Much attention has been justifiably directed at the remarkable performance of both military and consumer UAVs in assisting Ukraine’s efforts to rebuff invading Russian forces. But soon, news may also be generated by drone boats similarly turning the tides for Ukraine defenses in coastal waters of the Black Sea.
As part of its additional $800 million military aid package the US announced last week, the Department of Defense said it will be providing Ukraine with drone boats – better known as uncrewed surface vessels (USV) – for use against attacking Russian Navy craft in the Black Sea. The US Navy has tended to discuss its USVs as primarily defensive assets designed to intercept, dissuade, and rebuff intruders. But they are also capable of being equipped and deployed for the kind of offensive missions Ukraine may need to stop Russia from continuing brutal offshore rocket attacks on inland cities, or landing ground reinforcements and supplies.
Delivery of those USV would be significant in two ways. First, it would provide Ukraine with a potentially potent tool for defending against – and possibly preventing – renewed Russian amphibious assaults that have allowed Moscow to take control of key coastal sections. Meanwhile, the Navy-developed, Pentagon-provided drone boats to Ukraine would mark another step toward active US involvement in the war Russia has waged for two months – a direct confrontation between the two nations US President Joe Biden has vowed will not happen.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged last week the US USVs would be part of new military assistance being prepared for Ukraine, but emphasized the drone boats would be primarily defensive assets.
“They’re designed to help Ukraine with its coastal defense needs… (a)nd I think I’m just going to leave it at that,” Kirby told reporters during a Pentagon briefing. “I’m not going to get into the specific capabilities, but they’re designed to help Ukraine with its coastal defense needs.”
When asked directly if the craft could be used for attacking Russian ships, Kirby refused to say.
“I’m not going to talk about the specific capabilities of these USVs,” he replied. “Coastal defense is something that Ukraine has repeatedly said they’re interested in. It is particularly an acute need now, as we see the Russians really refocus their efforts on the east and in the south.”
Even as purely defensive responses, however, the US drone boats might well prove invaluable to Ukraine efforts to push back Russian advances.
The USVs can operate autonomously, and transmit real-time video and other data feeds to onshore monitors. That would provide Ukraine officials with beyond-the-horizon intelligence without putting humans at risk, and offer information on the movement of Russian vessels that would allow more effective targeted by onshore batteries.
Meanwhile, weaponized USVs could feasibly act as advance rocket launchers to strike Russian Naval assets participating in missile strikes of onshore areas, or preparing to land forces. Even a minimal capacity for attacking the enemy at sea would also add a new source of worry for Russian officials, who up until now have faced virtually no Ukraine naval opposition.
The potential value of having closer and presumably more accurate firing positions from drone boats could be also enormous in both military and morale terms. According to various reports, Russian commanders, pundits, and ordinary citizens remain aghast at the loss last week of the famed Moskva flagship, which was destroyed by Ukrainian anti-ship rockets fired from remote locations.