Military briefing: Ukraine raid heralds new era of naval drone warfare

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A daring assault by unmanned explosive boats against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet over the weekend further exposed Moscow’s military shortcomings while ushering in what some analysts have called a new era of naval warfare .

Russia said the raid on the Sevastopol Naval Port involved seven sea drones and nine aerial drones and claimed to have intercepted them all, although he admitted minor damage to a minesweeper and its harbor protection system. But naval experts said the attack, seen in unverified footage, demonstrated Ukraine’s ability to harness new technologies, some readily available, to offset Russia’s superior firepower.

The long-range attack by several unmanned explosive boats that entered a supposedly protected harbor provided a “glimpse into the future of naval warfare”, said HI Sutton, a defense analyst.

Videos posted online showed floating maritime drones – known in naval jargon as unmanned surface ships – heading towards their targets, including a Grigorovich-class frigate believed to be Admiral Makarov, the flagship of Russia Black Sea Fleet. Other footage showed drones under gunfire as Russian forces frantically attempted to thwart them.

There were reports on Russian social media that the Makarov, which appeared in some online videos to be at sea, was damaged, although Ukrainian claims that several ships were sunk were likely far from the truth. , analysts said.

Another clip appeared to show a USV inside the port, rapidly changing direction as if searching for a target.

Russia said Kyiv had prepared the USV attack in Ochakiv, a Ukrainian coastal town about 270 km northwest of Sevastopol, suggesting the drones had a remarkably long range. Kyiv, which lost most of its navy when Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, has a policy of maintaining ambiguity over its involvement in such attacks, but several analysts have said it was almost certainly in origin of the raid.

“A country without a functioning navy has overwhelmed an enemy superior to its home base,” Ville Vänskä, a Finnish naval infantry commander, said on Twitter. “Now the war in ukraine did without pilot [vessels] integral part of naval warfare.

The Sevastopol drone attack was the latest in a series of strike operations launched against Crimea and Russian military assets – each time exploiting gaps in Russian defenses using local Ukrainian technologies.

In April, Ukraine sank the Moskva, a guided-missile cruiser and flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at the time, using a locally developed anti-ship missile. In August, huge explosions believed to be caused by a new Ukrainian ballistic missile destroyed several Russian warplanes stationed at an air base in Crimea.

Last month, a large explosion – which Russian officials blamed on a truck bomb – partly demolished a bridge over the Kerch Strait connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland, a crucial supply route for Moscow’s forces.

Although no Russian ships appear to have been sunk in the maritime drone attack, it had a “strategic implication”, Sutton said.

“It makes Sevastopol feel less and less safe. And that will influence how the Russian Navy deploys its warships in the future,” he said.

Russia withdrew its ships further from the Ukrainian coast after the sinking of Moskva and, according to British intelligence, also moved its Crimean-based submarines east to southern Russia after the bombing of the aerodrome.

The strike also forced Moscow to suspend its involvement in the Black Sea. grain export agreement after the attack.

Russian Navy ships near the port of Sevastopol

Russian Navy ships near the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in February © Alexey Pavlishak/Reuters

Unmanned boats have been used as weapons since at least ancient Greek fireships. Unmanned ships were used during the First and Second World Wars. More recently, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have used modified motorboats to attack Saudi ships. Many navies have developed USVs, although often for intelligence gathering and defense purposes.

Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College London, said that while the Sevastopol raid was “the opposite of novelty”, he wrote on Twitter that the attack demonstrated Ukraine’s ability to using relatively smart, off-the-shelf technology. to record limited operational successes, exploiting Russian vulnerabilities.

Russia’s lack of anti-drone defenses is all the more remarkable as its navy was warned of the new threat when an explosive drone washed up on shore near Sevastopol in September. Footage from Saturday’s raid featured the same kayak-sized vessel.

Russia has accused Britain’s Royal Navy of helping plan the drone raid, which the UK Ministry of Defense called “false allegations of epic proportions”.

Britain, like the United States and Germany, supplied Ukraine with USVs for coastal defences. But footage of the drone beached in September suggests a more local design. It appeared to be equipped with a propulsion system from a popular Canadian jet ski brand and a Soviet era detonator.

Even the navigation technology used to locate targets would be readily available to hobbyist drone makers, said Samuel Cranny-Evans, a military analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute think tank.

“Theoretically, it would be quite simple to program a marine drone to target a specific Russian vessel. It would be well within the technological capability of a country as tech-savvy as Ukraine,” he said. “War is always a great engine of innovation.”

He quoted an Amazon product manager who designed a cat flap equipped with machine vision technology that would prevent his pet cat from bringing half-dead prey into his home. “The bottom line is that many [autonomous] the technology is very accessible, so we should expect more of these autonomous weapons,” he said.

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