The Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet still is strapping Tor air-defense vehicles to at least one of its corvettes, clearly hoping to protect the warship from Ukrainian anti-ship missiles.
While not as desperate as it might appear at first glance—the M2KM model of the basic Tor system is meant for shipborne use—it’s debatable whether strapping on the Tor actually helps in combat conditions. The Ukrainians have knocked out a bunch of the vehicles, including at least one aboard a ship.
Photos circulated online on Wednesday depicting a 308-foot Project 22160 patrol ship—one of four in service with the Black Sea Fleet—sailing near Sevastopol with a Tor-M2KM chained to its helicopter deck.
A Tor is a self-contained system with its own generator, radars and missiles. Weighing as little as 15 tons, it’s suitable as an add-on for ships lacking major organic air-defenses. The Black Sea Fleet back in 2017 tested a Tor-M2KM aboard one of its frigates.
Which is to say, the Russians aren’t improvising when they roll a Tor onto a ship. That’s been the plan for years. But that doesn’t mean the plan works.
The Black Sea Fleet paints over its vessels’ hull numbers in order to complicate efforts to track the ships, so it’s hard to say for sure whether the gun-armed Project 22160 in the recent photo is the same vessel that packed a parked Tor in photos from early June.
In any event, it’s obvious why the Black Sea Fleet would pair patrol ships and Tors. After losing the missile cruiser Moskva to a pair of Ukrainian Neptune missiles back in April, the Black Sea Fleet is down to just two air-defense vessels, both of them Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, each with 24 Buk medium-range surface-to-air missiles.
To save the frigates from suffering the same fate as Moskva, the fleet generally keeps the vessels a hundred miles or so from the Ukrainian coast. That’s too far for Ukraine’s Neptune and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. But it’s also too far for the frigates with their 30-mile Buks to offer much protection to smaller, more lightly armed vessels patrolling closer to the coast.
The Black Sea Fleet’s surviving patrol boats, support ships, landing vessels and corvettes are on their own as they plie the waters of the western Black Sea, where the Russians are struggling to maintain a blockade of Ukraine’s grain ports. While Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest port, remains closed, cargo ships have begun moving grain from inland ports via the Danube River Canal.
The Ukrainian navy no longer has a surface fleet, but its missiles and drones have proved to be effective sea-denial weapons. The navy, with big assists from the army and air force, late last month scraped the last Russian troops off of Ukraine’s Snake Island, 80 miles south of Odesa and just 20 miles east of the Danube River Delta.
The liberation of Snake Island was the key to opening up the inland ports. The battle over that tiny, treeless island also was a dramatic demonstration of the effectiveness—or ineffectiveness—of the Tor in its anti-missile role.
The Russian garrison on Snake Island had at least two Tors. A Ukrainian drone destroyed one. The Russians abandoned another as they fled the island.
One of the Black Sea Fleet vessels making the dangerous Crimea-to-Snake Island supply run, the rescue tug Vasily Bekh, had a Tor aboard when a Ukrainian Harpoon sank the vessel on June 17.
It’s possible Vasily Bekh merely was shipping the Tor to the island to reinforce the garrison. It’s also possible the tug’s crew was using the Tor the same way the crew of the Project 22160 is using its own Tor: as a defense against missile attack. If the latter, it should go without saying—it didn’t work.
Indeed, various Tors—at sea and on Snake Island—have failed to prevent the Ukrainians from creating a virtual no-go zone for Russian forces in the western Black Sea. If a Neptune or Harpoon battery draws a bead on that Project 22160 with its strapped-on air-defenses, the corvette’s crew could be in big trouble.