Mosquito Fleet vs. Black Sea Fleet. Does Ukraine have a way against Russia?
Drones are used for combat not only in the air – although that’s mainly what they may be associated with. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine also points to the growing importance of using drones in land operations, but primarily in naval warfare. Particularly in recent weeks, Ukrainians have shown how dangerous this tool of combat can be.
Ukraine never stood much of a chance in a naval clash with Russia. Already during the collapse of the Soviet Union, when assets of the Black Sea Fleet were being divided, the vast majority (80%) went to Russia. This Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet, much weaker since the 1990s, was further decimated in 2014. Some of its units were sunk, others were taken over by the Russians. Only about 20% of its potential remained. Over the last few years, Ukraine has been trying to rebuild its naval capabilities, but another Russian invasion dealt another blow. Ukrainians sunk their flagship near Mykolaiv to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.
Given such a significant disparity in power – especially concerning medium and large load displacement ships, with a naval blockade of Ukrainian ports west of Crimea – Kyiv had to seek an alternative. And it found one. It’s the burgeoning fleet of surface drones, which have now become a nightmare not just for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, but also for maritime infrastructure: ports, or even the Crimean Bridge. Small, inexpensive, and hard to detect and destroy, drones have allowed Ukraine to open a new front, attacking military strategic targets and symbols of Russian dominance in the Black Sea.
The attacks intensified in recent days when Ukraine retaliated against a wave of Russian missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea. This was also a response to threats of attacks on civilian ships sailing to Ukraine after Russia withdrew in July from the so-called grain deal. After roughly a year of relative calm, war has flared up again in the Black Sea. One could say it’s an asymmetric war since one side relies on small manoeuvrable units and primarily kamikaze drones, while the other has most of the ports, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.
The surface drones – like the ones Ukraine used in the July attack on occupied Crimea, which damaged a Russian landing ship in Novorossiysk or the SIG tanker – are products of the specialists from Ukraine’s Security Service, as assured by the head of the SBU, Vasyl Maliuk. The SIG tanker was transporting aviation fuel for the Russian air forces. In an interview with CNN, Maliuk explained that the designs of these maritime drones are conceived by SBU experts in collaboration with civilian engineers and IT specialists, and the machines are built in a secret underground factory. Vasyl Maliuk revealed that the drones, which were used to damage the Crimean Bridge, are named Sea Baby.
Sea Baby can carry up to 850 kilograms of explosive material. For the attack on the Russian landing craft and tanker, drones capable of transporting 450 kg of explosive loads were used – Maliuk informed. Maritime drones, also known as uncrewed surface vessels (USV), are only about 5 metres in length – no more than a small fishing boat – with a range of up to 800 kilometres, and they can operate remotely, in one go, for up to 60 hours. Each USV costs a quarter of a million dollars – writes the Wall Street Journal.
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For Ukraine, the attacks by surface drones are the latest in a series of moves that have reduced the firepower of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and ultimately thwarted one of the essential elements of the invasion plan, namely, an attempt at a landing on the Ukrainian coast. At the beginning of the war, Ukraine used anti-ship missiles, aerial drones, and sea mines to repel potential Russian invasion forces near Odessa. Surface drones force Russia to allocate more resources to protect its ports, warships, and cargo vessels, which it uses to transport arms, fuel, and other military supplies. Such attacks will further increase the costs of transportation and insurance for ships heading to key Russian ports in the Black Sea.
David versus Goliath
Ukraine’s first spectacular use of maritime drones took place on 29 October 2022, when a large group of USVs attacked the Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol. Several drones managed to penetrate the anchorage of the ships and, according to British intelligence, damaged the minesweeper Ivan Golubets and the frigate Admiral Makarov. The attack by Ukrainian drones on Russian Black Sea Fleet ships at the military base in Sevastopol was the first operation in the history of naval warfare where aerial and maritime drones were used in a coordinated manner to defeat an enemy’s naval fleet at anchorage.
Riding the wave of enthusiasm after this attack, Ukraine began fundraising in November 2022 to build a fleet of such drones. The campaign was promoted by the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on his official Telegram channel. Ukraine is also receiving surface drones from allies. The UK donated six REMUS-100 units in August 2022. However, these are small underwater drones, not capable of large-scale attacks. It is worth mentioning that the other side is also exploring similar attack possibilities. In February of this year, Ukrainians announced that the Russians had used maritime drones against Ukraine for the first time. The target of the attack was a bridge in the Odessa region.
In May of this year, Ukraine presented a new maritime drone. The device’s length is 5.5 metres, range – 800 kilometres, autonomy – 60 hours, maximum speed – 80 kilometres per hour, warhead – 200 kilograms. All Ukrainian boats are roughly the same size, hence the commensurate payload. The detailed technical characteristics of the so-called second-generation maritime drones were not disclosed, but it’s worth noting that both Russian reconnaissance ships were attacked in the spring at a considerable distance from the Ukrainian coast. Ivan Churs was targeted by drones 140 kilometres northeast of the Bosporus, while Priazovye was attacked 300 kilometres southeast of Sevastopol.
Scooters and torpedoes
The loudest noise about Ukraine’s maritime drones, however, was made in July when the Crimean Bridge became the target of a joint operation by the SBU (Ukrainian Security Service) and the Ukrainian Navy. The Russian side spoke of two Ukrainian surface drones. In this particular attack on the Crimean Bridge, the drones were likely constructed based on jet skis. When a USV is based on a jet ski, many changes must be made to its construction. Jet skis are not intended for long missions. They were initially designed for sports, recreation, and entertainment. They are fast boats meant to carry one or two, at most three passengers. In the case of using such modified jet skis as kamikaze drones, the range and size of the explosive payload are important.
It is unknown what type of drones attacked and immobilised the Russian tanker SIG near the Kerch Strait on 4 August, a day after a similar attack on the landing ship Oleniegorskij Gorniak in Novorossiysk. Recently, media reported on the Ukrainian torpedo drone Toloka, which has a range of up to 2000 kilometres. The underwater drone TLK-150 Toloka is much smaller than surface kamikaze boats. It is 2.5 metres in size and has a range of 100 km. However, unlike a torpedo, a surface drone is controlled in real time. The operator can not only correct the course but also assess the situation, choose the most appropriate target, and strike at the most vulnerable spot.
The number and types of surface drones owned by Ukraine remain one of the most closely guarded secrets. Undoubtedly, however, it’s a card that could change the fate of the war in the Black Sea. So far, the Russians have been unable to effectively defend themselves against the attacks of Ukrainian “mosquitoes,” which are painfully biting a much more powerful Black Sea Fleet.