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Navy of Drones

On the night of 16-17 September 2022, a small team of Ukrainian naval personnel and scientists released twelve marine drones into the water at a secret location on the Black Sea coast. Monitoring the mission from a remote location were the head of the Navy Vice-Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa; an SBU1 brigadier-general leading the marine drone programme, only known by the call sign ‘Hunter’; and the youthful Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov who has been the driving force behind Ukraine’s ‘smart war’. ‘One of our drones exploded near our port, barely leaving the shore,’ ‘Hunter’ later recalled. Another six sank or prematurely detonated. The surviving five were within 70 kilometres of Russian frigate Admiral Makarov when Starlink owner Elon Musk instructed the communication channels be switched off. Just two drones limped home.

One of the Malyuk drones lost in the first attempted raid in September 2022 Source: Defence Express

Despite this inauspicious start, and within one year, the Ukrainian Navy developed a small fleet of marine drones – the modern equivalent of ‘fire ships’ of the past – that has achieved an historical first: the defeat of a surface fleet by autonomous vessels.  This article examines how Ukraine’s ‘Navy of drones’ realised the improbable.

Innovation and rapid procurement

Within one month of the first failed raid, Ukrainian marine drones succeeded in reaching Crimea and raided Sevastopol.  From the beginnings this has been a story of innovation and agile procurement unimaginable in sluggish ‘traditional’ procurement organisations.  Remarkably, the first trials only took place 11 weeks previously, in a reservoir, involving a small boat fitted with an outboard motor and Starlink receiver. In July, 200-300 kilometre excursions were attempted. By September the drones were ready, but as described, the mission was aborted.

Appreciating that the communication channels are key, Ukrainian technicians eventually developed three ‘systems of mutual communication’ that remain classified.  On 28-29 October four drones were despatched to Sevastopol, and three to the south of the peninsula to hunt the Admiral Makarov.  The frigate was not expecting an attack. One drone succeeded in striking the starboard side; the other two were beaten by the swell and unable to pursue the ship.

A Malyuk drone approaching Admiral Makarov Source: SBU via Ukrainska Pravda

The four drones that entered Strelskaya Bay were spotted by searchlight and engaged. One struck minesweeper Ivan Golubets and the second detonated near an oil terminal (footage subsequently appeared on a Telegram channel). By this time Admiral Makarov had retreated to Sevastopol and was mistakenly attacked by shore batteries.  Russian EW finally suppressed the raid but one drone, guided only by optical means and prior operator knowledge of the layout of Strelskaya Bay detonated between the veteran Krivak-class Ladny and modern, Admiral Grigorovich-class Admiral Essen.  Damage to the latter kept the ship in port for the next three-and-a-half months. The concept had been proven.

The marine drone types

The three, operational Ukrainian marine drones are ‘Malyuk’ (‘Sea Baby’), ‘Mamai’ (‘Mother’), and MAGURA (Maritime Autonomous Guard Unmanned Robotic Apparatus).  The former two are SBU/naval projects. They are operated by 385th Separate Brigade. MAGURA is a collaborative Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) project with SpetsTechnoExport, a state-owned enterprise. These are operated by ‘Group 13’. In December, the SBU unveiled an updated ‘Cossack Mamai’ with a claimed top speed of 60 knots. Manufacture of the various drones is undertaken in underground production facilities to avoid Russian targeting.

Malyuk was used in the 17 July 2023 Kerch Bridge attack with the original 108 kilogramme TNT payload increased to 850 kilogrammes to achieve the necessary destructive effect. MAGURA and Mamai carry 320 kilogramme and 450 kilogramme payloads respectively. The autonomous vessels are no longer simply viewed as ‘kamikaze drones’ but as multi-purpose platforms that can be used in a variety of ways including reconnaissance.  Some have been fitted with small rocket launchers.  Malyuk boasts a range of over 400 nautical miles (far beyond littoral waters; these are not ‘coastal weapons’), an endurance of around 60 hours, and top speeds of over 40 knots. MAGURA has similar characteristics. Mamai was used in the long range attack at Novorossiysk.

Source: Naval News

Concurrently with the surface drones, Ukraine has been developing subsurface drones. In May 2023, Toloka2 TK-150 was unveiled at the ‘Brave 1’ opening event (a government tech cluster comprising state, military, and private sector developers). Toloka TK-150 is just 2.5 meters in length and fitted with a sensor mast to navigate and identify a target. It is believed the drone may also carry a small warhead. More recently, AMMO Ukraine presented ‘Marichka’ (’Maria’, star of the sea). This is a much larger vessel measuring 6 metres in length and 1 metre in diameter. Separately, under Project Fury, Ukraine is partnering with an unnamed Western drone manufacturer to weaponise an existing platform.

Source: Naval News

The drone raids

Ukrainian marine drone raids are shown in the table below. In total there have been twelve.  They have resulted in damage to 12 ships and the sinking of two small landing ships and one missile corvette. The longest range raids have been against targets in Kerch Strait and Novorossiysk Bay, the latter over 600 kilometres.

2022-2024: Ukrainian marine drone raids
Date Vessel Incident
29 Oct 2022 Project 11356R Admiral Grigorovich-class Admiral Makarov and Admiral Essen; Project 1135 Krivak-class Ladny; Project 266M Natya-class minesweeper Ivan Golubets Three Seababy attacked Admiral Makarov – one hit starboard side. Three attacked Strelskaya Bay, damaging Ivan Golubets, Ladny and Admiral Essen.  Russia only admitted damage to the minesweeper Ivan Golubets.
24 May2023 Project 18280 Yuriy Ivanov-class SIGINT intelligence collection  ship Ivan Khurs Attacked by three marine drones near the Strait of Bosporus. Russians denied damage but video appears to show one drone struck the vessel on the starboard side.
17 Jul Kerch Bridge One span of the bridge collapsed and a second damaged. The attacked was conducted by the SBU. Two Malyuk drones reached the bridge. Three ran out of fuel and were detonated.
4 Aug Project 755 Ropucha-class BDK (amphibious assault ship)

Olenegorsky Miner

Attacked by Mamai drones in the port of Novorossiysk; vessel listed to port side.
5 Aug Oil tanker SIG The tanker was being used to resupply naval vessels. The ship was struck by a Mamai drone.
14 Sep Bora-class small missile ship/hovercraft , former MRK-17 re-named Samum Attacked by SBU Malyuk marine drone at the entrance of Sevastopol Harbour; disputed outcome; Ukrainians claims the vessel was towed back to berth; Russians claim the vessel was undamaged.  However, there is imagery of Samum under tow, visibly low on the waterline and trimming by the stern.
14 Sep Project 22160 Vasily Bykov-class patrol ship; uncertainty over ship name Attack method not stated; vessel was in the SW area of the Black Sea.  As many as three patrol ships were in the area: Vasiliy Bykov, Sergey Kotov, and Askold. Russians dispute any were hit.  Ukrainians claim at least two were hit, presumably by marine drone.
11 Oct Project 22160 Vasily Bykov-class patrol ship Pavel Derzhavin Attacked by Malyuk marine drone near Sevastopol (Russian Telegram channels stated it struck a mine). Reportedly the rescue tug Professor Nikolay Muru was also subsequently damaged.
13 Oct Project 21631 Buyan-M class; uncertainty over ship name Attacked by Malyuk marine drone near Sevastopol; explosion was heard in the area and Russian Telegram channel showed video of smoking vessel.
8 Nov Project 1176 Akula-class small landing ship; uncertainty over ship name Attacked and sunk (with satellite imagery evidence) by marine drone at Uzka Bay near Chornomorsk.  The vessel was carrying equipment and stores.
8 Nov Project 11770 Serna-class small landing ship Denis Nikitin Attacked and sunk (with satellite imagery evidence) by marine drone at Uzka Bay near Chornomorsk.  The vessel was carrying equipment and stores.
31 Jan 2024 Project 1241.1 Molniya-class missile corvette Ivanovets Attacked on Lake Donuzlav, Crimea by six MAGURA V5 drones operated by Group 13. The ship defended herself with cannon but received multiple strikes, suffered a catastrophic detonation and sank to the stern with the loss of all the crew.
Missile corvette Ivanovets sinks with the loss of all hands Source: Pravda.ua

What has been achieved?

The drone raids have forced the Black Sea Fleet to withdraw to the eastern half of the Black Sea. Sevastopol is no longer a safe berth and Kalibr-armed ships can no longer launch cruise missiles with impunity. Second, Ukraine’s grain corridor has been kept open despite Russia’s withdrawal from the agreement in July 2023.  Beyond symbolic significance, the corridor holds critical economic importance for Ukraine and is expected to contribute 5-7% to GDP growth in 2024.

Lastly, the drone raids have raised questions over future naval warfare. The first three Royal Navy Type-26 frigates currently in-build are costing £3.7 billion.  The same sum could procure 14,800 Ukrainian marine drones.3  Plainly, the Royal Navy needs new frigates.  But the Ukrainian Navy’s successful debut of marine drone warfare raises unavoidable questions on how to best spend limited defence budgets.

Cover photo: Screenshot from attack on SIGINT ship Ivan Khurs Source: Ukrainian MOD

Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer.  He was a regular contributor and book reviewer for British Army Review.  He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Footnotes

  1. Ukrainian Security Service
  2. Toloka is the name of a Yandex crowdsourcing site, derived from the older meaning of community assistance.

  3. The Ukrainian government has priced one marine drone at $250,000 Source: BBC News

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