates—they are a resident country on the Black Sea and are not subject to those limitations.
Russia has turned the nearly land-locked body of water into a super anti-ship engagement zone with layers upon layers of sea, air, undersea, and land-based anti-ship capabilities reaching out nearly to Turkey’s shore. So any ship, no matter how heavily armed, is under great threat while operating in the area.
The possible move to equip Ukraine with surplus American frigates comes as the U.S. has deployed F-15C/D Eagles to Ukrainian territory for the first time in decades and as the Trump administration approved the sale of large lots of Javelin anti-tank guided missiles as well as other offensive capabilities to Kiev. More advanced systems, possibly including Patriot surface-to-air missilescould be next.
The news also comes as Russia has been asserting itself far more aggressively in the waters off Ukraine, delaying hundreds of shipping vessels from reaching Ukraine and declaring the Sea of Azov, a shallow body of water that sits between Russia, Crimea and Ukraine and is connected at the southern end by the Kerch Strait, off-limits to international naval exercises. Russia has also been jamming and otherwise tampering with GPS signals over the region for some time as well.
There are growing fears that Russia will execute a sudden amphibious assaulton Ukraine’s port facilities on the Sea of Azov, namely in and around the city of Mariupol, with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stating the following at a military ceremony in Kiev last Sunday:
“We are getting ready to repel Russian aggression from sea in the Sea of Azov area. Powder should be kept ready.”
Not far from the shadow war raging in Eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian forces are actively training to repel such an attack from the sea, but when you consider just how much blunt military force Russia could unleash along their own borders, such a fight would be unthinkably bloody, to say the least. Grabbing Ukraine’s coastal territory on the Sea of Azov would connect Russia and its rebel proxy fighters in eastern Ukraine with Crimea and it would give Moscow full control of body of water.
Although these surplus ships aren’t likely to be able to save Mariupol from a Russian large amphibious assault, they can give Ukraine far more capability than they have today when it comes to controlling their own territorial waters and monitoring the waters farther out into the Black Sea.
We’ll report back when more details about the terms of the deal and what configuration Ukraine may want—or at least can afford—to receive the vessels in. That’s if they can afford to upgrade, man and operate the ships at all in the first place.