Ukraine’s deputy Foreign Minister Andrij Melnyk called on Germany in a series of tweets to provide a class 212A submarine and a 32 years old decommissioned frigate Lübeck to Ukraine. Even though it was an important call, the issue was not covered as extensively as delivering fighter jets to Ukraine. In another tweet, Melynk also backed his proposal with his “personal experience” in 2008 when he visited one submarine in Germany. An admiral allegedly told him that Ukraine could “keep the Russian Black Sea Fleet in check” with one sub. This commentary will unpack these proposals and claims from a naval perspective.
First, there is a massive distinction between having a sophisticated naval asset and operating it successfully. The sinking of Moskva clearly indicated that even for experienced nations, it is very demanding to operate a warship in wartime. Unlike land and air assets, warships require a well-trained crew and technical personnel for weapons, radars, sensors, engines, damage control systems, radio systems, etc.
A frigate typically has a crew of 200 hundred sailors. It can take years to train your crew for this type of platform. Besides, they must be trained in the specific class ship, not in any frigate or submarine. For instance, even though they are both produced by NATO countries, you cannot completely transfer personnel from an American Perry-class frigate to a German MEKO class. Each system on these warships is very complicated to operate and maintain, in war times in particular.
Even if you implement a very rapid training programme and successfully navigate the ship, this does not mean you can man the stations and apply proper warfighting capabilities. It is a delicate teamwork, and the sum of individual capabilities and knowledge is less than a real crew. Therefore, you must transfer the crew along with the warships since you cannot train your sailors in a short time.
Second, you profoundly need to consider CONOPS (Concept of Operations), i.e. how these naval assets will fit into the navy’s or military’s overarching strategy. Which missions will be assigned to this frigate or submarine? What kind of command structures, land stations, communications architectures, and shipyards will you need?
Third, running a frigate or submarine requires additional personnel for maintenance, repairs, and logistics, as well as spare parts, munitions and so on. An old frigate will likely break down more often and demand frequent maintenance.
Last but not least, Turkey closed the Straits to the belligerents of war, citing article 19 of the Montreux Convention. Unless you dismantle the ship and transfer via land or air, you cannot dispatch the ship during wartime.
Consequently, delivering a frigate or submarine to Ukraine is not a feasible and helpful idea. Having a warship, operating it, and warfighting are very different things. You cannot kick out the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which consisted of 12 warships, by simply having a German sub or an old frigate. Instead, the discussion should be focused on boosting Ukraine’s A2AD capabilities by providing more anti-ship missiles, maritime and air drones, and coastal surveillance systems.