Surface Forces: Naval Warfare Will Never be the Same


February 21, 2024: The three operational Ukrainian marine USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles), also known as drones, are Sea Baby (Malyuk in Ukrainian), Mother (Mamai), and MAGURA which means Maritime Autonomous Guard Unmanned Robotic Apparatus. Sea Baby and Mother were developed by the SBU (Ukrainian secret service) and the navy. They are used by the 385th Separate Brigade which specializes in naval warfare. MAGURA was developed by GUR (translated as, Main Intelligence Directorate project) and SpetsTechnoExport, a state-owned enterprise. At the end of 2023 SBU unveiled an updated Cossack Mamai with a claimed top speed of 100 kilometers an hour. Manufacture of these drones is done in underground production facilities to avoid Russian missile and guided bomb attacks.

Malyuk was used in the mid-2023 Kerch Bridge attack and was carrying 850 kg of explosives to inflict sufficient damage. MAGURA carries 320 kg of explosives while Mamai carries 450 kg. These USVs are no longer used just for delivering explosives against a target, they can also be used for reconnaissance when equipped with video cameras that broadcast what they see back to the USV operator. Some USVs have been armed with small rocket launchers. Malyuk has a range of over 700 kilometers, which means they are suitable for operations on the high seas. Endurance is about 60 hours, and top speed is over 70 kilometers an hour. MAGURA has similar characteristics. Mamai was used in the long range attack at the distant naval base at Novorossiysk on Russia’s Black Sea eastern, which is a thousand kilometers from Crimea.

Ukraine has been developing subsurface USVs and in early 2023 the first one, the Toloka2 TK-150 was introduced. This USV was 2.5 meters long and equipped with a sensor mast that remained above the surface for navigation and to identify targets. Toloka2 can also carry a small explosive warhead. More recently, Ukraine developed the larger Marichka USV that is 6 meters long and one meter in diameter. Ukraine has planned for a Western manufacturer to build and weaponize Ukrainian USVs.

Ukrainian USVs have been quite successful in attacking and sinking or disabling Russian navy ships. So far there have been twelve attacks which resulted in damage to 12 ships and the sinking of a cruiser, two small landing ships and one missile corvette. The longest range raids have been against targets in Kerch Strait and the more distant naval base at Novorossiysk.

To put the USV attacks in perspective, here is a list of Russian ship losses in the Black Sea since the Russians invaded Ukraine in February 2022:

March 2022

Ukraine used anti-tank missiles and armed UAVs to destroy three patrol boats and inflict heavy damage on two. Later in March a Russian naval base was attacked, sinking a landing ship and damaging other ships that were able to leave the base. One of these ships was on fire and Russia eventually sank it to prevent the munitions on board from exploding. Russia later raised that ship, made temporary repairs on the hull and towed the ship away to where the damage could be repaired.

A Russian corvette was damaged and towed away to be repaired.

April 2022

A Russian cruiser, the Moskva, was damaged and eventually sank after being hit by land-based Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. Moskva was the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet.

May 2022

An armed UAV was used to sink a Russian assault boat. A nearby Russian landing craft was sunk by an armed UAV.

June 2022

A damaged Russian corvette was towed away to be repaired in a Russian base. Ukraine used two anti-ship missiles to sink a Russian rescue tug.

October 2022

Ukraine used USVs to attack and damage a Russian minesweeper.

May 2023

Ukrainian USVs destroyed a Russian intelligence gathering ship.

August 2023

Ukrainian USVs attacked and damaged a Russian landing ship near the Russian naval base at Novorossiysk in the eastern Black Sea. Because of this, Russia stopped using Novorossiysk even though it was nearly a thousand kilometers east of Crimean. Ukrainian USVs operating that far east convinced Russia that the base was no longer safe to use. Russian ships dispersed to even more distant Black Sea ports.

September 2023

Ukrainian warplanes used long-range British guided bombs to attack a Crimean naval base at Sevastopol. A Russian landing ship was sunk and a submarine in drydock was damaged beyond repair.

November 2023

Ukraine used cruise missiles to attack a Russian shipyard in Crimea to damage a Russian corvette so severely that the corvette was beyond repair.

December 2023

Ukraine used air-launched cruise missiles to destroy a large Russian landing ship docked in a Crimean port. A little later in December Ukrainian USVs and air strikes sank a Russian patrol ship.

February 2024

Ukrainian USVs attacked and sank a Russian corvette based in Crimea. Later that month Ukraine used USVs to attack a Russian landing ship off the coast of Crimea.

Ukrainian USV operations in the Black Sea forced the Russian Black Sea Fleet to withdraw to the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Sevastopol was no longer a safe place to be, and Russian ships could no longer launch their Kalibr cruise missiles without risking attack by Ukrainian USVs. The presence and aggressive use of the USVs means that Ukraine’s grain corridor has been kept open despite Russia’s threats to interfere. Beyond symbolic significance, the corridor holds critical economic importance for Ukraine and is expected to contribute 5-7 percent to GDP growth in 2024 because of the grain shipments.

The aggressive and successful use of Ukrainian USVs against the Russian Black Sea fleet was unprecedented in the history of naval warfare. Not only were these USVs tactically successful but financially as well. For example, new frigates cost about $1.5 billion each. That much money can also pay for 5,000 such USVs. Destroyers cost twice as much. The frigates and destroyers are high seas ships and can travel all over the world. The USVs operate in coastal waters although some of the larger USVs can operate up to a thousand kilometers from where they were launched. These USVs carry video cameras and satellite-based communications systems to collect information and, in peacetime, do so without fear of attack. Severe storms are another matter, but any storm damage will be broadcast as it is happening, at least until the video cameras or communications equipment is disabled.

Commercial cargo ships can carry hundreds of armed UAVs equipped with satellite communications so operators anywhere in the world can control them. These USVs can be unloaded at sea and sent to carry out attacks on targets in the area or move to a nearby harbor and remain tied to a dock until needed. The only maintenance is keeping the USV batteries charged. These USVs are a radical new weapon for naval warfare and the war at sea will never be the same because of the success of Ukrainian USVs in their victorious war against the Russian Black Sea Fleet.




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