A Video of USVs Sinking a Russian Ship Illustrates U.S. Navy Concerns

A screengrab from a video posted online by Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence agency purporting to … [+] show the Russian corvette “Ivanovets” under attack by unmanned surface vessels.

Ukraine GUR Military Intelligence

A video released by Ukraine’s military intelligence agency purporting to show USVs sinking a Russian Navy Corvette ups the ante for U.S. Navy drone defense and offense.

Released on Thursday via social media by the Ukrainian GUR, the video shows unmanned surface vessels (USVs) attacking and possibly sinking a Russian Navy missile-ship, the Ivanovets on Lake Donuzlav in Crimea. The video has not been authenticated but the engagement it depicts certainly could be real.

Lake Donuzlav connects to the Black Sea via a man-made channel constructed in 1961. The link to the Black Sea is important given Russia’s ongoing attempted blockade of southern Ukrainian ports.

Ukraine has had some success in driving Russian Navy ships away from those ports, increasing the number of grain ships it has been able to get out and allowing it to increase revenue-producing grain exports to Africa and other regions. Seriously damaging or sinking another Russian Navy ship via such asymmetric means may make the Kremlin even more reluctant to place its naval surface ships in harm’s way.

According to the Associated Press, Russian officials offered no comment or confirmation on the status of the Ivanovets. But a British maritime security firm called Ambrey which provides physical security, consulting, insurance and intelligence to private clients said Ukraine used up to six USVs, each of which usually carry 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of explosives, in the attack.

A statement from the GUR claimed that, “the Russian ship sustained damage incompatible with further movement… The cost of the ship lost by the aggressor state is approximately $60-70 million dollars.”

Whether this is accurate or not, the potential of a half-dozen USVs or a swarm of USVs to neutralize or sink exponentially more expensive naval vessels is real. The U.S. Navy’s recognition of the problem is manifest in the medium range and close-in defensive systems it has installed on its vessels and in its drive to acquire quantities of its own USVs.

The aerial and sea-borne drone defense problem saw a low-profile response in 2021 with the Navy’s acquisition of a Drone Restricted Access Using Known Electromagnetic Warfare system (DRAKE) built by Northrop GrummanNOC

The EW anti-drone system was in use across the Navy’s surface fleet by that time. It joined the radar-guided Phalanx Close-in Weapons Systems (CIWS) which American warships, from frigates to aircraft carriers, have long been equipped with for close-in defense.

The Phalanx Close-In Weapons System fires during a test aboard guided-missile cruiser USS Chosin.

U.S. Navy, Fire Controlman Second Class Andrew Albin

CIWS features an automatic 20 mm cannon that can fire up to 4,500 rounds a minute at an effective range out to about two nautical miles. Earlier this week, the USS Gravely used its CIWS to shoot down a Houthi cruise missile that had closed to within a mile of the destroyer in the Red Sea.

Experimental U.S. Navy laser and high-power microwave directed energy projects have been accelerated to address both the aerial and sea-surface drone threat. Navy ships have faced both USV and small manned boat threats in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea for two-plus decades but the spread of relatively cheap drone technology has altered the Service’s calculus for dealing with them.

The Navy wants its own expendable USVs and has wanted them for several years. Its latest initiative, called PRIMEPRIME
(Production-Ready, Inexpensive, Maritime Expeditionary) posits producing 10 or more USVs per month to act as autonomous interdiction vessels. I wrote about the initiative this week, gauging it as aimed at providing the U.S. 5th Fleet with situational awareness in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) sailing in the Arabian Gulf Dec. 5, 2023.

U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Janae Chambers

But an article in USNI News claims an alternate motivation – using the small unmanned vessels as “attack drones that could be key to deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.”

Naval analyst Bryan Clark told USNI News that PRIME is an “effort to try to get some new kinetic, lethal USV[s] fielded that can be employed probably in a western Pacific context – maybe the Strait of Taiwan.”

Though it’s hard to tell if Clark’s reading of the joint DIU-Navy project is correct, it aligns with the underlying message of the video seen above. Tactically relevant masses of small, cost-effective drones can hold major naval assets at bay or destroy them if necessary.

According to USNI News, the Navy has been experimenting in the Pacific with a concept called “hellscape” that could theoretically disrupt an amphibious invasion of Taiwan with a combination of loitering munitions and lethal attack drones. The concept, “was inspired in part by the low-cost lethal surface drones developed by Ukraine and built with off-the-shelf components, USNI News understands.”

If so, the GUR video has just provided potential ammunition for advocates of hellscape to keep pushing the concept inside the U.S. Navy and underlined the classical idea that the best defense against USVs and other drones is a good offense using them in quantity.

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