It wasn’t the biggest bang of the war. But the sudden flash that briefly lit up the Russian port of Novorossiysk on November 18 had a significance far beyond its blast radius.
The blast is believed to have been caused by a Ukrainian unmanned surface vehicle – naval drones that could shift the balance of power in the Black Sea and fundamentally change the future of naval warfare.
The first publicized action by Ukraine’s radio-controlled bomber boats took place in the early hours of October 29, when more than half a dozen of them attacked the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.
Footage from onboard cameras released by the Ukrainians showed black metal ships charging at high speed across a choppy gray sea as machine gun and cannon shells kicked up white flags around them.
Remote control is now good enough to dispense with kamikaze helmsmen
The Russian Defense Ministry said the nine aerial drones and seven naval drones involved caused only “insignificant damage” to a ship – the minesweeper Ivan Golubets – and the protective boom in Yuzhnaya Bay. Independent analysts said the Admiral Makarov frigate also appears to have been badly damaged, although it does not appear to have sunk.
But it’s not the downfalls that mark success. It is that the attacks frightened the Russian Navy.
“This is going to go down in history,” said HI Sutton, an independent defense analyst. “It’s not the first time it’s been attempted, but it’s the first time it’s been successful and done on a large scale.
“It is very much what we can expect for the future. It would be almost unrealistic not to include them in a future conflict.”
The success of drones lies less in the relatively modest damage they have inflicted so far and more in their threat projection.
The Oct. 29 raid primarily targeted shipping outside the narrow entrance to Sevastopol Bay, but at least one or two boats appear to have gotten in – penetrating the otherwise impregnable countermeasures at the entrance to Russia’s most strategic port.
That alone is a great achievement. Sailing a drone boat to Novorossiysk, which was said to be out of range of Ukrainian attacks, must be doubly alarming for the Russians.
“The Russians completely changed their defensive stance in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk,” Mr Sutton said. “They have reinforced the boom – the floating barriers across the harbor estuary – and changed procedures to close them much more frequently.
“Every warship, even a powerful warship, leaving Sevastopol is now escorted by fast ships.”
Combined with a host of other threats, the drone strikes have helped effectively confine the Russian Black Sea surface fleet to its ports. This will help secure critical shipping lanes out of Odessa and further reduce the risk of shelling or amphibious assaults on Ukraine’s unoccupied south-western coast.
Russia’s submarines, which Western navies say are far more effective and better managed than its surface fleet, remain a threat. But Moscow’s once undisputed dominance of naval warfare is over.
Unmanned bombers are nothing new. Even before Francis Drake sent lightships against the Spanish Armada in 1588, admirals were considering how to get close to the enemy without risking their own crews.
Ever since an al-Qaeda suicide bomber attacked the USS Cole on a speedboat in 2000, Western navies – and particularly the British and US navies – have been considering repelling fast-moving small boats. But since then, technology has advanced rapidly and has created a revolution.
Remote control is now good enough to eliminate the need for kamikaze helmsmen, and with falling costs, drones can be manufactured and deployed quickly and in large numbers with a little ingenuity and improvisation. The Ukrainian boats are showing strong signs of both.
Images released by the Ukrainian military, along with a photo from Russian sources, show a boat washed up on the Crimean coast two weeks before the Sevastopol raid, a sharp-bowed, narrow-beamed speedboat about 18 feet long.
Mr Sutton assigned the engine system visible in the video to a petrol
powered water jet used on commercial jet skis manufactured by Canadian company Sea-Doo – readily available in the commercial market.
A rotatable camera is attached to a small tower towards the bow. Towards the stern, another low turret may contain the comms panel used for control: possibly a Starlink terminal.
Ukrainian ground forces have used Starlink — a satellite-based web provider owned by Elon Musk — extensively for secure combat communications.
The only visible parts of the non-commercial, military-grade kit are two pressure fuses taken from a Soviet-designed FAB-500 aerial bomb. Other details – including who is piloting the remote-controlled boats and from where – remain a Ukrainian secret.
Russia has accused Britain of involvement – an accusation the UK MoD denies.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, which has requested crowdfunding to build more drones, has put the price per unit at 10 million Ukrainian hryvnia or around 213,000 euros – not cheap, but a good price for a multi-million dollar warship.
Both warring factions make extensive use of aerial drones – from the purpose-built Bayraktars (popular in Ukraine) and Orlan-10s (Russia’s main reconnaissance drone) to cheap Iranian-built Shahed 136 “kamikaze” devices and store-bought quad-copters , modified to drop hand grenades.
The sea is another matter.
Warships are simply too large and complex to be entirely unmanned, says naval journalist Ali Kefford. Nonetheless, “drones are very forward-looking,” she said. “The Ukrainians are also very adept at their naval warfare. But that’s where we all go.”
The drones’ advantage is numbers: only one needs to get through to score a hit, and responding to a dozen or more fast-moving threats at once is incredibly difficult, even for modern warships.
According to Tom Sharpe, a retired Royal Navy officer who opposed Iranian boats while commanding a frigate in the region, the best protection for a fast warship is either rough seas or sailing out of range of the drone.
But in a confined space like the port of Sevastopol, or even a small sea like the Persian Gulf or the Black Sea, that’s impossible.
In this case, survival depends on “layered defense” – the combination of early intelligence and helicopter surveillance, “then lots of fast automated weapons and aggressive maneuvering to deal with the attack when it happens”.
Even then, “if you’re not very well trained and haven’t been practicing lately or not paying attention, you’re in big trouble. By the time you see it, it’s too late. If I were a Russian captain and saw these things coming, I would be worried.”
Conventional navies – notably the British, American and Chinese – are experimenting with their own unmanned surface vehicle programs, although most are focused on reconnaissance and force protection.
Swarm attacks, Mr Sutton says, have generally been viewed as a threat to be countered rather than an opportunity to be exploited – possibly because of its association with suicide bombers.
This has changed now. Ukraine’s remote-controlled bomb boats offer low risk and high rewards. Their arrival could have profound consequences.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/remote-warfare-is-gradually-shifting-the-balance-of-power-towards-kyiv-42176507.html Long-distance warfare is gradually shifting the balance of power towards Kyiv