The Ukrainian Armed Forces have published a video claiming that they had hit a Russian navy oceangoing tug named the “Vasily Bekh” with two Harpoon missiles in the Black Sea on Friday. If confirmed, this will be the first time the Ukrainians have hit a Russian vessel with Western-supplied Harpoon anti-ship missiles. SOFREP could not independently verify the claim or the video as of this time.
— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) June 17, 2022
The footage would be recorded by a Turkish-build Bayraktar TB2 drone, as revealed by the interface. The Vasily Bekh would later be identified as the Vasily Bekh (SB-739), later seen in the video to be on fire. According to the Ukrainian Navy, the tugboat was transporting weapons, ammunition, and soldiers to the famous Zmiinyi Island, also known as the “Snake Island,” which has now been occupied by Russian forces. It was reportedly some 19 miles away from the island when it was hit.
The Snake Island gained popularity throughout the world as the Ukrainian border guards stationed on the island told a Russian warship, the Moskva, to “Go f*ck yourself” when it demanded that the Ukrainians surrender. This incident gained popularity as the audio clip was shared on social media. The border guards were later revealed to be alive after initially being thought to be dead and were subsequently freed in late March through a prisoner exchange.
Later on, the Moskva would be sunk by the Ukrainian forces using their Neptune anti-ship missiles, which the Russians claimed that a fire caused by ammunition blowing up was the cause of its destruction. This would deal a significant blow to Russian morale as the Moskva was the Russian Black Fleet’s flagship.
The Ukrainians would boast about their attack on the Vasily Bekh on social media and Telegram, where they initially published the footage of the hit.
“During the full-scale war in the Black Sea, (anti-ship missiles) were used twice, first the (Ukrainian-made) Neptune, and today, June 17, the Harpoon. Both uses were successful. At the same time, the air defense of Russian ships proved to be entirely ineffective,” the Armed Forces Strategic Communications Directorate said. Furthermore, a local Ukrainian official has also claimed that the attack used Harpoon missiles.
In this statement, there is an interesting omission of the sinking of the Saratov, a Project 1171 Alligator class landing ship. It was initially identified as the Orsk but later confirmed to be the Saratov. At the time of the sinking, the Ukrainians claimed to have hit it with Tochka-U SRBM missiles. SOFREP reported on the incident at the time but expressed skepticism that the ship was hit by the Tochka-U given that it is not a missile with the accuracy to hit a ship precisely. Video evidence of the attack did not give any indication that a missile attack had taken place. Additionally, there were two larger and more valuable Ropucha-II class landing ships at that pier with the Saratov that would have been better targets and we also noted that none of the ship’s active missile defense systems attempted to engage any inbound missiles.
In the absence of clear evidence of a missile attack, we speculated that the Saratov was more likely to have been destroyed by an ammunition handling mishap at the pier by her own crew.
Ukraine’s AFSCD of failing to include the Saratov in the list of ships they have sunk with missiles would seem to suggest we were right about the Saratov not being sunk by Ukraine.
Spasatel Vasily Bekh, a tug of the russian black sea fleet, successfully demilitarized by the @UA_NAVY. The ship was transporting personnel, weapons and ammunition to the occupied Snake Island.
Moskva never be alone… pic.twitter.com/3slXr6qtEl
— Defence of Ukraine (@DefenceU) June 17, 2022
Military analyst Rob Lee would tweet that the tugboat was carrying a Tor-M2KM air defense system. He would disagree with the claims of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and state that the tugboat was hit with MAM-L Smart Micro Munition fired from a Bayraktar TB2 due to the slow speed of the munitions.
“Given the slow speed of the munitions, these were likely MAM-L launched from TB2 and not anti-ship missiles unless the video was slowed down,” he said.
However, many Twitter users familiar with the munitions would debate with one another as one user argues that it is impossible for a MAM-L to fly parallel to the sea without dropping down. Others would say that it was too big of an explosion for a MAM-L.
Aerospace and Defense researcher Arda Mevlutoglu would reply to Lee with his own hypothesis:
“I doubt it. The sensor is in white-hot mode, and the munition that hit the ship is bright, indicating its body temperature is relatively high. MAM-L is unpropelled, and I’d expect it to have much lower IR signature than a missile.”
It is also very likely that the Bayraktar TB2 drone was used to transmit coordinates to the land-based missile launchers to accurately hit the tugboat.
Ukraine is said to currently possess at least four anti-ship missile systems. Their own Neptune anti-ship missiles, the US Harpoon, the British-made Brimstone and the Swedish-made Robot-17. By a process of elimination, the missiles would have to be either the Harpoon or Neptune as neither the Brimstone nor the Robot-17 have the range or warhead size to create the kind of explosions seen with the impacts. The track of the missiles also suggests a low, sea-skimming angle to the target which would rule out them being deployed by the drone overhead. Finally, Ukraine itself states that Harpoons were used in the attack.
As a result of the attack, unofficial Russian sources claim that 10 out of 33 crewmembers are currently missing, with another 23 injured. The tugboat is believed to have a permanent ship crew of 26 and a supporting crew of 36.
The US was one of the first countries to send Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Ukraine to help them defend against Russian warships that have been blocking their coastline. Denmark has also pledged to donate a number of truck-mounted Harpoon launchers and missiles for the same reason. Recently, the Netherlands also pledged to supply Ukraine with Harpoon missiles.
Just recently, the Biden Administration announced that the US would give Ukraine another $1 billion in military aid. This includes sending Ukraine two vehicle-mounted launchers for the Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Furthermore, the package also includes 18 155mm howitzers, 36,000 rounds of 155mm ammunition, 18 vehicles to tow the 155mm howitzers, and rockets for the HIMARS the US had sent to Ukraine along with four support vehicles.
However, we won’t be seeing these US vehicle-mounted launchers from the US anytime soon as they still need to be purchased by the Pentagon using the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) funds. Ukrainian troops will also have to be trained to use the system operation.