Attrition: The Ukrainian Navy

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February 12, 2024: Ukraine has a growing force of MAGURA V5 USVs (Unmanned Surface Vessels) that have become a major factor in destroying or crippling the remaining Russian warships in the Black Sea. MAGURA V5 has a range of 800 kilometers, a maximum speed of 75 kilometers an hour and a cruising speed of 40 kilometers. MAGURA V5 is an upgrade of earlier USV designs. These USVs have been heavily used for over a year and Ukraine is producing as many of them as it can to use for reconnaissance and surveillance as well as attacks. NATO naval officials are fascinated by this development and are learning as much about these USVs as they can because, for coastal warfare or operations in restricted waters, that can be a decisive and inexpensive weapon.

This is quite a comeback from the losses the Ukrainian Navy has suffered in the Black Sea since 2014. Between 2014 and 2024 Russia has lost nine major ships with a combined displacement of 17,000 tons. Ukraine has lost 14 ships with a total displacement of 12,000 tons. Only five of the Russian ships and 11 of the Ukrainian ones were warships. The rest were patrol boats and support ships.

In 2014 Russia captured many Ukrainian Navy ships when they took control of Crimea. Russia returned some of those ships to Ukraine, but the damage was done with Ukraine losing about 70 percent of its naval vessels. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 the war in the Black Sea accelerated with the Ukrainians making heavy use of USVs to attack and often destroy Russian warships and support vessels. Ukraine also used cruise and ballistic missiles as well as air-dropped glide bombs to attack Russian ships and bases in Crimea. The USV were particularly dangerous to Russian ships because the USVs were low in the water and usually moved quite slowly. At night these USVs could stealthily enter a Russian port and attack ships and port facilities. What’s left of the Russian Black Sea fleet is gradually disappearing because of these novel weapons and tactics.

Russia depends on Novorossiysk, a major port and naval base on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, nearly a thousand kilometers from Crimea. For over a year Ukraine has been using USVs to attack ships operating out of the port. Ukrainian USVs can reach Novorossiysk by replacing some of their explosives with fuel. The USVs operators are on land and communicate via a satellite link that allows the operators to use a small video camera on the USV to see where they are and where they are going. Russia can jam those signals but the USVs can continue without remote guidance, especially once they are close to their targets. Ukraine has launched several attacks on Novorossiysk, damaging or destroying port facilities with armed USVs carrying up to half a ton of explosives. Novorossiysk has facilities for storing petroleum products and when these are set on fire the damage to the port is considerable. This reminds the Russians that no Black Sea port is safe from Ukrainian attacks.

Even in daylight USVs are difficult to spot from ships or from the air. When attacks are made at night, it’s nearly impossible to see them coming. Russia has erected barriers at some ports to keep the USVs out, but this fails because the USVs can detonate at or near the barriers, destroying them and enabling more USVs to follow. In these situations, the USVs are more effective than submarines because there are no crews and are a lot cheaper than a crewed ship or submarine. In effect, the Ukrainian Navy now consists of hundreds of expendable USVs. No one expected USVs to be such a major factor in naval warfare and that has been another lesson from the Ukraine War.

 

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