Sunday, 1 June 2014

How the Montreux Convention will shapes the deployment of maritime forces in the Black Sea

NATO is in need to rethink its Black Sea strategy with Russia’s military and maritime power growing every year, together with an assertive policy to confront NATO and reclaim its place on the geopolitical theater. If Russia’s military rise continues it will send more and more ships from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, thereby increasing Russia’s influence in the Middle East and diminishing NATO’s influence. If NATO decides to counter the Russians within the Black Sea it will face several problems imposed by the Montreux Convention.

“The Montreux convention regarding the regime of the Straits” is a 1936 agreement that gives Turkey control over the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles. An important part of this regime is that it restricts the passage of naval ships of countries not bordering the Black Sea. A number of highly specific restrictions were imposed on what type of warships are allowed passage. Non-Black Sea state warships in the Straits must be under 15,000 tons. No more than nine non-Black Sea state warships, with a total aggregate tonnage of no more than 30,000 tons, may pass at any one time, and they are permitted to stay in the Black Sea for no longer than 21 days.

Although the treaty is often cited as prohibiting aircraft carriers in the straits, there is no explicit prohibition on aircraft carriers in the treaty. However, the tonnage limits in Article 14, which apply to all non-Black Sea powers, would preclude the transit of modern aircraft carrying ships. In the case of non-Black Sea powers, these terms make it impossible for transit any modern ships carrying aircraft through the straits without violating the terms of the convention.

These rules are still applied today and they have already had far reaching consequences in naval deployment by both NATO and the Soviet Union and will have an impact on future naval deployment.

No role for carriers
As stated earlier, the Montreux convention sets the maximum tonnage for naval warships at 15.000 tons. This limitation prevents aircraft carriers to enter the Black Sea as their tonnage exceeds 15.000 tons. In a naval deployment of NATO against Russia this would leave NATO in a disadvantage as countries like the United States, Great Britain and France are all relying on aircraft carriers to project power and fight the enemy from a distance. Blue water navies that rely on carriers to form the basis of their tactical doctrines will be in a disadvantage as both fleets will be forced to fight with frigates and destroyers, leaving a slight advantage for the Russians who use these ships and a missile doctrine. There are however ways to deploy aircraft carriers in the Black Sea.

The most obvious way would be for Black Sea countries within the NATO alliance to build or acquire aircraft carriers. Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania lack the budgets, expertise and the technology to build aircraft carriers. Having Black Sea countries build carriers is not a solution.

The second approach would be to copy the Soviet solution. In the Soviet Union the shipyard that built the Soviet aircraft carriers was located in Nikolayev, Ukraine. To bypass the Montreux Convention the Soviet Union buildt large cruisers, capable of carrying a small contingent of aircraft. Not being an aircraft carrier in name, it did allow the Soviets to deploy their aircraft carrying cruisers outside the Black Sea.

NATO however doesn’t have any aircraft carrying cruisers and hasn’t the intention to start building them. Even when NATO would commit to such a project it will end up with a cruiser designed for either surface or submarine warfare that has aircraft deployment only as a secondary task. The amount of aircraft on these cruisers would also be too small to have any positive effect on a battle as these few planes can be destroyed by guided anti air missiles. 

Deploying aircraft from shore bases can give NATO maritime forces operating in the Black Sea some air cover. This air cover diminishes over distance. The further away from NATO countries, the less air support that can be delivered. Simultaneously a NATO maritime forces closing on Russia’s border finds itself under an increasing air threat of Russian airplanes.

These two large objections will make it very unlikely that in a NATO-Russia showdown in the Black Sea NATO can rely on its biggest and most powerful maritime asset, the aircraft carrier. This would force NATO to fight at the same level as the Russians and that is with frigates and destroyers engaged in a missile war.

Russian advantages
As a Black Sea country, Russia is capable of stationing as many warships as it wishes in the Black Sea. Opposed only by Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania as NATO members, and Ukraine and Georgia as neutral countries. Russia already sank most of the Georgian navy in the August 2008 war. Ukraine suffered a large reduction in the amount of warships during the 2014 Ukraine crisis when Russia took over several ships, including the only submarine the Ukrainian navy possessed. Turkey seems to be having a focus on the Mediterranean Sea, rather than the Black Sea and both Bulgaria and Romania have not the amount of ships required to oppose the Russian Black Sea fleet.

This imbalance in force in combination with the fact that the Russians now have control over the port of Sevastopol, a major naval base, turns the Black Sea into a Russian lake. Russia also views its Black Sea fleet as the most important fleet as it has easy access to the Mediterranean, a long sought goal of the Russians. New armament programs are undertaken to increase the size of the Black Sea Fleet with 30 new warships by 2020. Among these ships will be new frigates of the Grigorovich class and new submarines.

NATO disadvantages
NATO is further restricted by the Montreux Convention. As no more then nine non-Black Sea state warships, with a total aggregate tonnage of no more than 30,000 tons are permitted to stay in the Black Sea for no longer than 21 days. Not only tonnage but also the amount of ships deployed in the Black Sea must be taken in account. When only nine non-Black Sea state warships in total may be present NATO forces deployed in the Black Sea must take in account the amount of other warships in the Black Sea.

Regarding tonnage we know that NATO can only deploy a tonnage of 30.000 tons in the Black Sea and given the size of different warships this would mean a force of 3 to 4 frigates or destroyers. The limit of 21 days will impose several problems as NATO would have to rotate different task forces in and out the Black Sea. NATO is thus forced to deploy more ships then actually would be needed. Logistics on the other hand can be solved by making use of the ports of Burgas, Varna and Constanta. 

The Montreux Convention would work against NATO forces in the case of a NATO-Russian showdown in the Black Sea. First, it will strip NATO maritime forces of aircraft carriers, denying NATO maritime forces vital air support in the Black Sea. This would force NATO to fight at the same level as the Russians would namely frigates and destroyers fighting it out in a missile war and this is the tactic the Russians keep training. Air cover for NATO forces can be given from shore bases in Bulgaria and Romania but the presence of shore based aircraft diminishes as NATO forces operate deeper in the Black Sea and closer to the Russian borders.

Secondly, the Montreux Convention limits the forces NATO can deploy within the Black Sea. NATO forces are outnumbered severely against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. This imbalance will only increase as Russia is in the progress to expand its numbers in the coming years.

Given Russia’s new assertive, or aggressive according to western sources, stance in world politics, NATO needs to rethink on how to secure its Black Sea partners and how to confront the Black Sea Fleet that will be Russia’s main fleet in projecting power in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. As Russia’s military might grows, Russian ships will be seen more in these areas to confront NATO’s influence in the Middle East.

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