How Ukraine's drone navy is menacing Russia's superior Black Sea forces – The Telegraph – 26.11.22
New technologies are changing the balance of power and penetrating what should have been impregnable counter measures - by Roland Oliphant, Senior Foreign Correspondent.
It wasn’t the biggest bang of the war. But a sudden flash that briefly illuminated the Russian port of Novorossiysk on November 18 had a significance that went well beyond its blast radius.
The explosion is believed to have been caused by a Ukrainian uncrewed surface vehicle - maritime drones that are changing the balance of power in the Black Sea and could profoundly reshape the future of naval warfare.
Ukraine’s radio-controlled bomb boats' first publicised action was in the early hours of October 29, when more than half a dozen of them attacked Russia’s Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol.
Footage from on-board cameras released by the Ukrainians showed black metal vessels charging at high speed across a choppy grey sea as machine gun and cannon rounds raised white plumes around them.
The Russian ministry of defence said nine aerial drones and seven marine drones involved scored only “insignificant damage” against one ship - the minesweeper Ivan Golubets - and the protective boom at Yuzhnaya Bay.
Independent analysts say the frigate Admiral Makarov also appears to have been badly damaged, although it does not seem to have sunk.
But it is not sinkings that are the mark of success. It is that they have seriously spooked the Russian navy.
“It’s going to go down in history,” said H. I. Sutton, an independent defence analyst.
“It is not the first time it has been tried. But it is the first time it has been successful and it has happened at scale. It is very much what we can expect going forward. It would almost be unrealistic in a future conflict to not involve these,” he said.
The success of the drones lies not in the relatively modest damage they have so far inflicted, so much as the projection of threat.
The October 29 raid mostly targeted shipping outside the narrow entrance of Sevastopol bay, but at least one or two boats appear to have got inside - penetrating what should have been impregnable counter measures at the entrance to Russia's most strategically important harbour.
That alone is a major achievement. Sailing a drone boat into Novorossiysk, which was supposedly out of range of Ukrainian attacks, must be doubly alarming for the Russians.
“The Russians have completely changed their defensive posture in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk. They’ve increased the boom - the floating barriers across the harbour mouth and changed procedures to close them much more frequently.
Every warship, even a powerful warship, that leaves Sevastopol is now escorted by fast craft,” said Mr Sutton.
Combined with a series of other threats, the drone strikes have helped to effectively confine the Russian surface fleet in the Black Sea to its harbours.
That helps secure critical shipping lanes out of Odessa and further diminishes the threat of shelling or amphibious assault of Ukraine’s unoccupied southwestern coastline.
Russia’s submarines, which Western navies say are much more effective and well run than its surface fleet, remain a threat.
But Moscow’s once undisputed dominance of the sea war is well and truly over.
Unmanned bomb ships are nothing new.
Even before Sir Francis Drake sent fireships against the Spanish Armada in 1588, admirals thought about ways to close with the enemy without risking their own crews.
Western navies - and the Royal and US navies in particular - have been thinking about fending off fast-moving small boats ever since an al-Qaeda suicide bomber on a speed boat attacked the USS Cole in 2000.
But a rapid development of technology since then has created a revolution.
Remote control is now good enough to dispense with kamikaze helmsmen, and falling costs mean drones can be made and deployed quickly and in large numbers - given a little improvisation and ingenuity.
The Ukrainian boats show strong signs of both.
Images released by the Ukrainian military - and a photograph from Russian sources of a boat that washed up on the Crimean coast two weeks before the Sevastopol raid - show a sharp-prowed, narrow-beam speed boat about 18 feet long.
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