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To Keep its Edge at Sea, Ukraine Considers Drone Subs

This Ukrainian remote-controlled surface drone boat washed up on a beach in Sevastopol (file image)
This early design of a Ukrainian remote-controlled surface drone boat washed up on a beach in Sevastopol last year (file image)

Published Jan 28, 2024 9:09 PM by The Maritime Executive

For a country without warships, Ukraine has had considerable success attacking the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet. Using missiles and drone boats, it has destroyed a submarine, several tank landing ships, a missile corvette, a cruiser, multiple patrol boats, and put many others in shipyard for repairs. That success comes down to careful strategy and technological sophistication - both homegrown and imported. But sustaining it may require some more innovation, according to Ukrainian Navy chief Vice Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa. 

"The enemy is adapting, and we must also adapt. A modern war is a war of technologies. Whoever wins in the technological sense will have victory," he told Sky News. 

Neizhpapa made similar comments earlier this month, calling for more innovation.“Some of our tricks and tactics that were worked out in 2022 and 2023 will not work in 2024," he told Ukrainska Pravda. "The enemy is also learning, he also has a very powerful industrial complex, and no one has ever limited the Russians' money for weapons. Therefore, we have very difficult drone wars ahead of us." 

Ukraine's arsenal includes the Storm Shadow cruise missile, which has proven highly effective against stationary targets in port or shipyard. Ukrainian forces destroyed a Kilo-class attack sub in a graving dock at Sevastopol using a Storm Shadow last year, and blew up the headquarters building of the Black Sea Fleet using another shortly after. Its suicide drone boats have been credited with a range of damaging attacks, including the recent sinking of a patrol boat at the end of December.  

"We must move in that direction, we must develop. . . drones are the weapon that can bring us closer to victory at sea," Neizhpapa told Ukrainska Pravda. 

Russia has adapted to the threat by relocating most of the Black Sea Fleet further to the east, to the relative safety of Novorossiysk. Russian surface combatants have not ventured into the western Black Sea in significant numbers in months, reflecting the risk of attack by cruise missiles or by swarms of drone boats. 

To maintain its lethality edge, Ukraine may consider submersible drones, according to analyst H.I. Sutton. Ukraine's defense ministry held a drone competition on January 28, looking for new ideas and new technology to break through Russian defenses. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are an obvious next step, and one option - tentatively codenamed FURY - would be to up-arm existing American AUVs to carry live weapons. The idea is not new, and Ukraine has considered it before, but this particular implementation is novel: an off-the-shelf research/survey AUV would come with fully matured propulsion, navigation, comms and autonomy functions. Weaponization would be a smaller technological leap.