While much of Ukraine’s fight for survival has been waged on its own soil, friendly nations are sending unmanned vessels to help the country hunt mines along its coastline and patrol the Black Sea. Naval observers are now watching to see how Russia responds – and how these new drone ships will ultimately factor in this and future conflicts.
On August 27, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence announced it was sending six autonomous minehunting vehicles – underwater drones – to Ukraine to help find and clear Russian mines. The announcement stated that “dozens” of sailors in Ukraine’s navy will ultimately be taught to use the drones, with some already in training.
“Russia has been weaponising food by destroying Ukrainian agriculture and blockading the country’s Black Sea ports to prevent exports, with devastating consequences for the world’s poorest people as food prices rise,” the U.K. MOD added. “A small number of ships carrying grain have left Ukraine since the UN brokered a deal in July to allow food exports, but efforts to get food out of the country continue to be hampered by sea mines left by Russian forces along Ukraine’s coast.”
The donation of drone submarines follows a Pentagon announcement in April that the U.S. was sending an unspecified number of unmanned surface vessels to Ukraine to counter Russia’s freedom of navigation operations in the Black Sea. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby offered few details at the time about which of the U.S.’s few drone boats would be headed to Ukraine, or when they might arrive.
“We’re working very hard at sourcing these things and getting them on the way to Ukraine as quickly as possible,” Kirby had said on April 14. “I’m not going to talk about the specific capabilities of these USVs… Coastal defense is something that Ukraine has repeatedly said they’re interested in. It is particularly an acute need now, as we see the Russians really refocus their efforts on the east and in the south.”
Samuel Bendett, a member of the Center for Naval Analyses’ Russia Studies Program and an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is curious to see whether Ukraine’s use of unmanned vessels will prompt Russia to reveal its own maritime drone platforms, including those that have only been rumored to exist up until now.
“The sinking of the Moskva cruiser may have sobered up the Russians to the challenges they are facing in the maritime domain, specifically considering that Ukrainians have a lot of missiles, a lot of weapons and systems that can reach the Russians,” Bendett told Sandboxx News, referring to Ukraine’s April 14 sinking of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea flagship, which had been left largely undefended east of Ukraine’s Snake Island.
Bendett noted that Russia did claim to use its Galtel small unmanned undersea vehicle for sea surveillance in Syria’s port of Tartus, but it’s not clear how effectively the drone sub worked, what challenges it had to overcome, or whether it would be able to function in a hot conflict. No operational use of that system has been reported since 2018.
In January, Russian state news outlet TASS reported that Russia was developing an optionally manned, armed surface vessel to hunt submarines. Russian government sources have also reportedly said that Russian mine-hunting drone subs are also in testing. Russia could feel pressure to debut these still-in-development systems as Ukraine receives cutting-edge drone vessels, but that’s not a certainty.
“It’s not clear exactly whether Russians are willing to use this technology right now,” Bendett said.
But beyond forcing Russian technological development out into the open, these unmanned vessels could expand Ukraine’s view of the operational picture, and provide advance notice of any offensive moves from Russia’s dominant Black Sea fleet.
“In this war, where each side is trying to figure out what are the capabilities that the other side possesses, having eyes and ears in all domains is important,” Bendett said. “And given the fact that this war is fought in the land domain and the air domain, in the cyber and information domain, and maritime domain as well, sort of having eyes and ears in the undersea domain becomes absolutely essential.”
While the Pentagon has not specified which unmanned vessels it is sending to Ukraine, the Navy has several platforms that could fulfill the Black Sea minehunting and surveillance mission for Ukraine.
One of the Navy’s best-known drone ships is the DARPA-developed Sea Hunter, a 132-foot medium unmanned surface vessel christened in 2016. The vessel was designed for missions including mine countermeasures, sub detection and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It has a narrow hull and two outriggers and can travel 70 days unmanned and operating remotely, covering 10,000 nautical miles on a single load of fuel. The drone vessel has been the subject of numerous Navy experiments and incorporated into service exercises to prove out its payloads and operational concepts. Sea Hunter was joined by an updated sibling ship, Sea Hawk, in 2021.
Since 2008, the service has also operated several common unmanned sevice vehicles (CUSV), 39-foot drone motorboats made by Textron, and built to act as minesweepers, ISR platforms, or harbor security patrol vessels. The company states that CUSV can operate for 20 hours or more and tow 4,000 pounds or more at 20 knots. Last month, the Navy declared initial operating capability for its Unmanned Influence Sweep System, a semi-autonomous vessel based on CUSV that can operate independently or launch from littoral combat ships or other platforms.
“Notably, this is also the first IOC of an unmanned surface platform by the U.S. Navy, marking an important milestone in the evolution toward a hybrid fleet of manned and unmanned systems,” the Navy stated in the announcement.
Based on mission requirements and platform maturity, UISS appears a strong candidate for Ukraine’s shore patrol mission. But the Navy has also used smaller, commercial USVs like the Triton in regions including the Middle East.
Separately, the Navy has also begun building out a family of large unmanned surface vessels, or LUSVs. These ships are between 200-300 feet long, may be armed, and are intended to carry payloads for missions including anti-surface warfare and strike. The Navy has also indicated that these LUSVs will often be lightly manned, particularly as the program is proving itself and developing maturity. The first LUSVs, called Nomad and Ranger, participated in the massive Rim of the Pacific exercise earlier this summer.
The third LUSV, Mariner, was christened in August in Annapolis.
Bendett, who also has monitored with interest the prominent role of unmanned aerial vehicles in the Russia-Ukraine war, noted that war is unpredictable, and the world is still learning the capabilities and potential uses of these new drone ships and submarines. As these new platforms are used in a real-world setting, he said, he’ll be watching how tactics change and technology is proven out, and what vulnerabilities become apparent. And, he said, he’s not ruling out a turn in which they play a crucial role in the fight.
“In a war where new systems are constantly used by each side to gain an advantage, UUVs and USVs could actually be the advantage, if they’re going to be used specifically to counter the other side’s perceived strength,” Bendett said.
Feature Image: A Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel (USV) sails in the Gulf of Aqaba off of Jordan’s coast, Dec. 12, during exercise Digital Horizon. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command began operationally testing the USV as part of an initiative to integrate new unmanned systems and artificial intelligence into U.S. 5th Fleet operations. (U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Deandre Dawkins)