Use of boat drone appeared to demonstrate how effective these nimble and relatively cheap weapons can be
Russian Black Sea fleet ships seen anchored at Sevastopol, Crimea, in 2014. Photograph: AP
Tue 1 Nov 2022 17.22 GMTLast modified on Tue 1 Nov 2022 17.35 GMT
It had all the thrill of a daring commando raid, filmed live. But Saturday’s dawn raid on Russia’s Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol was not carried out by elite soldiers, but by 16 drones, nine in the air and seven at sea – prompting questions as to whether the attack represented a revolutionary moment in the history of warfare.
Three years ago, it was Dominic Cummings, before his eventful tenure at Downing St, who wrote “A teenager will be able to deploy a drone from their smartphone to sink one of these multibillion-dollar platforms,” a reference to the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers, built at a total cost of £6.4bn. That time, he may have been right.
Certainly, as the war has run on Ukraine had found a way to threaten and even inflict serious damage on Russia’s Black Sea fleet – having already sunk its Moskva flagship by long-range missile in April. Now its attack craft appear to be ingenious, but ultimately simple suicide drones.
Of particular interest is the drone boat, which caused a buzz among naval analysts when one was found by the Russians washed up on Omega Bay, outside the entrance to Sevastopol harbour last month. The same craft is thought to have been used at the weekend to ram into the Russian frigate seen briefly on the footage leaked to a Ukrainian journalist.
Footage appears to show drone boat attack on Russian ships in Crimea – video
The naval analyst HI Sutton said he believed that the boat was developed by modifying a commercially available jetski. It is surrounded by an aluminium hull with, most likely, Russian designed fuses at the front to prime a warhead just behind. A remotely controlled camera, plus infrared lens, sits on a pedestal and brings back a video feed to Ukraine’s command and control centre.
Such an approach of bringing together commercially available elements has echoes of the method used in Turkey to build Bayrakter TB2 aerial drones, producing relatively cheap weapons. Similar drone boats have also recently been used by the Houthi rebels against Saudi naval ships at port in the Red Sea. “We can see future wars will have large numbers of these as a persistent threat,” Sutton said.
Ukrainian experts said they were particularly impressed by the fact that the country’s navy was able to coordinate the drones more than 100 miles from its coast, using the weight of numbers – in both sea and air – to get to the area outside the harbour and possibly even within it. But this has to be set against the fact that the damage done in the raid is unclear, for all the excitement it has generated.
A key target, identified by open source analysts in the video, is Russia’s most modern Black Sea frigate, the Admiral Makarov. One film goes dead the moment it reaches the boat, suggesting it exploded, but the impact of any bombing is not known. A picture of the Makarov at harbour, undamaged, was circulating online on Tuesday, but it is not clear what date it was taken.
But even if the damage to the Makarov and other vessels is slight, it should force the Russian navy to a rapid reassessment. It has long been known that warships are at their most vulnerable in or close to shore, where they are least able to manoeuvre, or bring all their weapons into play.
In this case the Russian fleet, perhaps underestimating its opponent, may have been guilty of what Sidharth Kaushal, a naval specialist from the Rusi thinktank, called “tactical inflexibility” because it has “hugged the Crimean coast” – lingering too long in an area where it might be most vulnerable to an opportunist attack.
After Sevastopol, many naval experts said the idea of drone boats was not anything new, citing precedents such as fireships, used repeatedly from ancient times. Kaushal described Ukraine’s new boats as “essentially self propelled torpedoes” – but also cheap and potentially very effective weapons in congested areas such as the Persian Gulf or, as Ukraine found, the northern Black Sea.