Ukraine has revealed more information about the mysterious ASVs (autonomous surface vessel) used in their October 29 attack on Russian ships in Sevastopol harbor. Ukraine is using United24, its government supported crowdfunding effort, to raise money to buy at least a hundred of these novel ASVs, use them to gain control over the Black Sea. and protect cargo vessels, especially those carrying grain, against the Russian Black Sea fleet’s blockade.
United24 began operations in May and has so far collected nearly $200 million for the purchase of needed military equipment as well items needed to deal with the damage Russian artillery and missiles have caused to Ukrainian infrastructure. Purchasing a hundred of these novel ASVs would be the most ambitious United24 effort so far because each ASV costs about $250,000. To put that into perspective, the ASV is a unique and very useful system that has already proven itself in combat and is cheaper and more effective than any existing systems that do less, have no combat experience and cost five to ten times more to build.
Ukraine did not make public all the performance data on the ASV (for “operational security” reasons, but did release enough to make it clear what the ASV was capable of. Each ASV is 5.8 meters (18 feet) long and has an endurance of 60 hours, a top speed of 80 kilometers an hour and a max payload of 180 kg (400 pounds). Max range is about 800 kilometers (one way) or 400 kilometers when performing as a reusable ASV. The ASV has satellite communications, apparently via Starlink and navigation software that deals with autonomous attack (one way) missions. The attacks on Sevastopol were launched from over 200 kilometers away (the nearest Ukrainian controlled coast) and were undetected by the Russians until the ASVs had penetrated the harbor entrance obstacles and were making attack runs on Russian ships. The navigation system apparently includes a digital camera with night vision and the ability for a remote human controller to operate the ASV remotely. Software and communications systems this sophisticated are well within known Ukrainian capabilities. It is not known if NATO allies provided real-time satellite surveillance of Sevastopol harbor during this operation, but that may have been the case.
Ukraine has probably shared complete performance data with trusted allies, who might be willing to contribute to the ASV construction fund as well as negotiate licensed production deals. Systems like this are normally only created in wartime, when such risky development projects are more tolerated and often succeed. Ukraine has the talent and the need and demonstrated how that can succeed with their new ASV. Ukraine won’t say how many of these ASVs it still has. The number is probably low and far more are needed to run useful tests to determine how effective the ASV is at achieving and maintaining sea control.
Overnight on October 28-29, Ukraine used a combined force of explosives-carrying UAVs and ASVs bomb boats against three Russian frigates and several other ships docked at the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea. The night attack was detected and machine-guns and autocannon were seen firing on the attackers. One of the frigates, an amphibious ship and one other vessel were hit by the ASVs or UAVs and damaged. This attack upset the Russians who responded by launching more attacks on Ukrainian civilians and ending its cooperation in allowing Ukraine to export grain that was needed in many Middle Eastern nations that get a lot of their imported food from Ukraine. The additional Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities led to higher than usual losses for the cruise missiles employed. Turkey had negotiated the grain export deal and responded to the Russian action by putting Turkish flags on the grain ships. Turkey is a member of NATO and an attack on the reflagged grain ships would be an attack on a NATO nation that would mean all NATO nations would be at war with Russia. This led Russia to quietly reinstate its cooperation with the grain export arrangement.
What angered the Russians most about the Sevastopol attack was that it was another embarrassing (for the Russians) demonstration of Ukrainian ingenuity and improvisation. Bomb-boats are nothing new as they are the latest incarnation of centuries-old fire ship tactics and the use of small boats carrying explosives used in the 19th and 20th century. A month before the Sevastopol attack one of the Ukrainian ASVs, which was not carrying explosives, washed up on a Crimean beach. No one released details but a photo did get it out and indicated that this was a rather sophisticated ASV that was equipped with optical sensors, water jet propulsion and the ability to be remotely controlled. This ASV was apparently on a reconnaissance mission when equipment failure disabled it.
The attack on Sevastopol was launched from over 200 kilometers away, where the UAVs and ASVs were launched in a sequence to maximize the chances of making a simultaneous attack. Given the high max speed of the ASVs and the similar speed of the UAVs, air and sea-based attackers may have left and traveled together until they reached the harbor. The Ukrainians managed to get seven ASVs and nine UAVs across that distance at night and into Sevastopol harbor in a coordinated attack. This was unprecedented in naval warfare and it worked.
Ukraine was confident enough in their novel ASV to seek enough cash to use the ASVs for larger missions.