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Opinion: Ukraine’s naval drones are taking over the Black Sea

May 16, 2024 3:14 PM 7 min read
A serviceman with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's Main Directorate of Intelligence launches a MAGURA naval drone during a demonstration for journalists in Ukraine on April 13, 2024. (Vitalii Nosach/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)
May 16, 2024 3:14 PM 7 min read
Andrii Kharuk
Andrii Kharuk
Military historian
This audio is created with AI assistance

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Russian forces have encountered a new enemy in the Black Sea: Ukraine’s arsenal of naval kamikaze drones. These deceptively small unmanned vehicles have targeted Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since September 2022, picking off Russian battleships one by one.

The latest of Ukraine’s maritime conquests was the Russian Mangust-class patrol boat, which it destroyed off the coast of occupied Crimea with a MAGURA naval drone.

Ukraine shifted its focus to naval drones after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. Due to their unavailability on the market, the Ukrainian military decided to create its own, relying as much as possible on off-the-shelf components. In essence, Ukraine’s naval “kamikaze” drones crash into their targets and explode.

Ukraine’s use of naval drones against comparatively gargantuan Russian battleships follows the 19th-century French naval concept of the Jeune École, which advocated for the use of small, heavily armed vessels to combat larger ones. This concept has proven attractive to states wanting to compensate for smaller naval capabilities.

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It was not the Ukrainian Navy but the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) that first undertook the creation of naval kamikaze drones. It’s believed that an SBU brigadier general with the call sign “Hunter” first pushed the idea of naval drones equipped with Starlink terminals for better coordination.

“Hunter” and SBU chief Vasyl Maliuk then consulted Ukrainian Navy Commander Oleksii Neizhpapa, who in turn created a team of specialists to kickstart their creation and coordination alongside private Ukrainian companies. Ukraine’s first naval kamikaze drones were tested in July 2022 and debuted in September of the same year.

The Ukrainian Navy created the 385th Separate Special Purpose Unmanned Surface Vehicle Brigade in August 2023 – the first-ever military unit to specialize in the use of naval kamikaze drones. The SBU even decided to develop its own naval drones, revealing the Sea Baby, Mamai, and MAGURA in 2023. There are at least three structures within the Ukrainian government and military that use naval kamikaze drones: the SBU, the Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate (HUR), and the Ukrainian Navy.

A closer look

When taking a closer look at Ukraine’s naval drones, it’s important to note that many details of their design are not available to the public – we are at war, after all. We can only draw conclusions based on their appearance, fragments of information revealed by the media and leaked on social networks, and claims made by the Russian military.

One Russian account described Ukrainian naval drones as being built on a jet-ski-like apparatus from which the seat and other features necessary to accommodate a human being have been removed. According to the account, the drone has a compartment containing electronic and communication equipment, as well as a thermal imaging camera. A remote control system is allegedly built using commercially available components. This description probably refers to an earlier model of Ukraine’s naval drones if it can be trusted.

Naval drone operators often communicate with the vessels via Starlink satellite systems. Some Russian accounts also report the use of routers with SIM cards that can connect to local cellular networks.

The development of Ukrainian naval drones is taking place at a time of war, which has affected both their design and the amount of time it takes to test them.

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Testing phases that would ordinarily take years are taking months or even weeks to complete. Prototypes are immediately tested on the battlefield, after which amendments are made, and the next prototype is sent into combat. The evolution is rapid, and the changes that come with each stage of development are drastic.

For example, the weight of the Sea Baby naval drone’s warhead increased from 108 kilograms to 850 kilograms between mid-2022 and the end of 2023. According to SBU spokesperson Artem Dekhtiarenko, in April, the Sea Baby was modernized to hit a target over 1,000 kilometers (621.4 miles) away, meaning the “SBU can reach a target almost anywhere in the Black Sea.”

According to “Hunter,” the next stage is to create a “deconstructed battleship” of sorts by using several naval drones with different capabilities together. For example, some drones will be equipped with weapons, some with air defense, and some with other relevant equipment.

The Mamai naval drone, on the other hand, carries a smaller warhead (450 kilograms) but can travel at a faster speed (110 kilometers per hour). Also a product of the SBU, the Mamai is the fastest of Ukraine’s naval drones.

Meanwhile, the MAGURA can accelerate to 79 kilometers per hour and has a cruising speed of 41 kilometers per hour. At 5.5 meters long, 1.5 meters wide, and a weight of 1,000 kilograms, the MAGURA is named after the daughter of the mythical Slavic god of thunder and lightning.

A serviceman with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's Main Directorate of Intelligence controls a MAGURA naval drone during a demonstration for journalists at an undisclosed location in Ukraine on April 11, 2024. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

Building on successes

One of Ukraine’s first naval drone attacks took place in September 2022. The intended target was Russia’s Admiral Makarov frigate stationed in Sevastopol Bay in occupied Crimea. It’s thought that the attack failed because the naval drones’ Starlink systems were out of range. Rumors circulated that Elon Must ordered the shutdown of Starlink satellite communications near Crimea to avoid “escalation” – rumors he vehemently denied.

Ukrainian forces used naval drones to damage the Russian minesweeper Ivan Golubets in the fall of 2022 and the Russian reconnaissance ship Ivan Khurs in the spring of 2023. Attacks with naval drones also targeted the Russian reconnaissance ship Priazovye, the patrol ship Sergey Kotov, a corvette Samum, the landing ship Olenegorskiy Gornyak, and the merchant tanker Sig. The latter two events showcase a significant increase in Ukrainian naval drones’ range. Ukraine also admitted to using drones to attack the Crimean Bridge in July 2023, although the effort inflicted minimal damage.

However, it was only from November 2023 onward that the Russian Black Sea Fleet started to suffer irreversible losses due to Ukrainian naval drone attacks. A Ukrainian naval drone attack damaged two Russian landing crafts near the town of Chornomorske on the edge of occupied Crimea.

The success of Ukraine’s naval drone attacks has skyrocketed since the start of 2024. According to HUR chief Kyrylo Budanov, Ukrainian forces used six Magura drones to sink the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s corvette, Ivanovets, in February. The Ivanovets reportedly sustained irreparable damage to its hull. The Ukrainian military sunk the landing ship Caesar Kunikov off the coast of the Crimean city of Alupka with Magura drones in February. The Sergey Kotov didn’t escape its fate in early March, sinking in the Kerch Strait.

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Going forward

Ukraine’s naval drones are one of the factors (alongside missiles and aerial drones) that have significantly limited the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s activities. The Russian Navy has moved most of the fleet’s ships from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk, the intensity of its patrols along the Black Sea’s grain corridor has significantly decreased, and the number of trips to sea taken by Russian Kalibr cruise missile carriers has dropped.

As Russia (with considerable delay) starts to develop counter-naval drone measures, Ukraine continues to improve its technology. One aspect to focus on will be Ukraine’s underwater attack drone capabilities. Ukraine has developed several models since 2023, including the Marichka, which can reportedly carry a 200-kilogram warhead.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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