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The Russia-Ukraine war has featured more drone technology than any previous war. Indeed, part of Ukraine’s initial success is due to their effective usage of the Bayraktar TB2 aerial drones. Meanwhile, the inability of the Russians to successfully deploy their drones has resulted in numerous tactical failures. However, much of the discussion on drones has been focused on air-based assets. A different set of drones — unmanned surface vessels (USV) — are posed to also play a critical role in the war going forward.
These systems, commonly referred to as drone ships, are naval vessels that can operated remotely, often with a high degree of autonomy. Following the recent shipment of military aid to Ukraine, the Pentagon released that it included USV systems. The Pentagon also stated that they have provided training to the Ukrainian military on how to use these systems.
Although, there was no detail as to the type or number of these devices provided to Ukraine, they are likely systems currently used by the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Navy currently has a large effort to develop USVs over a range of sizes. The larger USVs, such as the Leidos Sea Hunter, are intended to perform long-term missions currently performed by manned Navy ships. Meanwhile, smaller USV systems are intended primarily for intelligence gathering, communication relays, and mine sweeping. The USVs provided to Ukraine are likely the smaller class of USV systems, given that they are more technically mature.
One candidate system provided to Ukraine is the Common USV built by Textron. This system is approximately the size of a standard patrol boat at approximately 10 m in length. These USVs can carry a customizable payload based on the mission set, including the potential for weapons. The systems can achieve speeds of 30 mph with a cruising range of 1,200 nautical miles.
Another likely candidate system is the Mantas T-12 built by MARTAC. This system is fairly small at 3.6 m in length with a payload of 63.5 kg. These USVs are intended primarily for intelligence gathering, have a range between 23 and 60 nautical miles, and can achieve speeds of 50 mph. The Mantas T-12 have been featured in several recent joint naval exercises between the US and Bahrain.
Regardless of the specific model, USVs will play a significant role as the war progresses, since the Russians have consolidated their assault to the Donbas region, which borders the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. As such, the Russian military can leverage their Naval assets to support their ground forces. It is important to note that the Russian Navy is considered to be the second strongest Navy in the world. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Navy is very small, even scuttling their flagship at the start of the war.
The Russian military will likely use their Navy to support their ground forces in three ways. First, the Russian Navy can provide sea-based logistical resupply. Given the challenges that the Russians have had with ground-based resupply, sea-based resupply could be safer and more secure. Second, the Russian Navy can support an amphibious assault, allowing for the landing of ground forces behind Ukrainian defenses. The Russians implemented an amphibious assault early in their invasion. Third, the Russian Navy is heavily armed, including cruise missiles with ranges of 900 miles. Between their guns and missiles, the Russian Navy is able to provide fire support for their ground-based forces.
The utility of the Russian Navy for these operations rely on a simple assumption – that the Ukrainians will not be able to find and target their ships. As seen from the sinking of the Moskva, if the Ukrainian military knows the location of a Russian ship, they can sink it using systems such as the Neptune cruise missile. However, targeting ships in open water is difficult since it is challenging to precisely pinpoint their location.
USVs provide the Ukrainians the needed ability to detect and localize the Russian ships, such that ground-based missile systems can target and destroy them. USVs have the natural advantage that they are unmanned; as such, they can operate in contested water or riskier environments. Additionally, they can operate autonomously for extended periods of time, allowing them to patrol up and down the coasts and detect any ships approaching the shore for resupply or an amphibious assault. The mere presence of the USVs serve as a deterrence from conducting such operations. Meanwhile, the USVs can potentially move further out into the Black Sea to try to find the Russian gunships, which can then be targeted.
As the war enters its third month, the use of drones has been unprecedented. They have played a significant role in the initial Ukrainian success and Russian failures. Moving into the next stages of the war, drones will continue to play a key role. In particular, USVs may provide the Ukrainians the ability to limit the effectiveness of the Russian Navy.