Worldwide shipping will have to take new measures to ward off kamikaze sea drone attacks following the use of the weapons in Ukraine’s war against Russia, naval experts have told The National.
The attacks could also have a significant geopolitical impact if Ukraine decides to use them against Russian vessels exporting grain to countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Threat levels against Russia shipping operating in the Black Sea were raised considerably after the successful drone attack on a warship conducted across 700km of open water on Friday morning.
Footage shows the bomb-laden boat hitting the landing ship Olenegorsky Gornyak in darkness off the eastern port of Novorossiysk, causing the 2,000-tonne vessel to list heavily to port.
“These uncrewed surface vessels will make the Black Sea fleet operations as difficult as possible, showing the Ukrainians are able to operate at considerable range,” said Dr Sidharth Kaushal, the lead navy expert at the Rusi defence and security think tank.
The development “poses challenges for the Russians tactically and in terms of the broader international ramifications, these are not insignificant,” he added.
The Ukraine-built drones carry a warhead of up to 450kg, similar to that of an anti-ship or surface-to-surface Islander missile, giving them the ability to cause severe damage.
Costing an estimated $250,000 each, the boats can travel up to 800 kilometres carrying a warhead that can prove devastating against a warship’s bulkhead.
Dr Kaushal said: “450kg of TNT is more than you would find in an anti-ship cruise missile, although these often come in at very high speeds, smashing through the hull [and] causing secondary explosions, but that is still a pretty significant payload.”
The drones, built exclusively in Ukraine, resemble 5m-long canoes and are controlled by a special technology centre with joysticks, levers and a screen monitor showing live footage from its mounted camera.
Weighing about 1,000kg, the boats can achieve an impressive maximum speed of the 80 kph and because they are very low in the water they are extremely difficult for a warship’s radar to detect until they are very close.
To defend against them the Russians have used lookouts and ship-mounted machine guns to blow the drones out of water, as well as helicopter patrols.
But footage from Friday’s attack shows the warship clearly silhouetted against the shore with several lights showing on board, and no defensive action which suggests the operation was a total surprise.
The new technology will prove a challenge for modern navies, especially if an adversary can send a swarm of 100 sea drones against a major warship such as an aircraft carrier.
“Detection can be a challenge because they keep a very low profile and they don't have a massive acoustic profile,” said Dr Kaushal. “It only needs one to get through.”
The Novorossiysk attack will further impact Russia’s ability to supply annexed Crimea following another successful attack last month on the Kerch bridge that links the peninsula to the mainland.
There are currently three Ropucha-class landing ships in the Black Sea, each of which has a capability of carrying a 250-tonne cargo or 25 armoured vehicles.
Dr Kaushal described the landing ships as the “workhorses of the Black Sea” for logistics and “critical to moving resources to ports between Russia and Crimea”, especially with other logistical areas coming under attack.
Another important aspect was that the attack came after Kyiv declared the northern Black Sea a “no-go zone” in response to Russia’s blockade of Odesa and threats to strike ships exporting grain.
Dr Kaushal argued that the drone attack could “massively increase war risk premiums” and other costs for shipping exports in the Black Sea.
“This might actually move the needle on that because now vessels going in and out Russian ports will have to seriously consider that they are at least at some risk of being hit.”
Military expert Tim Ripley, formerly of Janes, the defence intelligence company, said the operation “clearly demonstrates that the Ukrainians can attack at will and at range”.
“This represents another way in which the links to Crimea could be cut off if the Ukrainians are able to reinforce success in this space,” added.
“But it also suggests that there will be more Russian raids on Odesa to try to take these drones out at source,” he added. “Ukraine has a significant capability and this demonstrates that a country that does not have a real navy is capable of creating stalemate against one that does.”
It is unclear how the drones managed to navigate from their secret headquarters, probably near Odesa, across 700km of sea, but it is suggested they used inertial coastal navigation before switching to satellites for the final run-in.
It is possible they used Elon Musk’s Starlink system, widely deployed in Ukraine, or managed to get guidance from an ally’s satellite.
It is not known if any of the 100 crew members were injured in the attack but daytime footage showed the Olenegorsky Gornyak being towed into port by two tugs.
The heavy list suggested that its central compartments may have been flooded and could be in danger of sinking.
Despite the footage, the Russian military claimed that all the attacks had been successfully repelled.
It was also claimed that the attack was a joint operation conducted by Ukraine's SBU security agency and its navy. “As a result of the attack, the Olenegorsky Gornyak received a serious breach and currently cannot conduct its combat missions,” a source told Reuters.
In another attack in October last year drones struck the Black Sea Fleet flagship the Admiral Makarov while moored in Sevastopol port.
Russia suffered its greatest humiliation of the naval warfare when its previous flagship the Moskva was sunk by a Ukrainian anti-ship missile in April 2022, a few weeks after the war began.