The naval achievements that the Ukrainian armed forces have accomplished over the past year have been substantial given their fleet size. Having sunk 18 ships since the invasion began including the sinking of the Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva, Ukraine has denied Russia full control of the Black Sea littoral zone thanks to the resilience of their navy. The Ukrainian Navy has recently incorporated the use of uncrewed maritime platforms into their ranks, using them several times to disrupt Russian naval movements and hinder port access.

Although not the first time uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) have been utilised on the battlefield, these attacks represent the first modern application of the technology that allows USVs to operate remotely up to 500 miles away from the vessel’s homeport. The Ukrainian Government has announced its intention to procure 100 of these vessels in order to expand its hold on the Black Sea and deter Russian aggression, as 20% of the roughly 4,500 missiles launched at Ukraine came from Russian naval vessels. Notwithstanding Ukraine’s strategic objectives, examining the impact presented by USVs in the Russia-Ukraine conflict is vital to understanding their viability in future maritime conflicts.

Traditional USVs are usually fitted with defensive capabilities like machine guns or mine-laying capabilities so that the USV can return safely from engagement. The unconventional USVs employed by Ukraine are deemed uncrewed surface explosive vehicles and perform kamikaze operations largely at port targets. The Ukrainian Navy employs a swarm strategy by sending the vessels out in groups of 2-6 in conjunction with aerial drone support. Multiple targets moving rapidly in the air and on the ocean prove harder for Russian ships to effectively counter, often resulting in damage to the ship.

So far, there have been five different attacks mainly focused on the port cities of Sevastopol and Novorossiysk, ranging in effectiveness and scope. The first attack on 29 October 2022 was the most successful, as seven USVs and one aerial drone attacked the frigate Admiral Marakov, the minesweeper Ivan Golubets, and an unnamed ship in Sevastopol. Although none of the ships were sunk, they sustained significant damage causing the vessels to be grounded for an extended period. The USVs penetrated the protected and “safe” harbour, likely resulting in a significant drop in morale and security for the members of the Russian Navy. The breach of Sevastopol’s defences caused Russia to implement more defensive measures like anti-USV wires in their ports and increased military presence.

With Novorossiysk being 420 miles away from Odessa, the next attack represented a key target for its oil supply. Several USVs attacked the Sheskharis oil terminal and little damage occurred, however, it demonstrated the expansive range within which USVs could operate effectively. Two further attacks occurred in Sevastopol on 22 March and 24 April 2023, where in both cases multiple USVs penetrated the harbour and exploded shy of the intended target and thus inflicting little damage. The most recent case is unconfirmed, as both sides present a different story. Russia claims that the intelligence ship Ivan Khurs was attacked by several USVs 140km away from the Bosporus strait while the ship was reportedly protecting the Bluestream and Turkstream pipelines. Although they provided video evidence of the attack, Ukraine gave another video illustrating a collision between a USV and a warship. Regardless of what occurred, the effect of USVs on the Russian Navy has led the admirals to be more conservative and defensive with their fleet deployment as the Black Sea fleet scarcely leaves Sevastopol.

Despite not sinking any ships, Ukraine illustrated the operational viability of USVs in future naval confrontations. Even the Russians have adopted a “kamikaze” USV in light of Ukraine’s success, employing an explosive USV to blow up a bridge near Odesa in February 2023. The ability to deliver payloads at a high-speed while being autonomous/remote-controlled provides a unique way to conduct naval operations without the cost of human life. USVs can be made smaller than most boats and are relatively cheap, with the vessels in Ukraine costing $250,000 in comparison to for instance a tomahawk missile at around $2m each. The vessels found in Ukraine are easy to manufacture, with many indicating that they can be built in a garage with off-the-shelf civilian components.  

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The combination of low cost and low risk translates into the ability to sustain a persistent threat to navies in the open ocean and at port through large numbers. There are also benefits to not having a human in control of the vessel, as it can be streamlined and faster. USVs can also be deployed in worse conditions and stay out at sea for longer periods of time. USVs could represent a cheaper alternative to missiles while also being able to carry out more functions if the USV possesses a modular design.

However, there are downsides to USVs as they can often have limited applications once the element of surprise is lost. This effect was demonstrated by the subsequent attacks on the Russian Navy after the primary attack in October of 2022, as none of the other attacks were able to inflict considerable damage. Continued USV attacks on ports would only be countered by a proportional increase in defences. The Russian Navy has limited experience employing defensive capabilities, whereas western governments (specifically the US and UK) have invested in netting and jamming techniques after learning from clashes with Houthi rebels in the Gulf of Yemen in 2021. Therefore, the attacks perpetrated by Ukraine would have a larger effect on Russia than similar attacks on a developed navy. There is also an absence of international regulation on the subject as a warship is defined to be “manned” and require proper oversight from the chain of command, regulations which are difficult to enforce on uncrewed platforms.

Although the UK pledges to use autonomous/ remotely operated military equipment legally and ethically, this may not be the case for other states or allies in times of war. Cybersecurity concerns about the reliability of a platform which is being operated remotely have merit. To summarise, USVs represent an interesting new development in naval warfare. They represent a low-cost alternative to traditional missile strikes and attack-based naval operations, but they also represent a minimal threat currently once the element of surprise is lost. Many would argue, however, that the simple threat of USVs (especially the explosive variants) forces competing navies to be more cautious with their fleets. USV technology will likely improve over the coming decade with GlobalData intelligence predicting that the USV market will grow from $894m in 2023 to $1.5bn in 2027, indicating the potential developments in the design of USVs. With the news that Ukraine is developing the world’s first combat unmanned underwater vessel (UUV) and have developed a new USV, the Monobank, Ukraine will continue to disrupt Russian naval operations with innovative unmanned maritime vehicles.