The Romanian Danube Flotilla is Europe’s largest riverine naval force, representing a unique capability, unmatched by any of the other European allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (see Part One in EDM, April 6). The main drawback of the Danube Flotilla, however, lies with the age of its ships. The ships are old and obsolescent. The monitors and armored gunboats have been designed and built in the late 1980s through the late 1990s. Despite their firepower, they lack sophisticated fire-control systems, and their weapons systems are in Warsaw Pact (not NATO-standard) calibers. A further drawback is that their anti-aircraft armament is manned and not automated, thus negating some of the protection offered by the armor. A limited modernization has begun, which will see these ships equipped with new engines, wiring, modern navigation systems, radar and forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems (Rhns.info, August 12). The armored gunboats have already been modernized with Doosan diesel engines and modern surveillance systems, while the first monitor commissioned, Mihail Kogălniceanu, is being refitted in the same way (YouTube, November 4, 2019). The rest of the monitors will eventually be modernized to the same standard; however, no major upgrade of their weapons systems will be undertaken in the near future.
The heavy units of the Danube Flotilla are supported by the 12 boats of the 88th Patrol Boat Squadron. This unit is tasked with patrolling the river, carrying out reconnaissance and surveillance. and mine sweeping. As is the case with the rest of the flotilla, this unit is made up of old ships, some having already reached 40 years of operation. The patrol boats are armed with heavy machine guns and 30-millimeter light anti-aircraft guns, but they lack sophisticated fire-control systems. In the future, these ships may be upgraded with new engines and navigation systems.
The 307th Marine Infantry Regiment started out as a battalion, but in 2018 it was transformed into a regiment. The unit had been deployed to Kosovo and, more recently, to Afghanistan (Mediafax.ro, January 3, 2019). In the past, Romanian marines have trained with the United States Marine Corps and the Royal Dutch Marines. For amphibious operations, the unit is wholly dependent on the ships of the Flotilla. Both monitors and armored gunboats can embark a number of marines and land them for lightning raids. The ships are designed to land naval infantry on the banks of the river and of the canals of the Danube Delta. Even the smaller patrol boats can be used to deploy detachments of marines along the river. As light amphibious infantry, the marine regiment is equipped with rubber assault boats and a limited number of armored amphibious vehicles. Some of the Romanian marines are qualified combat divers and are trained for sabotage and direct-action operations. Organic fire support comes from a battery of mountain guns and a number of mortars.
Despite being transformed into a regiment as part of the recent military modernization effort, the Romanian marines suffer from a lack of modern equipment. They urgently need modern landing craft adapted for the operational environment of the Danube and its delta. New light amphibious armored personnel carriers (APC) are required to increase mobility and amphibious assault capabilities.
Immediately, after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas, then-president Traian Băsescu expressed his fears that one of Russia’s aims is the control of the mouths of the Danube (Mediafax, March 22, 2014). These fears were justified at the time especially in the context of separatist activity in Odesa, which had ended in tragedy (Hotnews.ro, May 2, 2014). Russia’s militarization of Crimea has, indeed, created an indirect threat on the Danube, both for Romania as well as Ukraine. In an aggressive scenario, Russia could initiate raids or amphibious assaults on both Ukraine and Romania using the canals of the Danube delta. In such a situation, Romania’s riverine forces will be one of the first, if not the first, NATO units to respond to any incursion that targets the mouths of the Danube.
In Crimea, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has already established a strong base for its Spetznaz naval special operation forces (Hisutton.com, January 4, 2016). The “commando frogmen” of the Russian navy could mount raids and incursions in Ukraine’s or Romania’s exclusive economic zones (EEZ), sabotage offshore installations, attack port facilities, as well as infiltrate and raid areas up the Danube. Bucharest and Kyiv are aware of the threat posed by Crimea to the lower course of the Danube and its adjacent regions and have started, timidly, to work together. In 2018 and 2019, the Romanian and Ukrainian navies held joint exercises on the Danube (Navy.ro, September 6, 2018; Mediafax, February 2, 2019).
The challenge for the Romanian Naval Forces right now is how to keep the Danube Flotilla relevant in the medium and long run. Some argue that the existence of such a large riverine force represents a waste of resources that could be used to bolster the (maritime) Fleet Command. However, if this should come to pass, it could diminish Romania’s ability to protect its interest on the river as well as its military ability to use the river for tactical and strategic maneuvering. Moreover, disbanding the Danube Flotilla will mean the loss of a structure qualified to undertake joint operations, at a time when such operations have become the norm.
In the short run, a key focus for the Danube Flotilla will be adaptability. This major naval unit should be able to carry out operations both against asymmetric threats (small scale raids, sabotage, mine warfare) and full out joint operations with the rest of the Romanian armed forces and NATO partners. Appropriate doctrine and training would emphasize these two main areas of operations.
In the medium and long term, new types of riverine vessels should be gradually introduced in order to modernize and increase the firepower of the force. Smaller boats than the current monitors and patrol gunboats may fulfill some of the missions more effectively and economically. However, the naval gunfire support mission carried out by the current boats with their guns and rockets is still relevant in high-intensity combat.