US security assistance: Drone boats for Ukraine

After kamikaze drones for the army, the Ukrainian navy is getting unmanned naval systems from the government in Washington. They could be dangerous for Russia in the Black Sea.

The US government has already decided on several weapons packages for Ukraine, at least three of which include drones. First, the Ukrainian army benefited from so-called loitering Switchblade munitions. Similar flying weapon systems are following with the Phoenix Ghost, which are intended to cause even more destruction. Now unmanned swimming systems are being delivered.

The drone boats are part of the €740 million security assistance announced by US President Joe Biden on 13 April. They were to be used to defend coastal waters off Crimea, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told the press. In addition, the unmanned ships were to be deployed in the Sea of Azov, whose coasts – except for Mariupol – are now completely controlled by Russia.

Mine clearance and anti-submarine warfare

Unmanned water vehicles are called Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV). Several armies already use them, mostly for surveillance or reconnaissance and with only light armament. The Israeli navy, for example, patrols its coasts with the Rafael Protector minesweeper. Elbit’s Seagull, which is also sold abroad, can also be used for submarine detection.

Which drone boats the Ukrainian military receives from the USA and whether they are armed, Kirby did not want to answer despite several requests. The US Navy has the 40-metre-long Sea Hunter catamaran, built by the US defence contractor Leidos, which is said to be capable of dropping underwater bombs. However, the ship is an expensive prototype that the US military probably does not want to do without.

Speedboat with stealth features

More likely, therefore, is the delivery of smaller systems such as Textron’s Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle. With a length of about ten metres, it can be used for mine clearance or surveillance. The unmanned speedboat Mantas, which is being manufactured in Florida by Martac, is of a similar size. According to the manufacturer, it has camouflage properties.

The US Navy’s smaller drone boats are also prototypes that have not yet reached everyday use. Their deployment in Ukraine accordingly also has a pilot character for the US military, which can test its unmanned systems in a war for the first time.

According to US media, a high-ranking official of the Department of Defence, who wished to remain anonymous, said that some Ukrainian military personnel had already been trained in the use of the system.

Drone warfare with a new dimension

So far, the Ukrainian military has inflicted heavy losses on the Russian military, mainly with Turkish combat drones. Other – also commercial – drones are used to calibrate attacks with missiles or artillery. With the USVs, this drone war in Ukraine takes on a new dimension.

It is conceivable that the Ukrainian navy wants to equip the swimming unmanned systems with a larger armament or load them with explosives and steer them to the target like kamikaze drones. However, attacks like the one on the missile cruiser Moscow would probably not succeed because a drone boat travels comparatively slowly and can easily be destroyed by the enemy’s defences.

Nevertheless, the US delivery is likely to cause uncertainty in the Russian navy, which has undisputed sovereignty in the Black Sea with its fleet of the same name, above and below the water.

Image: U.S. Navy photo of a Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.