On 29th October an attack was mounted on Russian Black Sea Fleet units using uncrewed boats and aircraft. Here we examine what is known about the events, the implications for the war in Ukraine and more widely for other navies.
Over a week after the action, the full facts of what happened in Sevastopol are still not fully known but thanks to footage released by Ukrainian sources it has been possible for open-source intelligence analysts to be certain of some aspects of the attack. At first light on the morning of the 29th, USVs attacked at least 3 ships close to, and within the naval base. The most significant target was an Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate, almost certainly the RFS Admiral Makarov, now flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, following the sinking of the RFS Moskva. (Her sister ship RFS Admiral Essen is also part of the BSF but Russian media have mentioned the Makarov). The frigate was attacked while underway and manoeuvring in the waters just outside the naval base. Footage from the camera on the USVs shows at least one attack took place in the early morning daylight, a Mi-8 (NATO reporting name – Hip) helicopter and possibly the frigate used heavy machine guns in an attempt to prevent the attack. A later piece of footage from an infrared camera shows another USV getting very close to the frigate.
The second vessel was a Natya-class minesweeper, the RFS Ivan Golubets which appears to have been stuck on the stern. The Russians subsequently confirmed the Ivan Golubets did sustain minor damage but did not admit any other vessels had been struck. A third unidentified vessel, possibly a merchant ship was attacked while alongside in the harbour. Other footage shows the Russians succeed in destroying at least one USVs and around the same time there was a coordinated air attack on the city with UAVs. Footage shows there were several large explosions and the Russian Defence Ministry later said the attack involved “nine unmanned aerial vehicles and seven autonomous maritime drones”. The video also shows the USV narrowly missing a small civilian fishing boat and a panicked fisherman diving overboard.
It appears that neither the Makarov or the Ivan Golubets sustained damage sufficient to sink them, as recent satellite imagery shows them back alongside in the naval base. The material damage may have been limited but the Makarov is likely to be unavailable for operations while repairs are completed. The more significant effects are the strategic impact on the naval situation in the Black Sea and the psychological effect on the Russians in Crimea.
The Sevastopol attack is not a new paradigm in naval warfare as some claim, but rather a modern development of a tactic that dates back centuries. In the days of sail, fire ships were filled with gunpowder or just set on fire and left to drift into enemy vessels. In the Second World War, small manned craft were used to attack ships in harbour, most notably in 1941 Italian frogmen using human torpedoes succeed in severely damaging HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth in Alexandria. More recently the deadly attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour by a boat laden with explosives pointed the way to a new form of maritime asymmetric warfare. Iranian-backed Houthis rebels severely damaged the Saudi Frigate Al Madina using a remotely controlled explosive craft in the Red sea in January 2017. Houthis have subsequently mounted other Water-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (WBIED) attacks on civilian tankers and succeeded in seriously damaging the Saudi naval auxiliary tanker Boraida at King Faisal Naval Base, Jeddah during December 2020.
The new and distinctive aspects of the 29th October attack are the use of uncrewed surface vessels operating under remote control from a considerable distance, probably using a satellite link. It is also the first time multiple USVs have been employed in a combined attack. The port of Sevastopol is theoretically hard to breach as the outer harbour is protected by jetties on either side that create a narrow entrance. Since the start of the conflict floating defensive booms have been placed between the jetties. The Russian navy, like the US Navy, has a marine mammal programme and reportedly deployed dolphins in the harbour trained to detect enemy swimmers and mines. (Whether dolphins could be trained to counter USVs is unclear!) Somehow the boom defence was penetrated – possibly the leading USV detonated its payload to cut a hole through the barrier allowing the following craft to pass through. Along with damage to the minesweeper, the Russians say there had been damage to a floating boom, although precisely where is unclear.
In September 2022 a USV of a similar design to those used in the October attack was washed up in Omega Bay, just to the South of the naval base and an image of the craft was circulated widely on social media. This indicates that Ukraine had already begun to deploy these craft well in advance of the successful operation. Possibly technical problems resulted in a failed first attempt and the broken down vessel drifted ashore.
The USV appears to be hand-built, uses a fibreglass hull and is propelled by a Canadian-made SeeDoo jet ski engine with an impeller-driven waterjet. On the top is a satellite communications antenna that possibly utilises the Starlink network. A trainable camera turret, just high enough above the waterline to cope with small waves provides visual guidance for the controller. On the bows are mounted contact fuses which detonate the explosive payload on impact. The vessel is about the size of a typical adult kayak and the interior space occupied by the engine, fuel and warhead. If these craft were launched from the shore in Ukraine they would need a range in excess of 140 nautical miles and a good size fuel tank that would dictate the space available for the explosive.
UPDATE: Ukraine has subsequently set up a fundraising site with more details about these USVs here.
Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry has said; “There can be no doubt that British intelligence services were involved in the terrorist attack on base in Sevastopol on October 29th and against the Nord Stream pipeline.” Claims of the UK carrying out the Nord Stream attacks are obviously risible and it is unlikely there was much direct UK involvement in the Sevastopol operation. These totally unsubstantiated statements are just a sign of Russian desperation to downplay Ukrainian success and paint the conflict as NATO’s fault.
The Ukrainians seem to be doing very well on their own, the development of these USVs is yet another example of clever improvisation and utilisation of components readily available on the commercial market. If NATO and UK forces were involved at all it was likely providing intelligence about Russian naval activity and dispositions.
More bad news for Moscow
The extent of damage to Russian naval units is not clear but seems to be limited. However, the attack is another way to undermine Russia’s sense of security in Crimea. The destruction of at least 11 jets at Saky Airbase (9 Aug), the UAV attack on the Black Sea Fleet Headquarters (21 Aug) and the bombing of the Kerch bridge (8 Oct) are part of a concerted campaign using unconventional means to weaken Russia’s grip on Crimea and their ability to control the Black Sea. The VMF is being humiliated by a nation with no navy, already having lost its flagship and pushed back from the coast of Southern Ukraine by the threat of anti-ship missiles, activity has been severely curtailed with fewer ships venturing to sea.
The USV and UAV attacks show Russian warships are not even secure in their harbours. Such is the desperation to protect its precious submarines in particular, there are reports the Soviet-era naval base at Balaklava which includes an underground submarine shelter is being re-activated.
In a fit of rage, the Russians responded to events in Sevastopol by saying they would suspend the agreement to allow Ukraine to export food through the agreed humanitarian corridor of ships through the Black Sea. Weaponising global food supplies has proved a poor strategy for Russia, despite the damage it does to Ukraine’s struggling economy. On 31st October, 12 ships carrying 354,500 tonnes of food sailed from Ukraine, in large part thanks to fine diplomatic efforts by Turkey but Russian willingness to risk interfering with merchant shipping may also be declining.
Strike where weak
The USS Cole incident demonstrated how a weaker or non-naval adversary will look for opportunities to inflict damage to a warships alongside at a low state of readiness. The USV attacking the Marakov shows that even an alert and mobile warship may be at risk from a new kind of low-budget weapon in confined waters. The Sevastopol attack is yet another reminder to global navies that adversaries do not need a lot of money or high technology to threaten expensive, high-end assets. This has been obvious in the air domain for many years but is now becoming more recognised in the maritime. A relatively simple system operated by an actor who does not need to be nearby or have line-of-sight control can manoeuvre the USV reactively to attack targets of opportunity rather than just strike at a pre-programmed location.
Being small, low in the water and having a fibreglass hull makes the USVs difficult to detect, both during a long transit from the launch point and even for defenders when close to the target. Cheap to produce, it is not hard to imagine a cottage industry producing them quickly in sufficient numbers to mount swarm attacks to ensure some get through even if some malfunction or are eliminated by defences.
From an RN perspective, it raises questions about the security of its harbours, particularly the physical barriers, sensors and weaponry to protect ships when alongside. Until the end of the Second World War least, the RN had a flotilla of dedicated boom defence vessels and harbour entrances had strong nets and floating barriers intended to prevent penetration by submarines or surface craft. Boom defences are an encumbrance to the normal operation of a harbour, especially where the navy shares the waterways with civilian ships and pleasure craft. Neither Devonport or Portsmouth have any physical barrier around warships but nuclear submarines in Faslane are at least protected. Trelleborg port security barriers comprising a series of 25m long x 3m diameter heavy-duty pneumatic fenders strung together between mooring points surround the submarine berths.
Active port defence against asymmetric threats will require round-the-clock vigilance. The RN already has well-established force protection procedures and crew-served weapons are manned during movements in and out of harbour. Finding a way to defend ships while alongside and either in normal harbour watches or out of routine is challenging. This may require a combination of additional fixed sensors and patrolling uncrewed vehicles to provide early warning, together with increased manning levels, additional weapons with adequate stopping power and more training. The rules of engagement and operation of automatic weapons potentially in close proximity to civilians, commercial vessels and non-naval port infrastructure also pose difficult issues.
If the lessons from Sevastopol at looked at from the attacker’s point of view, there could be value in established navies developing their own light-strike USVs. If the UK was to attempt to field a similar capability using its existing procurement processes, it would probably end up being costly, overly exquisite, and have to pass through rounds of testing and bureaucratic certifications taking years. War is the mother of invention and in some instances there is a lot to be said for a small team working with low budget and COTS technology being allowed to just get on with it. The programmes being run by the MoD’s Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) are at least beginning to scratch the surface and attempting to develop capabilities for the front line more rapidly.
Main photo: Capt_Navy. RFS Admiral Marakov on sea trials, June 2017.