On August 24, during the Independence Day festivities, President Zelensky acknowledged a distinctive brigade within the Ukrainian Navy: The 385th Separate Brigade, which employs a variety of “Special-Purpose Naval Unmanned Systems.” These include explosive maritime drones that have become a menace to the Russian Navy in the Black Sea. This development marks a notable shift in modern warfare, with the Ukrainian Navy dedicating a unit to a form of combat that was virtually non-existent just 18 months ago.
The unveiling of each new drone model provides a glimpse into an unseen timeline of development. Only those drones that Ukraine, or occasionally their targets, choose to disclose are visible to the public. Moreover, the development of these drones is not a straightforward, iterative process, and analysis of publicly available information indicates the existence of several distinct programs. This article is based on open-source data.
The Inception of Maritime Drones
The emergence of various ‘families’ of designs suggests origins from different manufacturers and entities. Some may be developed directly by the Ukrainian Navy, others by Intelligence agencies, and still others might be private initiatives supported by commercial or crowd funding. This seemingly duplicated effort carries both advantages and disadvantages. While some might perceive it as inefficient, it is also a conduit for innovation in a wartime context, reflecting the prevailing circumstances.
The first generation of ‘maritime drones,’ officially known as USVs (uncrewed surface vessels), were initially reported in September 2022. On October 29, 2022, they executed a notable raid on Sevastopol, demonstrating early indications of their combat capabilities. Although they did not sink any ships, they came close, presenting a threat that Russia had to address seriously.
Magura and Sea Baby
The Magura family, promoted by state-owned enterprise SpetsTechnoExport, has been utilized in several attacks. With a substantial 320 kg (705 lb) payload capacity, a top speed of 42 knots, and a claimed range of 450 nautical miles (833km), Magura (Maritime Autonomous Guard Unmanned Robotic Apparatus) has made its mark.
Conversely, the ‘Sea Baby’ family, revealed by the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) and likely originating from a different, possibly governmental, manufacturer, appears larger than the Magura but remains compact. It can reportedly be equipped with a 860kg (1,900lb) warhead, significantly larger than other models, and was used to inflict serious damage on the Kerch Bridge on July 17, 2023.
Uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs), essentially submarine drones, offer inherent stealth advantages over USVs. Ukrainian companies have naturally ventured into developing underwater vehicles. In May 2023, the TolokacTK-150 UUV was unveiled at the Brave 1 opening event, a government tech cluster that amalgamates State, military, and private sector developers. The Toloka TK-150, a diminutive drone measuring just 2.5 meters (8 feet) in length, is presumed to navigate and identify its target using a sensor mast and may be designed to house a warhead for ship attacks.
More recently, AMMO Ukraine introduced their UUV, the ‘Marichka,’ which is considerably larger than the Toloka TK-150, measuring 6 meters (20 feet) in length and 1 meter (3.2 feet) in diameter. AMMO Ukraine claims it can target warships and bridges, perform intelligence gathering, and fulfill transport roles. They are also crowdsourcing funding to construct a fleet of Marichka drones. While it remains unclear which USV models are operated by which units, the 385th Separate Brigade undoubtedly plays a crucial role. The Ukrainian military maintains secrecy about these capabilities, revealing only what it chooses. It is entirely plausible that there are other maritime drone models yet to be discovered.
International Shipping at Risk?
While USVs are certainly a concern for warships, a well trained crew should have a good chance of defeating them due to their relatively slow speed. The wider issue is the threat to merchant ships, ports and harbours globally, any of which are vulnerable to USV attack unless considerable measures taken to protect them. UK naval bases and the critical civilian port infrastructure has virtually no physical protections in place to prevent entry of unauthorised craft. The naval aspects of the Ukraine war will continue to pose questions to naval planners that demand considered but prompt action to avoid repeating Russian failures.