Exploding drone boats aren't hard to beat, but Russia's weak defenses are letting Ukraine blow up its ships

  • Ukraine's recent waterborne drone attacks have shed light on weaknesses in Russian defenses.

  • The drones have been a scrappy, effective solution to Ukraine's lack of real naval might.

  • But an expert told Insider that modest Russian countermeasures could make these attacks difficult.

Recent Ukrainian waterborne drone attacks against Russian ships have exposed weaknesses in Russia's defenses, suggesting they're unprepared to stop the exploding boats.

The black USVs are tricky to spot, and even just one's explosive payload can cause massive damage and flooding. Last week, naval drone attacks against the Ropucha-class landing ship Olenegorsky Gornyak and the Russian merchant tanker Sig left both vessels badly damaged, both clear examples of failures in Russian defenses.

In particular, it doesn't even seem like Russia anticipates these attacks. In a video shared last Friday of the Olenegorsky Gornyak attack at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, the first-person view drone is able to approach the ship apparently undetected before detonating on impact.

Despite Russian denials that warship was hit, photo evidence showed the Olenegorsky Gornyak listing heavily in the day after the attack — proof that the ship sustained significant flooding.


The success of Ukrainian USVs against Russian ships is in part due to the novel threat they pose. Without a full-fledged navy — save a few patrol boats — Ukraine's leaders have become inventive, seeking to develop what they call "the world's first naval fleet of drones." The result, thus far, has been an "asymmetrical advantage" for Ukraine, an expert previously told Insider.

But the attacks also suggest Russia has not prioritized defending against these drones, especially as Ukraine has ramped up its drone boat usage in recent weeks. Prior to the hits on Olenegorsky Gornyak and Sig, previous naval drone attacks have terrorized Russian ships in the Black Sea.

"The Ukrainians have been lucky in that the Russians haven't been very good, they're not prepared, they don't have the right defenses, so even a small number of these drone boats can get in and cause a lot of damage," Bryan Clark, a former US Navy officer and defense expert at the Hudson Institute, told Insider.

Naval drones targeted the port of Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based, according to Russian officials.
Naval drones targeted the port of Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based, according to Russian officials.Ulf Mauder/Getty Images

Part of Ukraine's fortune is tied to the drone boats' features. The drones are able to approach their targets at high speed and have a low-profile in the water, making them difficult to spot by human lookouts as well as radar sweeps. Ship crews must be prepared to respond with little notice, especially at night — preparations that appear wholly lacking from the drone videos Ukraine has released.

To have any hope of reacting fast enough, radar operators must set their filters to scan for these threats and watchstanders must be familiar with what these boats look like. With the drones operating at the velocity of a speedboat, these crewmen may have mere minutes to effectively respond.

Kyiv's drone fleets are likely being designed with the help of Western partners, resulting in relatively sophisticated models. Activated remotely, the drone boats usually speed towards a target and detonate on impact, as seen in the video of the attack on the Olenegorsky Gornyak ship.

A close-up picture of the front of a Ukrainian drone boat.
The front of a Ukrainian drone boat developed for United 24.United 24/Ukrainian government

'Too many to take out'

With the drone attacks showing no sign of stopping, the questions become how Russia will respond.

Another navy power, like the US or its European allies, would use a variety of resources to track and destroy drone boats, such as the Phalanx close-in weapon system, a US-made automatic gun that saw use in the Persian Gulf War to shoot incoming missiles or small boats. The Phalanx CIWS, sometimes called the "sea-wiz," can locate, track, and fire at the drones, but they'll have to hit only one target at a time with rapid bursts of 20mm fire.

According to Clark, high power microwave systems could also be used to disrupt the electronics operating the drone. But these waves are relatively short range in most cases, meaning a Russian ship would have to wait until the drone boats are close to the vessel. Some other technology, such as anti-drone lasers, could shoot and disable the drones from a larger distance. The US and Israel have been testing prototypes of the latter, including the "Iron Beam" energy-based weapon last year.

Russia's Marshal Shaposhnikov anti-submarine destroyer fires during the 'Vostok-2022' military exercises at the Peter the Great Gulf of the Sea of Japan outside the city of Vladivostok on September 5, 2022.
Russia's Marshal Shaposhnikov anti-submarine destroyer fires during the 'Vostok-2022' military exercises at the Peter the Great Gulf of the Sea of Japan outside the city of Vladivostok on September 5, 2022.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

The challenge is if a swarm or fleet of drones attacks at once. "If you get four or five at a time, you can probably take those out," Clark said, "but if you get 40 or 50 or even a dozen, that might be too many to take out before one of them reaches the ship."

And if Russia does ramp up its defenses, it's likely that Ukraine will scale up the number of its drone boats. If the Russians were equipped more like the US Navy, for instance, "then the Ukrainians would have to launch larger drone swarms to be able to succeed," Clark told Insider.

But controlling attack boat swarms could be more challenging than doing the same with unmanned aerial vessels (UAVs). Ukraine has had success operating aerial drones since the beginning the war, dropping explosives on unsuspecting Russian troops hiding in trenches and gathering intel behind enemy lines. Operating a group of drone boats, Clark added, is more difficult given water conditions, weather, and the potential to ram into unintended targets.

The first-person view that faces forward of many drone boats, such as the drone used in the the Olenegorsky Gornyak ship, can also limit the operator's ability to see their surroundings and potential threats.

Close-up of the first-person view camera of a Ukrainian drone boat.
The first-person view camera of a Ukrainian drone boat.United 24/Ukrainian government

If Ukraine must launch more waterborne drones to overwhelm potential Russian defenses, then the drone boats — which are hailed as cheap-but-effective assets that can take on warships and key bridges — become costlier, and coordinating attacks become more complicated.

The most recent attacks, for instance, have showed that the Ukrainians can sneak past Russian defenses in Crimea and hit ships in the Black Sea with just a few drones unseen. If larger USV groups are needed to overwhelm anti-drone defenses, it's more likely they'll be detected.

But while Ukraine's use of the drone boats may change based on whether Russia can adequately field an effective defense, the successful use of the vessels thus far is another example of how Russia's vast military power has underestimated Ukraine.

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