A recent news article published in the Coffee Or Die asks what happens if Russia Torpedoes ARC Integrity, the ship bringing brads to Ukraine?
Roll-on roll-off vehicle cargo vessel Arc Integrity
Shortly after midnight on Jan. 26, the roll-on roll-off vehicle cargo vessel Arc Integrity slipped out of South Carolina’s North Charleston harbor, carrying within its hold more than 60 M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles bound for Ukraine’s front lines.
Coffee or Die knows this because US Transportation Command splashed across its webpage and social media multiple photographs of the US-flagged ship loading the armored vehicles.
And it only took a few keystrokes to figure out the name of the vessel, its speed, and its itinerary — a pitstop at Maryland’s port of Dundalk, then east across the Atlantic, reaching the English port of Southampton on Feb. 7 and continuing to the Belgian harbor of Antwerp two days later, and the voyage wraps up in Germany’s Bremerhaven on Feb. 11.
So what happens if a Russian warship sinks or seizes the 747-foot Arc Integrity? Is that legal under the international rules of war?
“It would be an act of war,” Salvatore R. Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner who now teaches at Campbell University and the US Merchant Marine Academy, told Coffee or Die.
That’s because when it flies the US flag, Arc Integrity is floating US soil.
“This is the heart of the issue. This would be an attack on American sovereignty,” said Mercogliano.
Arc Integrity receives a $5 million annual fee to operate under the US flag. The subsidy is paid to its operator, American Roll-on Roll-off Carrier, a Florida-based RoRo line that’s controlled by Norwegian shipping giant Wallenius Wilhelmsen.
One of eight American Roll-on Roll-off Carrier vessels
Built in South Korea, Arc Integrity is one of eight American Roll-on Roll-off Carrier vessels enrolled in the Maritime Security Program and Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement, which US armed forces use to transport materiel to Europe and back alongside commercial cargo.
Theoretically, Russia could try to erect a blockade in the North or Baltic seas to interdict the Brads and a future shipment of promised Abrams M1 main battle tanks before they reach a German port, much as its fleet off Crimea menaces merchant shipping in the Black Sea.
But that’s also highly unlikely.
“Anything that Russia does would be an expansion of the war,” Mercogliano said. “The flipside of this is that if they interdict trade, it will affect their trade, too. That would bankrupt Putin.”
Retired US Navy Capt. Lawrence B. Brennan, a maritime law expert who now teaches at Fordham University, told Coffee or Die it’s pretty clear-cut with US-flagged vessels that Russia won’t try any shenanigans.
But it gets murkier if we’re shipping materiel to Ukraine on vessels flagged by other nations.
Russia might balk at torpedoing a US-flagged RoRo carrier, but it’s unlikely to flinch if it encounters vessels registered to Liberia, Vanuatu, or Panama, trying to bring materiel to a Black Sea port.
“This is a complex question for the US based on the 20th century historical practice of the law of war during the early years of World War I, when the US sold arms to the Allied powers and transported the war goods by neutral, third-party flags to minimize the risk of an attack on neutral US-flagged cargo ships,” Brennan said.
“We want to take these on US-flagged ships today,” he continued. “The problem is we’re not making a lot of these ships today.”
Influx of materiel to Ukraine
It’s a coincidence, but the question about what Russia might do about an influx of materiel to Ukraine has surfaced 106 years after Germany faced a similar dilemma.
On Jan. 31, 1917, Germany announced it was resuming unrestricted submarine warfare, including sinking unarmed passenger vessels. It was part of Berlin’s plan to knock Britain out of the war and end its blockade of Germany.
But Berlin’s U-boat policy also drove President Woodrow Wilson to urge Congress to declare war on Germany, and the flow of US troops to France led to Berlin’s defeat.
“I think President Joe Biden takes seriously avoiding the risk of accidental war,” said Brennan. “He’s not going to do something that’s going to put US forces directly at risk of starting a war with Russia. He’s not Woodrow Wilson with Germany or John F. Kennedy, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
So how might all this play out today?
Brennan and Mercogliano say that despite all the recent fanfare from TRANSCOM, fewer than 100 armored vehicles from the US won’t shift the war one way or the other, even if the gesture might prod American allies to help Ukraine with larger numbers of third-generation tanks, like Germany’s Leopard 2.
And they’re more vulnerable to Russian ballistic missiles or airstrikes at the railhead or training depot than they are on the high seas.
“I don’t think you’re going to see anything from the Russians at sea,” said Mercogliano. “Most of what the vessels hold will be commercial cargo, not military cargo, so that makes it even more complicated. You’re far more likely to see Russia do something in a training area or on a Ukrainian railroad.”
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