How Ukraine’s naval drones turned the tide in the battle of the Black Sea

This photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on May 17, 2024, shows what it claims is destruction of a Ukrainian sea drone in the Black Sea, Crimea. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP) (AP)
This photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on May 17, 2024, shows what it claims is destruction of a Ukrainian sea drone in the Black Sea, Crimea. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP) (AP)

Summary

Unmanned vessels developed in the fight against Russia are part of a revolution in modern warfare.

KYIV, Ukraine—The Russian naval corvette had just left the safety of Sevastopol Bay one morning last fall when an explosion ripped a hole in its hull.

As tugs pulled the ship back to port on Sept. 14, Russian state news agencies claimed it had fought off the latest attack by Ukrainian naval drones—small, explosive craft that had for months been ramming Russian naval ships in the Black Sea. This time, Ukrainian officials added a twist, saying their forces had used an “experimental weapon" as well as drones.

In an interview, the architect of Ukraine’s groundbreaking naval drone program said that the attack marked a first in warfare: The Russian ship had been disabled by a mine laid by a Ukrainian unmanned craft that had hauled it some 250 miles before returning to port.

“Before, naval drones were used mostly for surveillance or logistics," said Brig. Gen. Ivan Lukashevych of the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s main security and intelligence agency. “We are doing many things that no one in the world has done."

Ukraine has sunk or damaged around two dozen Russian ships of all sizes using explosive drones or mines delivered by low-slung craft about the size of a small fishing boat. Sea drones caused severe damage to a bridge from Russia to occupied Crimea that Russia used to supply its forces in Ukraine. Ukraine has also targeted Russian ships and port facilities with missiles provided by the West.

As a result, Russia has dispersed the bulk of its Black Sea Fleet far from Sevastopol. Ukraine has been able to restart exports worth billions from its main port of Odesa. Missiles launched from Russian ships take longer to reach Ukraine, giving air-defense crews critical extra time to intercept them. Russia has relocated reconnaissance planes, jet fighters, helicopters, aerial drones and electronic-jamming systems from the front lines to counter Ukraine’s sea drones, easing the pressure on Ukraine’s embattled ground forces.

The drones are revolutionizing warfare on the seas much as uncrewed aerial craft have in the skies. They are relatively cheap and hard to detect and defend against. Their use shows how smaller, poorer nations can level the naval playing field against larger, more-powerful navies.

The U.S., which for years has focused on defending against drones or using them for surveillance, is taking note. The Pentagon in August announced an initiative to deploy hundreds of small, cheap air and sea drones to counter China’s growing military mass.

Lukashevych, in his first interview with a Western publication, laid out details of Ukrainian operations and plans to develop the boats. The security service, known as the SBU, has spearheaded efforts in partnership with the Ukrainian Navy. More recently, the country’s military intelligence agency has also entered the fray.

Lacking the resources to build up its own conventional navy, Ukraine is seeking to create squads of 10 to 20 drones with separate functions that, when combined, replicate the capabilities of a single warship, Lukashevych said.

Ukraine’s military recently revealed it had mounted a multiple rocket launcher on a naval drone and used it to attack a target on land.

“We do have a fleet, but it’s divided into smaller elements," said Lukashevych, better known by his call sign, Hunter.

A Lesson From Cossacks

Ukraine’s use of sea drones accords with its broader approach to war against a much larger and wealthier enemy. From the start of Russia’s invasion in 2022, Ukraine has relied on quick thinking, nimbleness and a technological edge to sap the strength of its powerful but plodding adversary.

Russia has adapted to counter some of the Ukrainian innovations and advanced weapons provided by the West, spurring further efforts by Ukraine and its partners to upgrade them. Russia is using a variety of measures against naval drones, from surveillance aircraft to detect them to electronic-warfare systems to cut communications.

In spring 2022, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was blockading Ukraine’s ports, its main export routes, threatening amphibious landings and soon launching cruise missiles at Ukrainian cities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tasked his top security and defense commanders with finding a solution.

Ukraine’s military had sunk the Russian fleet’s flagship, the Moskva, on April 14 with antiship missiles not far from Odesa. But Ukraine had no large ships, an outmatched air force and no missiles that could reach deep into the Black Sea or to the fleet’s base in Sevastopol in occupied Crimea.

Lt. Gen. Vasyl Maliuk, deputy head of the SBU, turned to Lukashevych, a career military officer with a background in engineering and experience in clandestine warfare.

At the start of the war, Lukashevych took charge of a special unit in SBU counterintelligence with a simple brief: to find unconventional ways to degrade the Russian military. A keen student of military history, he recalled how Ukrainian Cossacks in the 17th century had used large numbers of small, fast and maneuverable boats to defeat the more powerful navy of the Ottoman Empire.

Applying that lesson to modern times was challenging. The craft would have to travel hundreds of miles undetected, outsmarting Russian radar and signal jamming while carrying hundreds of pounds of explosives.

One technical innovation came to Lukashevych at a military training ground when he saw an aerial drone controlled from the ground with the help of Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite internet service. Lukashevych tasked the dronemaker with constructing a prototype using Starlink for communications. Three weeks later the general was on the shore controlling a boat 10 miles away.

The craft was 16 feet long, able to carry 220 pounds of explosives and sat low in the water to avoid detection by radar.

“We made a drone that hides in the waves," said Lukashevych.

On Sept. 17, 2022, they were ready to attack the Russian naval base in Sevastopol. The Ukrainians launched 12 sea drones at night, but as the first reconnaissance drone approached Sevastopol, the signal cut out. The Ukrainians, who had thought that Starlink was working there, were shocked. A Ukrainian official tried to persuade Elon Musk to get SpaceX, his rocket and satellite company, to turn Starlink on, but to no avail. Musk later wrote on social media that he declined to activate Starlink because, if he had, “then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation."

The reconnaissance drone ran out of gas and ran aground in a bay near Sevastopol. Russian authorities blew it up.

‘Fighting With Metal’

A month later, Lukashevych’s team tried again after switching satellite-internet providers.

They launched 12 sea drones toward Sevastopol on Oct. 29. Of the seven that made it, three attacked the Admiral Makarov, a frigate, just outside Sevastopol Bay. One of them smashed into its right side, knocking out two engines and the antenna, cutting the ship’s communications.

The other four drones slipped into the bay. Then came a surprise: The Russians, perhaps forewarned or wary after discovering the beached drone a month earlier, had set up barriers and a huge net.

One drone tried to sneak around through shallow water, where it encountered the minesweeper Ivan Golubets. The ship turned on a powerful searchlight and began firing from a machine gun. The drone smashed into its stern.

The Russians turned on electronic jammers, knocking out GPS signals used to guide the craft. So the commander of Ukraine’s navy, a native of Sevastopol, took charge, directing the drones using images from their cameras.

One of the craft was detonated near the Admiral Essen, a frigate, damaging its propellers. Another smashed into a refueling station.

At the same time, the damaged Admiral Makarov was limping back to port with a sea drone in pursuit. Russian coastal artillery batteries opened fire on the frigate, apparently assuming it was an enemy ship. The boat eventually managed to signal it was friendly.

The Russians sent a speedboat to try to intercept the drone. As the drone veered toward the Russian craft, Lukashevych saw through the onboard camera that several Russian sailors were jumping into the water. “It shows their sailors are frightened of going on the water because they are fighting with metal, not with sailors," said Lukashevych.

The attack was a success. With a handful of small sea drones, Ukraine had caused panic, damaged three ships and port facilities, and showed it could hit boats anywhere in the northwestern part of the Black Sea.

A Bigger Boat

President Zelensky set a new target: the Crimean Bridge, the main link from Russia to Crimea and a key logistical artery for Russia’s military.

At first, Lukashevych had little to go on beyond photos of the bridge, with road and railway spans stretching 12 miles across the Kerch Strait opened with fanfare by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018.

Then Maliuk, who had led the SBU since summer 2022, handed him a secret booklet: the bridge’s design documentation. Further information on the bridge was obtained from open sources, such as videos posted online by someone on a yacht sailing underneath.

The details allowed Lukashevych to calculate that around 1,750 pounds of TNT equivalent would be needed to blow up a support pillar. The boat would need enough fuel to travel some 500 miles, about 300 gallons.

He was going to need a bigger boat.

Lukashevych pulled together a team of military and civilians, including engineers, naval officers and communications experts. They made a prototype and loaded it with more than 3,000 pounds of sandbags. They tested new materials to make it less visible to radar. And they gave it a name: SeaBaby.

By mid-2023, they were ready to go. On July 16, five sea drones were dispatched into the Black Sea, controlled from a command bunker some 500 miles away in Kyiv. They had to circumvent a large number of helicopters, warplanes and boats to avoid detection, adding 45 miles to the journey.

As the first two drones sliced along the southern coast of Crimea, the operators spotted the Admiral Essen, the Russian frigate damaged during the Sevastopol raid. They wanted to attack the ship, but Maliuk told them to focus on their original task.

They approached the bridge, carefully dodging commercial ships. A video from the Kyiv bunker later broadcast on Ukrainian television shows a tense scene with Maliuk and Lukashevych crouched near the drone operators. The first boat speeds toward the pillar of the railway bridge, but the delay in response time between the video, the controller and the steering mechanism complicates quick maneuvers, and the drone misses. After a quick U-turn, the boat slams into a pillar of the road bridge. The second drone arrows toward the railway bridge.

Lukashevych badgers the operator: “To the left, to the left. Go, go."

“Hunter, take it easy, he gets it," Maliuk cautions.

A black-and-white video from the bridge shows the moment the drone strikes, causing a large explosion and a cloud of dust.

“Got it!" Lukashevych yells, as the room erupts in cheers. Maliuk pumps his fist.

Russian officials played down the extent of the damage, but Ukrainian intelligence said it was even worse than an earlier strike by a truck bomb. Maliuk and Lukashevych said that, even after repairs, Russia no longer sends heavy military equipment, such as tanks and ammunition, over the bridge.

The Mine Operation

Lukashevych was already planning another operation. The Russians had built larger barriers at the entrance to the port in Sevastopol, all but ruling out sea-drone strikes there. So he came up with an alternative: laying sea mines.

Lukashevych’s team built a special SeaBaby that could lay mines that Ukraine had received from a Western partner. The so-called bottom mines are made of plastic and weigh about 400 pounds and are hard to find as they nestle into the mud under shallow water. They use acoustic and electromagnetic sensors to detect the presence of a ship, triggering a detonation.

For a month and a half, the team tracked the routes taken by naval ships and civilian traffic, before sending a SeaBaby to lay two mines. On Sept. 14, the Samum, a guided-missile corvette, triggered one of the mines, which ripped a hole in its stern. The boat is still under repair in dry dock.

The SeaBaby went back and forth in the following weeks, covering more than 3,000 miles as it laid about 15 more mines. During one of the trips, detected by three Raptor-class patrol boats, it fired back with a grenade launcher, scattering the enemy craft.

On Oct. 11, an explosion tore into the side of the Pavel Derzhavin, a large patrol boat, as it was entering Sevastopol Bay. It limped into port for checks.

The Pavel Derzhavin was dispatched to another port for repairs on Oct. 13, but hit a mine as it left Sevastopol Bay. A large tugboat dispatched to rescue the ship, but also struck a mine and had to be towed back to port itself.

Days later, an explosion hit a modern anti-mine ship, one of only two in Russian service.

Meanwhile, another Ukrainian player was getting into the game. Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence, known as HUR, had started working with the manufacturer who built the first drones with the SBU. They had worked together to develop their drone, now called Magura, to focus on open-sea operations where speed and maneuverability are critical.

A HUR operator demonstrated the drone’s agility on a lake one recent day, sending it carving through the water at high speed.

The Magura naval drone had its first successful operation in November when it sank two Russian landing craft in a port in western Crimea.

It caught other ships out at sea, including a corvette, a large landing ship and a fast patrol boat launched in 2021. HUR had damaged that boat, the Sergei Kotov, in two earlier attacks.

On March 5, HUR operators closed in on the ship again with several drones. The Sergei Kotov tried to evade them by weaving between civilian ships, “but it didn’t help," said the HUR operator, who was piloting one of the drones.

HUR released video footage from the drones of at least one huge explosion. The agency said the ship sank.

Write to James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com

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