At a NATO defense ministers meeting on October 12, representatives from Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania agreed to form a “trilateral initiative” to clear sea mines in the Black Sea. The operation, according to Bulgarian Defense Minister Todor Tagarev, aims to create a security belt for civilian shipping. At least six Bulgarian Navy ships and one Romanian Navy ship are involved in the demining operation.
UCMC reached out to Vice Admiral Serhiy Haiduk, Commander of the Ukrainian Navy in 2014-2016 for an expert look at Ukraine’s role in the Black Sea’s mining efforts…
I: What exactly is the goal of sea mining?
S: The goal of laying mines in water areas can vary: to complicate operations, to block basing points to prevent force deployment, to disrupt shipping and communications, to create separate elements of anti-landing defense of the coast, and to defeat the enemy. The latter is especially important if you lack firepower, such as missiles, bombers, and attack aircraft, or cruise missiles.
It is important to note that mining can take place not only at sea, but also on inland waterways. In the latter case, our main rivers are the Dnipro and the Danube.
Minefields can be active (placed in enemy-controlled waters) or defensive (used to complicate the enemy’s actions in our waters and along the coast).
Mine-artillery/rocket positions have historically been an important component of naval combat. That is, mining is carried out, and after the enemy ship is immobilized as a result of the explosion, artillery/missile weapons or aircraft are used to attack it.
I: What are the goals of Russia’s Black Sea mining after the start of a full-scale invasion?
S: The enemy’s intention is most likely to obstruct and prevent the deployment of Ukrainian naval forces to the Black Sea, as well as to disrupt maritime communications. Obviously, this raises the issue of civilian shipping. As a terrorist, the Russian Federation doesn’t care who is killed by the mines.
The use of mine weapons demonstrates that there is also a psychological factor at work here. Consider yourself a ship captain; knowing that the area you are sailing through is mine-hazardous, it creates additional psychological stress. It has an impact on both the crew and the shipowners. Businesses want to avoid the risk of losing both the cargo and the vessel.
Shipowners refuse to make journeys and provide sea transportation as a result of this psychological threat. This is a financial blockade. Under martial law, this is the work of the economy.
I: What factors can make mine action more difficult?
S: Of course, it’s important to know who’s laying the mines. After all, mine placements are always for a reason, and their effectiveness is calculated. Since the mine layers can be surface ships, supply vessels, aviation, submarines, and special operations forces (using special tows), a geographical assessment of the area is required.
Mines can be laid as single mines, in banks (a group of mines close together – ed. note), in mine lines, or in fields. In general, mine weapon users have a wide range of experience. It is difficult to find countermeasures to reduce the level of mine threat without assessing all of these factors.
For example, on the first day of World War II, Germany dropped aerial mines on the inner and outer corridors of Sevastopol. That is, mining was done solely to obstruct the forces at the basing points. Following that, the fleet becomes static, rendering it more vulnerable.
When I was on a training exercise in the Gulf of Mexico, the command post in charge of the mine countermeasures operation told me an interesting phrase. “This is where the Pinkertons gather.” Pinkertons are people who investigate and analyze how mines were built. This is because there are a variety of mine placement characteristics depending on who is placing the mines – a surface ship, a submarine, or airborne mines on parachutes. All of this must be considered when carrying out demining operations.
Depth geography is also extremely important. Bottom mines, for example, can be installed at depths of up to 60 meters. Bottom mines are mines that have a negative buoyancy and are placed on the seafloor. Anchor mines are placed at greater depths; they float to a certain depth while remaining attached to the anchor. There are many different types of mines, and all of this must be considered.
And of course, you must consider the differences in mines based on the explosive charge.
I: Are Ukraine and its partners aware of Russia’s mining operations in the Black Sea?
S: Naturally, this information is highly classified. Minefield data is classified as “Top Secret” or “Special Importance.” That is, only a small number of people are aware of the general plan for mine placement in a specific water area. Those who lay mines have only information about their area of demining activities. This means that the overall picture of mining in the theater of operations is not revealed.
I: Is the use of international mine action groups an innovative solution to the problem?
S: The establishment of a NATO mine action group is years of experience. A similar practice exists in the northern seas, where the Benelux countries maintain a joint minesweeping squadron comprised of forces from each country. They work together to ensure mine safety.
A similar experience can be found in the Mediterranean. This is a squadron of minesweepers from France and Italy. The US Navy has greater potential. They use trawler helicopters in addition to ships. Mother ships are ships with a large displacement because a minesweeper is a small ship in terms of displacement and its autonomy is insufficient for long operations at sea.
As a result, the process is ensured by a support ship from which they refuel and replenish supplies, allowing them to continue performing their tasks without returning to their point of basing. This procedure is widely accepted in NATO member countries.
I: Can Ukraine participate in the NATO Black Sea demining operation?
S: Of course, Ukraine could participate in such an operation. I’ve cleared mines from the First and Second World Wars, as well as modern mines in the Black and Azov Seas. This is a very complex and multifaceted process.
It is critical not to repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union. “Allegro with Fire” showed how the German mines near Sevastopol were cleared at the expense of the lives of dozens of sailors.
Our specialists could certainly participate as operators of underwater drones or hydroacoustic stations, and officers could help plan such actions. This experience is desperately needed. Our two minesweepers Chernihiv and Cherkasy, which are currently unable to get into the Black Sea, are classified as hunters of mines (Minehunters)
Divers work to further examine objects discovered beneath the water column, lay charges, and defuse mines is another area.
This is something that could be organized now, without the need for minesweeping ships, and practiced on NATO ships in the Black Sea.
I: So training of personnel is of particular importance for Ukraine?
S: Mine action is a special and very difficult type of combat. We need to understand that they require very comprehensive support. This includes navigation, hydroacoustic and space support. Because it is necessary to use differential GPS, which is accurate to meters. A simple GPS with an error of tens of meters is not suitable for such operations.
We also need air cover for the minesweeping forces, because they do not have enough air defense equipment. We also need radio communications support, i.e., the use of coastal navigation control stations.
I: You said that Ukraine cannot repeat Soviet demining practices. What are the current requirements for these types of operations at sea?
S: They are based on remote detection and demining methods. First, hydroacoustics is used, then the detected object is classified, because it can be a rock or a mine at the bottom. Next, remote control devices are used. These drones are equipped with spotlights, video cameras, and localized hydroacoustics. The operator on the ship can accurately qualify the object found. There are drones that have manipulators and can place a charge on a mine for remote detonation. This is also the work of diving stations if necessary.
Mines are detonated in different ways. Drifting mines are destroyed by incendiary means. Mines located in the water column are detonated electrically. Americans use technology to raise mines from the bottom. With the help of blown balloons, positive buoyancy is created and the balloon rises to the surface with the mine and then drifts to the shore where a demining site is deployed.
These are all complicated procedures, but they are based on the idea of remote demining. We work with the intent not to lose a diver or a miner. Unlike Soviet and, apparently, Russian standards. Although the Russians are also now studying and using this method.
I: Was the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s retreat from Crimea to Novorossiysk triggered by the Ukrainian forces’ operations in the area?
S: I think not. Such operations are conducted under the auspices of international organizations. It may be NATO or the European Union, but the basis is not a local goal, but the issue of international navigation. This is a higher-level issue: global security.
In the situation of Russia’s blocking of the Grain Initiative, a compromise was found. Be that as it may, the mine threat is not simply resolved. Seabed mines lie on the sea floor, but an anchor mine can be torn from its anchor. Then it floats, drifts and becomes a source of danger. Knowing the geography of the currents and the weather forecast (the direction of the waves), we can understand where the mines are coming from.
Here, there is a need to control not only the underwater environment, but also the surface environment. Believe me, it is not easy to detect such a mine with a very small effective reflective surface.
I: Can the demining operation of Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey be transformed into a permanent mission?
S: It depends on the level of the mine threat at sea. Mine-sweeper support can be permanent. That is, two minesweepers are taken, a caravan of ships is lined up behind them, and they lead them from Romania to Bulgaria and so on. If the threat is not too great, then reconnaissance is simply conducted in the air and on the water, and the focus is on identifying small targets.
I: There were reports from the Romanian Chief of General Staff that for some time in late summer and early fall, the Russian Federation jammed GPS signals in Romanian territorial waters, thus endangering civilian shipping. To what extent can this be regarded as a direct provocation by the Russian navy and is it an effective tactic to counteract shipping activities?
S: What is war at sea? It is a kind of testing ground where new tactical techniques and new weapons are practiced. Any demining method is a good means to achieve the goal. This suppression of the space channel is just a tactic of counteraction. They also use the topic of disabling the so-called AIS. Automated information systems for identifying the position of ships at sea to carry out illegal actions.
This is a mandatory requirement for civilian vessels in the international system of search and rescue at sea. They must be enabled at all times for safety reasons. This is an international standard for the safety of human life at sea. The Russians ignore this because of smuggling, and sanctions issues are very relevant to them.
I: According to the Montreux Convention, non-Black Sea countries can only send warships of a certain class to the Black Sea. Could NATO’s Mediterranean Mine Countermeasures Squadron participate in this operation?
S: I think this is more of a political question. Firstly, the forces in Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria are sufficient to reduce the level of mine security. Secondly, I am more inclined to believe that the countries of the Black Sea region want to solve their own problems by themselves.
Moreover, this was manifested earlier in the formation of BlackSeaFor, which, before the start of open aggression, included Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and NATO countries. The goal was to fight terrorism and illegal transportation, as well as to counter the mine threat. Until 2014, this initiative was working, in particular, mine safety issues were being worked out jointly.
I: Navy Commander Oleksiy Neizhpapa said that after the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant was blown up, many landmines were washed into the Black Sea. Is the task of clearing them more difficult?
S: In my experience, if you take the Kyiv Sea, it is very silted up. In fact, it is almost impossible to find an explosive object under a meter and a half layer of silt. You need to break through it, and even if you do and find a metal object, it’s not a given that you’ll be able to defuse it.
The Kaniv Reservoir is a different matter, because it has a more favorable seabed. It is much more comfortable to work with sand and shells. Last year, we raised a military aircraft with ammunition there. Divers and gunners are more comfortable there.
Mines washed away by water as a result of a dam explosion cannot cause serious damage, but they do pose a certain danger. Especially in the context of the fact that work is underway to deepen the sea floor in this region. Therefore, when they dredge up soil to increase the depth of the fairway for civilian vessels, they can also pull out anti-landing ammunition with the sand. This poses a danger to the people who carry out these works.
I: So this is a very much a problem which will go on for a while?
S: In general, the experience of the Ukrainian Navy shows that the process of demining the Black and Azov Seas and rivers takes decades, not even years. Now we are washing away mines from the First and Second World Wars. They are constantly being found.
The problem of mines will be around for a very long time. Therefore, it is necessary to approach this issue very systematically and exclusively with safe demining methods to save lives.
The interview was conducted by Anton Khimiak, analyst at HWAG/UCMC