Surface Forces: Ancient Kommuna In A Combat Zone

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May 1, 2022: After the Russian cruiser Moskva sank 130 kilometers off the Ukrainian port city of Odessa on April 14 th , the Russian salvage ship Kommuna and seven other ships left their base in Crimea and headed for the wreck site. The Moskva ship sank in about 50 meters (1t0 feet) of water and, even if it rolled over on its side, might still endanger large container or tanker ships operating in the area. Kommuna is not capable of recovering the 12,000-ton Moskva but could examine the wreck and recover some items of equipment as well as look for bodies. There are electronic and weapons components that would be of interest to hostile countries. Kommuna may also be able to settle disputes over how many died on the Moskva. Russia insists that only 396 were on board April 14 th . Moskva can carry up to 680 personnel and usually has 510. There are a growing number of families of men assigned to the Moskva who are demanding to know where their man is because they have not heard from him since the Moskva went down.

Moskva was sunk by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles, which have claimed three Russian ships so far. Technically the Kommuna is a legitimate target, even if it is the oldest naval ship still in service.

The salvage ship Kommuna is a 2,500-ton catamaran built in the Netherlands, using rust-proof steel, and entered service as the Volkhov in 1915 as part of the Tsarist fleet. Until the 1980s Kommuna was based in the Baltic Sea. Kommuna spent most of its career in the Soviet (communist) Navy, where it received its current name, and now serves in the fleet of the Russian Federation. Originally designed to recover submarines that had sunk in shallow coastal waters, Kommuna remains in service to handle smaller submersibles, does it well and has been maintained over the decades to the point where it is cheaper to keep the old ship operational than to try to design and build a replacement. While the Kommuna is a navy ship it is not a warship as it is not armed although some of the 99-man crew are armed with pistols, machine-guns and assault rifles.

Kommuna is also equipped to rescue sailors trapped in a sunk sub as well as recover equipment and bodies from ships lost at sea, including any aircraft that go down over water. Most of the 436,000 square kilometer (168,500 square mile) Black Sea is deep, with an average depth of 1,253 meters. Extending from the northern coast, on either side of the Crimean Peninsula there is a continental shelf where average water depth is less than 100 meters. In many areas it is shallower because several major rivers (Danube, Dnieper, Don, Dniester, and Kuban) empty from the northern and western coasts. Silt from these rivers has built up over thousands of years inland and off the coasts, partially accounting for Ukraine’s huge agricultural productivity.

The Black Sea was formed less than 8,000 years ago as sea levels rose over a hundred meters in a few years and the smaller fresh-water lake became the saline Black Sea while the dry land that became the continental shelf was flooded and the current coastlines established. Those shallow waters are littered with thousands of wrecks from shipping activity that has been going on for thousands of years.

Kommuna has justified its continued existence by changing its purpose several times and undergoing several refurbishments and upgrades. In 1984 Kommuna was to be transferred to the Soviet Academy of Science to be used for maritime research. The Academy was unable to afford the cash needed for the conversion and Kommuna transferred back to the navy in 1987 and was sent to the Black Sea for a major refurbishment as a rescue ship for submarine crews, similar to its original task. In its 107-year career Kommuna has retrieved over 150 ships, parts of ships and aircraft.

The mighty Soviet Navy, the second largest in the world, fell apart after 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved and the Russian Federation could not afford to provide crews and fuel for its hundreds of ships. In 1991 the Soviet Fleet had over 500 major warships including 109 nuclear subs and nearly as many older nuclear subs retired but still afloat because Russian could not afford to safely scrap them. There were a thousand smaller patrol craft and support ships, most of which could be sold for scrap. Kommuna escaped this carnage because it was a salvage and rescue ship and in good shape.

Less than two decades after the Soviet Union disappeared the Russian Federation navy had about a hundred major warships in service and what little money there was for buying new ships went to build a dozen or so new nuclear powered SSBNs (ballistic missile) and SSNs (attack subs). There was still not enough money to send ships to sea for long periods.

During the 1990s the navy was forced to retire most of its ships, including nearly 200 nuclear submarines. The nukes were a potential hazard already because some had already sunk off the north coast without regards to what impact the maritime nuclear power plants would have long-term. This prompted Western nations to spend nearly $20 billion in the 1990s to safely decommission the Russian nuclear subs.

With the collapse of the Soviet Fleet the Kommuna had little to do because few sailors or ships were at sea and most of the retired ships were scrapped. All that changed in 2000 when the latest Russian nuclear sub, the Kursk, suffered tw0 explosions while submerged during naval exercises off the north coast. Russia did not have any modern submarine crew rescue ships or equipment and refused to accept help from NATO nations. That led to the loss of 23 sailors who survived in one compartment until their air ran out. The Kursk sank to the bottom 158 meters (500 feet) down and the sub was eventually recovered, along with the bodies of the 118 crew and evidence of what actually happened. Russia had already decided to equip several submarine crew rescue ships with modern equipment. Kommuna received some of this new gear and was the designated submarine rescue and salvage ship for the Black Sea fleet. Moskva was the largest warship in that fleet and emerged from a major refurbishment in 2019. As flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, it had a lot of special (encrypted) communications equipment and other secret items.

While Kommuna is the oldest naval ship still in service, it is not the oldest warship. That honor goes to the gunboat Parnaiba of the Brazilian Navy. Parnaiba is a small (720 tons) River Monitor that entered service in 1938. Brazil, with one of the largest river systems in the world, and the second longest river in the world, the Amazon. Brazil has long depended on rivers for transportation and has over 22,000 kilometers of navigable rivers. Since many of these rivers pass through thinly populated inland regions Brazil always depended on small river gunboats to back up local law enforcement. The Brazilian Navy still maintains a force of fifteen river gunboats because it still has a lot of rivers that need patrolling.

When the Parnaiba entered service in 1938 it was a modern design and, except for a few years during World War II (Brazil declared war on Germany in 1942 and sent some troops to fight), the only naval threat was German submarines in 1942. Parnaiba was briefly pressed into service as a coastal anti-submarine patrol boat but really was not built for operations in the ocean, even if just coastal waters, and soon returned to river patrols. Over the years Parnaiba has been well maintained and in the 1990s had her steam engines replaced with diesels. Some of her weapons were updated as well along with her electronics. Currently, Parnaiba is armed with a 76mm cannon, two 40mm and six 20mm autocannon as well as two 81mm mortars and some machine-guns and small arms. The ship now has a helipad for medium (up to 10 ton) helicopters. Top speed is 22 kilometers an hour and there is onboard fuel for traveling 2,500 kilometers at 10 kilometers an hour. Supplies are carried to sustain the crew of 74 for 16 days.

Parnaiba became the oldest armed warship in 2011 when the British Royal Navy retired the 4,700-ton HMS Caroline. This light cruiser entered service in 1914 and fought in the epic Battle of Jutland in 1916. Caroline lost most of its heavy guns in the 1920s when many World War I cruisers and destroyers had their heavy guns removed for use as shore batteries. While HMS Caroline still had some weapons and its engines it spent most of its time tied up in port as a headquarters ship. After World War II Caroline served as a training ship, mostly tied up at dockside. When decommissioned in 2011, the ship could no longer move under her own power. At that point it was noted that the Caroline was not the only World War I warship still in service and that Russians were still using the Kommuna, an unarmed support ship. In 2011 the Parnaiba became the oldest armed warship still in service. The U.S. Navy had retired the last of its World War II era armed ships in the 1990s and ships like the Caroline were technically still not “in service” as an armed warship. But the Parnaiba still is and always has been, even though it patrols the world’s largest rivers, not the oceans. In any event, the thousands of Brazilian sailors who have served on the Parnaiba since 1938 all have war stories to tell. The rivers often attracted all manner of criminal activity that the Parnaiba had to deal with. Nothing really epic but there was violence, threats, chases and occasional use of the heavy weapons on board. Parnaiba was armed for a reason and not called a gunboat for nothing.

Most navies would not want to bring attention to their oldest ship, especially if it was nearly a century old. It's different in the American Navy. For example, in 2009 the carrier, USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) was finally decommissioned and ceased to be the oldest ship in the fleet. The Kitty Hawk served for 48 years and 13 days. In that time about 100,000 sailors served on the ship. The ship was the Navy's last non-nuclear carrier and, since 1998, the oldest ship in commission.

When Kitty Hawk became the oldest Navy ship in commission in 1998, it received the First Navy Jack (the Don't Tread on Me flag flown by the first U.S. Navy warships). It's long been customary that the oldest ship in the navy is the only one that can fly the First Navy Jack, and after Kitty Hawk the carrier Enterprise, which entered service seven months after the Kitty Hawk, flew the First Navy Jack.

From September 11, 2002 until June 2019 all U.S. Navy ships flew the First Navy Jack and continued to do so for the duration of the War On Terror. For the navy, the end date was June 2019 and the custom of only the oldest ship flying the First Navy Jack resumed. The First Navy Jack is now flown by the command ship Blue Ridge (LCC-19) which entered service in 1970 now has 52 years of service.

The First Navy Jack moved around a lot in the 1990s, as the U.S. Navy downsized because the Soviet navy had largely disappeared. This process resulted in some very old ships finally getting retired. The USS Prairie, the last of the pre-war US Navy ships that fought in World War II, was decommissioned on 27, March 1993. The ship, a destroyer tender (a supply and maintenance ship for deployed destroyers), entered service in late 1939. The USS Prairie passed the First Navy Jack on to the USS Orion, a submarine tender commissioned in 1944. But the Orion went out of service later that year and the First Navy Jack rapidly moved from one retiring ship to another until the Kitty Hawk got it in 1998, and held on to it for eleven years, an unusually long time. Since 2009 three American warships have been the oldest ship and there are likely to be ships holding the “oldest ship” title for longer periods because the U.S. Navy has decided it would be cheaper to refurbish and extend the useful lives of older warships than building new replacements. The Enterprise was retired in 2012 and the amphibious ship Denver (LPD 9), which entered service in 1968, was the oldest ship until 2014 and succeeded by another amphibious ship the Blue Ridge.

 


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