Yesterday (30th July), CNN unveiled, for the first time publicly and officially, the Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) of Ukraine, bringing to light some intriguing new insights. This news came from a first-hand experience of a reporter who visited the Ukrainian development site and had a close look at the latest versions of these unmanned maritime vessels.
Compared to the versions employed in the attack in the previous October, the current model presents an up-to-the-minute design, delivering a much more advanced and sophisticated device. One of the significant modifications in the design is the angular structure of the upper part of the vessel, aimed at decreasing the radar cross-section. Such an update is targeted to lend the vessel a higher degree of stealth, allowing it to approach a target more closely without being detected. This would inevitably result in a surprise attack, making it exceedingly difficult for the target to defend against the USV.
The vessel is also equipped with a front-facing camera installed in the nose, ostensibly for navigation purposes. This suggests the possibility that the Ukrainians have managed to develop an optical tracking ability, a tool crucial for autonomous guidance during the final stages of an attack, to compensate for satellite communication delays.
Moreover, the upper part of the vessel hosts an embedded electro-optic device of high quality, a feature that enables visual data collection, crucial for intelligence or in preparation for an attack. As for communication, a flat satellite antenna is fitted in the aft part of the vessel. This is a notable shift from the previous version, which had a civilian Star-link antenna, indicating the company’s prohibition of their communication system for military purposes. Consequently, this led the Ukrainians to explore other alternatives in line with military specifications.
In terms of payload, as per the Ukrainian authorities, the vessel weighs a ton, with 300 kg of it being explosive material. This feature is primarily designed to launch attacks on Russian vessels. A detonation of this scale on the hull of a frigate or destroyer can wreak significant havoc, rendering it out of service for an extended period.
An interesting facet that emerged from the article is the identity of the operators during the last October attack. It wasn’t the Ukrainian Navy, but the SBU – Ukraine’s Security Service that led the operation. This indicates the extensive level of security required to execute such an attack and the element of surprise it led to, alluding to the capability of such organisations. These organisations seem to exhibit a higher degree of cognitive flexibility and innovative thinking, quickly developing groundbreaking concepts and leading force-building efforts during warfare, surpassing traditional military organisations.
The article further revealed the deployment of such USVs in the attack on the Kerch Bridge two weeks ago, corroborating the claims made by the Russians. Although it’s hard to confirm if the extent of the damage aligns with the detonation of two vessels (600 kg), if the Ukrainians have indeed managed to guide the vessels accurately to detonate on the bridge’s pillars, this scenario seems plausible.
The Ukrainian operator offered a compelling narrative that echoed the essence of this technological shift, stating, “The Russians’ equipment is from the 20th century, and ours is from the 21st. That means there’s a century’s difference between us…”
Undoubtedly, unmanned vessels are playing a rapidly growing role in the maritime arena. The ongoing conflict in the Black Sea presents an invaluable opportunity to understand these vessels’ role in future maritime warfare and learn from this lived experience.