Surface Forces: Attacking Novorossiysk


July 1, 2024: In 2023 Ukraine defeated the Russian Black Fleet, destroying or disabling over a third of the Russian ships. The remaining Russian ships fled to farther east ports in the Black Sea. In early 2024 Ukraine built 35 Sea Baby drones, also known as USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles). These USVs are made of a material that is nearly invisible to radar. Each can carry up to 850 kg of explosives. Less explosives can be carried if you want the Sea Baby to travel farther. With a full load of explosives, it can reach targets up to 1,000 kilometers distant, so the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s remaining ports are within its range. Top speed is 90 kilometers an hour but more economical, in terms of fuel use, cruise speed is about half the top speed. That means it would take the Sea Baby about twenty hours to travel a thousand kilometers. That is a one way trip to a target, like a naval base or any ships docked at the base which is then attacked. Sea Baby navigates using several devices including GPS, INS, and short range sensors to detect and avoid obstacles. These sensors can also be programmed to identify and attack a specific target like a ship or other naval base facility. Sea Baby can also be equipped with short range weapons like explosive rockets that can hit targets a thousand meters distant with thermobaric/fuel air warheads. When used to launch rocket attacks, the Sea Baby can escape and return to a Ukrainian base for reuse. Some Sea Babys are equipped with video cameras to carry out reconnaissance and surveillance missions. In this case, communications equipment must be carried to transmit video or individual digital photos back to the Ukrainian base. The Ukrainians have been very imaginative and flexible in their use of these unmanned seagoing vessels.

In May 2024 the Ukrainian USV and UAV attack on the Russian naval base at Novorossiysk succeeded in damaging port and logistics facilities. Additional UAV attacks were made on oil storage facilities using over fifty UAV. This many UAVs overwhelmed Russian air defenses and made it possible for numerous Russian targets to be hit. Later, residents of the target areas reported hearing numerous explosions followed by outbreaks of large fires, most of them in the oil storage facilities. Since 2023 Ukrainian UAV attacks have been hitting Russian oil refining and storage sites deep inside Russia. These operations have caused fuel shortages for Russian forces inside Ukraine.

Currently Ukraine has three operational Ukrainian models of their USVs. These include Sea Baby, Mother (Mamai), and MAGURA, which carries 320 kg of explosives while Mamai carries 450 kg. These USVs are no longer used just for delivering explosives against a target; they can also be used for reconnaissance when equipped with video cameras that broadcast what they see back to the USV operator. Some USVs have been armed with small rocket launchers. Malyuk has a range of over 700 kilometers, which means they are suitable for operations on the high seas. Endurance is about 60 hours, and top speed is over 70 kilometers an hour. MAGURA has similar characteristics. Mamai was used in the long range attack at the distant naval base at Novorossiysk on Russia’s Black Sea eastern, which is a thousand kilometers from Crimea.

Sea Baby was used in the mid-2023 Kerch Strait Bridge attack and was carrying 850 kg of explosives that inflicted enough damage to render the bridge unusable. The bridge is a key transport route for getting supplies into Crimea and as of early 2024 was still unusable.

Ukraine has been developing subsurface USVs and in early 2023 the first one, the Toloka2 TK-150 was introduced. This USV was 2.5 meters long and equipped with a sensor mast that remained above the surface for navigation and to identify targets. Toloka2 can also carry a small explosive warhead. More recently, Ukraine developed the larger Marichka USV that is 6 meters long and one meter in diameter. Ukraine has planned for a Western manufacturer to build and weaponize Ukrainian USVs.

Ukrainian USVs have been quite successful in attacking and sinking or disabling Russian navy ships. So far there have been twelve attacks which resulted in damage to 12 ships and the sinking of a cruiser, two small landing ships and one missile corvette. The longest range raids have been against targets in Kerch Strait and the more distant Novorossiysk.

Ukrainian USV operations in the Black Sea forced the Russian Black Sea Fleet to withdraw to the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Sevastopol was no longer a safe place to be, and Russian ships could no longer launch their Kalibr cruise missiles without moving closer to Ukrainian territory and risking attack by Ukrainian USVs. The presence and aggressive use of the USVs means that Ukraine’s grain corridor has been kept open despite Russia’s threats to interfere. Beyond symbolic significance, the corridor holds critical economic importance for Ukraine and is expected to contribute 5-7 percent to GDP growth in 2024 because of the grain shipments.

The aggressive and successful use of Ukrainian USVs against the Russian Black Sea fleet was unprecedented in the history of naval warfare. Not only were these USVs tactically successful but financially as well. For example, new frigates cost about $1.5 billion each. That much money can also pay for 5,000 such USVs. Destroyers cost twice as much. The frigates and destroyers are high seas ships and can travel all over the world. The USVs operate in coastal waters although some of the larger USVs can operate up to a thousand kilometers from where they were launched. These USVs carry video cameras and satellite-based communications systems to collect information and, in peacetime, do so without fear of attack. Severe storms are another matter, but any storm damage will be broadcast as it is happening, at least until the video cameras or communications equipment is disabled.

Commercial cargo ships can carry hundreds of armed UAVs equipped with satellite communications so operators anywhere in the world can control them. These USVs can be unloaded at sea and sent to carry out attacks on targets in the area or move to a nearby harbor and remain tied to a dock until needed. The only maintenance is keeping the USV batteries charged. These USVs are a radical new weapon for naval warfare and the war at sea will never be the same because of the success of Ukrainian USVs in their victorious war against the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Nations with major warship fleets, like the U.S. and China, have much to fear from this new development of weaponized seagoing USVs. These USVs are difficult to spot visually, especially at night. Sonar can detect them, and autocannon-equipped ship weapons, like Phalanx, can be adapted to accurately target and destroy USVs. Since the United States provides most of the military aid to Ukraine, they can get some cooperation from the Ukrainians that will help American warships and those of other NATO nations develop weapons and tactics to deal with USVs. The Russians were taken by surprise when their Black Sea Fleet was attacked by USVs. In less than a year, most of the Black Sea Fleet warships were destroyed or severely damaged by USVs. Because of the USVs, Ukraine, which does not have a conventional navy, now controls most of the Black Sea.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, the invaders also expected to reinforce and expand their control of the Black Sea. This included blocking Ukrainian grain exports, which would drive up prices for Russian grain exports. That financial goal was never met because Ukraine fought back with USVs and some air strikes to not only contest efforts to expand Russian control of the Black Sea, but also disrupt Russian naval operations in the Black Sea as well as Russian use of the Crimean Peninsula as bases for naval, air force and army operations. In 2022 Russia had numerous warships in the Black Sea and these came under heavy attack by Ukrainian USVs and missiles. This led to the destruction of the flagship of the Black Sea fleet and systematic attacks on the remaining Russian warships. Ukraine didn’t have any ships of their own for these attacks and had to improvise. Ukraine used armed UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and USVs for these attacks, as well as some land-based guided missiles.

This eventually forced Russia to abandon Crimean naval and air force bases. This included the major Crimean port and naval base of Sevastopol. The growing number of Ukrainian attacks on Crimea forced most of the Russian Black Sea Fleet to move. The UAVs and USVs carry explosive warheads to destroy military targets, including bases, ports, headquarters, and airfields. While civilian targets are spared, the military facilities are a major source of employment. When these facilities are damaged, destroyed and shut down, the civilians begin to leave. Now Ukrainian forces are getting close to the narrow isthmus that connects Crimean to the mainland and the other access point, the Kerch Strait bridge in southeastern Crimea is also under constant attack. As the situation in Crimea deteriorates, corruption by local officials makes matters worse for the remaining civilians and persuades a growing number of them to leave.

In late 2023, advancing Ukrainian forces were close enough to the narrow isthmus connecting Crimea to the mainland that the only Russian rail line carrying supplies to occupied Crimea was within range of GMLRS missile attacks. These NATO supplied missiles were carried and launched from HIMARS vehicles. They had a range of 80 kilometers and were a constant threat to Russian supply lines, including ports and ships in the Black Sea.

Ukraine had already disabled the other rail supply route to Crimea, which used the Kerch Strait bridge. Ukraine used various types of UAVs, USVs and novel UUVs (unmanned underwater vessels) to do this, as well as destroy Russian air defenses in Crimea and drive the remaining ships of the Black Sea fleet to port on the east coast of the Black Sea. The largest of these eastern Black Sea ports is Novorossiysk, which had a small naval base facility added in 2012. Now it is being used to host the surviving remnants of the Black Sea Fleet. While Novorossiysk is mainly a commercial port, exporting oil and other goods produced in the area and handling most of the imports, most of that has been halted because of the Ukrainian unmanned weapons that now make the Black Sea a dangerous place for Russian ships of any type. Ukraine did this without a fleet of its own. The Russians were still able to launch missile attacks on Ukrainian ports using submarine launched cruise missiles as well as land-based missiles. These Russian attacks became less frequent as the Ukrainians forced Russian naval forces farther away from Ukrainian export ports west of Crimea.




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