The biggest news from the front-line in Ukraine today is that the Russian Navy has lost one of its major landing ships, a Landing Ship Tank (LST) of the Project 1171 ‘Tapir’-class (NATO: ALLIGATOR). The vessel suffered a catastrophic fire in the port of Berdyansk, an Ukrainian port city approximately 60 km south-west along the shore from Mariupol. The Tapir-class is comparable to the more famous and somewhat newer Project 775 (NATO: ROPUCHA). Of the original 14 Tapirs built, most are decommissioned or in reserve, but two are found in the Black Sea Fleet and a third is in active in the Pacific Fleet. A good clip of the event is found below:
As mentioned the Tapir is old, dating from the mid-60’s, with the two Black Sea Fleet vessels having been commissioned in 1966 and 1968 respectively.
Exactly what caused the fire is unknown. Most reports mention a Ukrainian missile strike, which would be a Tochka-U. The missile system which in Russian service has been more or less fully replaced by the Iskander-M dates from Soviet times and reportedly has a CEP of 95 meters, meaning that you don’t aim for individual ships, but you could conceivably aim for a cluster of vessels tied up port-side together and wish for the best. This ‘fingers crossed’-tactic was apparently tried with some success against the Millerovo air base earlier during the war. Notable is that the Tochka-U can be equipped with a warhead sporting cluster munitions, which depending on your type of target could increase the odds of hitting something (though obviously the damage to whatever is hit would be less). The question has also been raised whether any Tochka-battery could have gotten within range of the port, considering the somewhat limited range of the system (120 km)? Again, lines on a map rarely tell the whole story, but e.g. the front suggested by the Finnish National Defence University would indicate that Berdyansk is within range.
Everyone’s favourite Turkish drone obviously also was included in the speculation, but the weapons used by the Bayraktar TB2 – the MAM-L – sport a very light warhead (the whole weapon tipping the scale at 22 kg). Of course, if you hit something volatile even a small warhead might do the trick, but getting a laser-guided weapon into the cargo hold (the most likely scenario if you are to start a fire with a light weapon) is rather hard due to a combination of factors (such as the discrepancy between the path followed by the laser beam and the bomb, as well as how trigonometry work when you lock a laser spot). Not impossible, but difficult.
There’s obviously also a number of other possible explanations, including Ukrainian special forces planting explosives or similar, but perhaps the most likely explanation is the boring one that a more or less overworked crew made a mistake that lead to a fire – an all too common event on vessels even without the added stress of being at war. Of course, being at war should also mean that your damage control crew is on rather high alert, especially if you sit within range of enemy ballistic missiles, but here again incompetence or humans being humans can’t be ruled out.
Alert readers might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned which vessel it was that turned into what I believe is the first combat loss of the Russian or Soviet Navy since U-956 sank USSR Deyatelny (ex-HMS Churchill) in January 1945. The reason for this is that both Tapirs of the Black Sea Fleet are possible candidates for the dubious honour. Orsk, the somewhat younger vessel, was seen on the location earlier, unloading BTR-82 armoured personnel carriers, most likely from a naval infantry brigade. However, there are also indications that she had already left the area and her sister Saratov – the lead vessel of the class – had taken her place at the quayside. She would reportedly have been carrying the munitions for the unit unloaded from Orsk earlier this week or late last week.
While I won’t make a definitive call at this stage, the Saratov-theory does make sense, and the fire which sport a number of secondary explosions also seem to fit a fire aboard a munitions vessel. A munitions-handling accident would also not be unheard of as a wartime fire-starter.
Notable is that some port structures, possibly including oil storage on the quay and/or nearby cranes, also seem to have suffered damage. As did at least one of two Ropuchas which successfully sped out from the port during the fire. These are reportedly the Black Sea Fleet-vessels Tsezar Kunikov and Novocherkassk – being true youngsters among the Russian amphibious ships in having been commissioned only in 1986 and 1987 respectively – of which the Kunikov had a quite sizeable fire visible on deck while leaving Berdyansk. This might turn out to be relatively minor damage if it is a case of burning debris having been flung away by the hot air and explosions on the Saratov(?) and then landed on the vessel, though as a rule of thumb you don’t want open flames on a vessel. The status of Novocherkassk is more unclear, but some damage looks likely here as well.
The impact on the war is likely to be modest. If there is half a battalion, especially a fresh elite unit such as naval infantry, now running around without munitions that is obviously bad, especially as Russia so far seem to struggle with their logistics flows even when they aren’t interrupted by massive fires. The loss of the vessel is likely to be felt in the long-run for a country that has seen a total of two LSTs built in the last 30 years, and it will impact the ability to project power in the long run (the Tapir and Ropucha have been regulars on the Syria-run, shipping equipment to Syria to help Assad and the Russian expeditionary forces there). It won’t, however, directly affect the war for the time being as the concentration of six LSTs from the Northern and Baltic Fleets to the Black Sea means Russia should be able to cover the shortfall for now, and the amphibious threat to Odesa remains unchanged. If the port is damaged that is more of a headache for the continued operations against Mariupol and to the north from there, but the extent to which Russia had planned on using Berdyansk as a logistics node is unclear.
An interesting detail is that the earlier video of the Orsk unloading the BTR-82s showed them being hoisted over the side instead of driven off, a procedure that takes significantly longer compared to just rolling out through the bow doors. While it is true that the bow ramp of the vessel is low compared to many larger ro/ro-vessels and as such may not fit the facilities in the port, the low draught of the vessel means that there should be a number of secondary locations available for it to use, one of which you’d imagine would have a ramp that fits. The BTR-82 is also amphibious, so it should even have been possible to let them leave the vessel some ways away from shore and ‘swim’ the last part – something that is regularly seen practised on exercises. If the Russians simply aren’t in a hurry to get the vehicles into combat that would be one thing, but most indications are that there is indeed pressure from the top to get the stalled offensives moving again. Considering that the scene doesn’t show the sense of urgency that is to be expected, but rather it once again seems like ineptitude on behalf of the Russian armed forces.