Monday 16 November 2020

The Navy That Sank Itself - Guinea’s Soviet Bogomol Class Patrol Boats

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Guinea-Conakry, officially the Republic of Guinea, is a French-speaking country located in West Africa. Although plagued by poor economic prospects, Guinea has a rapidly growing population of some 12.4 million that inhabit an area slightly larger than that of the United Kingdom, yet remains an underdeveloped nation. Guinea is a Muslim-majority country, with Muslims making up roughly 85% or more of the population. In addition to being the world's second largest producer of bauxite, Guinea has the dubious honour of having its whole combat fleet sank not by enemy fire, but by pure negligence. At the center of this astonishing feat have been its relatively advanced Soviet Bogomol class patrol boats, which will be the subject of this article.
The Project 02065 Vikhr-III (NATO designation: Bogomol Class) is a class of patrol boats designed and built in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Based on the Project 206MR Vikhr (NATO designation: Matka) class of missile boats, only nine ships were completed before production came to an end in 1989. [1] Armed with a rapid-firing 76mm AK-176 cannon and a 30mm AK-630 close-in weapon system (CIWS), both guided by a MR-123 fire control radar located on top of the bridge, these patrol boats are still potent platforms in the role they were designed for even today.

Interestingly, instead of delivering the Bogomol class boats to countries like Cuba, Vietnam or Yemen, all relatively capable of maintaining and operating advanced naval vessels by the 1980s, the Soviet Union exported four of the nine craft to Guinea and Iraq. Guinea, with a proven track record of negligence and carelessness when it comes to maintaining naval vessels, received arguably the most modern naval vessels of the entire West African coast at a crucial point in history: the fall of the Soviet Union. With its traditional supplier of weaponry, spare parts and technical aid gone, the vessels soon fell in a state of disrepair.

As one of the first French colonies to gain independence (1958) Guinea became a particularly early recipient of Soviet military aid, which first began arriving in the late 1950s. Having established close ties to the Soviet bloc, Guinea's strategic location was fully exploited by both the Soviet Union and Cuba, which used Guinea as a staging base to support independence movements of neighbouring countries that had not yet achieved independence from their colonial rulers. Nonetheless, as a result of fear that close ties to the Soviet Union could leave Guinea vulnerable to attacks by foreign powers, relations with the Soviet bloc waned throughout much of the 1960s. This lasted until closer ties were again established in the late sixties as a result of President Ahmed Sékou Touré's increasing paranoia over an imminent invasion by Portugal. In turn, Portugal became increasingly irritated by Guinea's support for independence movements fighting against Portuguese colonial rule in Guinea-Bissau. [2]

Touré's fears were not for nothing, as in November 1970 a Portuguese commando force consisting of 80 Portugese commandos, 150 Portugese-Guinean commandos and 200 Guinean dissidents commanded by Portugese officers ouright invaded Guinea. Their goal was to overthrow Touré's regime, to kill Guinea-Bissau's independence leader Amílcar Cabral and free 25 Portuguese prisoners, only the latter of which succeeded. [2] Following the Portugese attack, Touré reestablished close ties to the Soviet Union, resulting in the delivery of additional MiGs, tanks and anti-aircraft guns to fend off possible future Portuguese incursions.
To dissuade the Portuguese from ever setting foot on Guinean soil again, a Soviet naval patrol consisting of several naval ships was frequently called to the region. This would turn out to be a precursor of a constant Soviet naval deployment off West Africa, which also included several Tu-95RT maritime surveillance aircraft that periodically deployed to Conakry. Then, in January 1973, following the assassination of Amílcar Cabral in Guinea, a Soviet destroyer moored in Conakry gave chase and captured the perpetrators responsible for the attack and handed them over to Guinean authorities. [3]
As Portugal recognized Bissau's independence in 1974 and slowly began to withdaw from its colonies (except for Macau, which returned to Chinese control in 1999), Touré had little left to fear from the Portuguese. With a large Soviet naval presence becoming a liability rather than an effective defence policy, Touré began to curtail the activities of the Soviets. In 1977, Touré cancelled Soviet access for Tu-95RTs; in late 1978 most of the Soviet and Cuban advisors were sent packing and in early 1979 Guinea posed further restrictions on the movement of Soviet warships in Conakry. This would ultimately put an end to the Soviet hope of building a much larger and permanent naval base in Guinea. [3]

For several years relations remained cool because of disputes over Soviet fishing rights in Guinean territorial waters and the lack of Soviet willingness to provide meaningful economic assistance to Guinea. [4] When Touré died in March 1984, a military coup brought General Lasana Conté to power, who went on to rule Guinea until his death in 2008.
The close relations with the Soviet Union had a profound impact on the fragile Guinean navy. Trained and equipped in the likeness of a Soviet client state directly after its founding, all of the navy's inventory was of Soviet origin. Following Portugal's incursion, the Guinean navy was to be expanded from 150 to 300 men, with another expansion of 150 announced in 1972 [5]. In the same year, personnel began training in China in anticipation for the acquisition of several Chinese patrol boats, the delivery of which never appears to have materialized. [5]
In the early 1970s Guinea's naval inventory consisted of four Poluchat-I class patrol boats armed with two twin 12.7mm heavy machine guns, several P-6 torpedo boats armed with two 533mm torpedo tubes and two dual 25mm cannons and two MO-VI submarine chasers armed with two dual 25mm cannons and side throwing mortars, as well as depth charges for anti-submarine warfare (!). [5] Inadequate maintenance had already led to the sinking of two ships by 1967, with a Soviet technical mission having to intervene in 1971 to prevent the other ships from meeting a similar fate. [5] Even though this improved the operationality of the fleet, most of the ships seldomly left port, with Guinea complaining about a lack of reliability of their equipment and an inadequate supply of spare parts to properly maintain them. [3]

Rather than addressing these issues, the Guinean navy was to undergo the largest upheaval in equipment since its foundation through the delivery of three or four Shershen class patrol boats with the torpedo tubes removed and a single T-43 class minesweeper, which was modified for service in the tropical West African climate. [3] The delivery of these ships marked the last major naval acquisition before the delivery of the Bogomol class ships, which quietly entered service in the late 1980s or early 1990s before being retired several years later. Nonetheless, Guinea continued to receive military equipment worth tens of millions each year from the mid-to-late 1980s, including MiG-21bis fighter aircraft and 9K35 Strela-10 surface-to-air missile systems. [6]

February 2007, although already fallen into disuse, both ships are still securely moored to their pier.

December 2007, the stern of the first ship is already underwater, with the increasing weight slowly dragging the ship further down to the bottom.

August 2008, with high tide only the bridge and radar mast can still be seen protruding above water. The other ship has been moved to the adjacent side of the pier.

December 2009, with low tide more of the first ship's superstructure is visible, including the AK-176 cannon. Several more sunken ships can be seen throughout the harbour.

March 2013, water pressure has caused the AK-176 cannon to detach from the ship. Also note the floating dock on the left.

August 2019, the second Bogomol class has also began taking on water, with only the bow and superstructure still above the waterline. The floating dock that was still in use in 2013 has meanwhile also sunk.

February 2020, the second ship appears to have been saved from its certain fate for now. Waiting to sink again, Guinea would be the only country in the world to have two Bogomol class patrol boats sink three times.

While still of a relatively advanced standard for export clients like Iraq, bringing with it a rapid-firing 76mm AK-176 cannon and AK-630 CIWS, both guided by radar, the Bogomol class was and still is completely in excess to the requirements of a small navy like Guinea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their replacement ships consisted of series of small boats armed with light machine guns only, which are both easier to maintain and operate.
Although Guinea's neighbour Guinea-Bissau is also reported to have received two Bogomol patrol boats in 1988-1990, there is currently no public evidence to suggest this delivery indeed took place. [1] [7] That's not to say that no delivery took place, as these ships could easily have been scrapped or resting on the bottom of a habour even before the advent of commercial satellite imagery. The only other confirmed recipients of Bogomol class ships have been Iraq and Iran (which took over one Iraqi example in 1991). In Russian service, the ships would eventually be superseded by the more modern Project 10410 (Svetlyak class), and just two are still believed to be in service with Russia's Pacific fleet (PSKR-726 and PSKR-727).

The Sinking of the Bogomols - a saga that demonstrates the Soviet Union's failed policy of delivering advanced weaponry to client states unable to operate and maintain that equipment without significant financial and materiel aid. The results of this policy are still rusting all throughout Africa, either resting at the bottom of a harbour or awaiting disassembly; a painful, yet crumbling, monument to failed ambitions and a past that is slowly fading.

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