Drone ships and the Russian-Ukrainian War

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A new form of drone technology has been gaining momentum in the Black Sea.

First of all, what exactly are drone ships?

Drone ships are small, unmanned vessels that operate on or below the water’s surface. They come in all shapes and sizes and are used for a variety of tasks, including environmental monitoring. They can also be used for military purposes like clearing mines, carrying out surveillance, or detonating near targets like enemy ships. Common features of a drone ship are built-in explosives and cameras that send images back to the person controlling it.

According to BBC News, long-range targets are typically pre-programmed into the drones when launched, after which they are guided remotely by a human as they close in on the target.

When it comes to the Russian-Ukrainian war, it is unknown how many drones ships each side holds, or how much they cost, but one drone ship that was publicized by the Ukrainian government apparently has a price tag of $250,000.

As far as the impact on the war itself, a new era for naval warfare was marked by Ukraine’s deployment of drone ships at relatively low cost. Analysts claim that this tactic poses an increasing risk to Russia.

If compared to naval vessels, drone ships are harder to detect on radar because they travel low on the water and make less noise.

The attack on Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol in October 2022 was the first attack in recorded history to use both ship and aerial drones. According to BBC News, at least three Russian vessels were damaged in the attack, and recent satellite images seen by BBC Verify indicate that Russia has significantly bolstered its defenses around the base since the attack.

According to Katarzyna Zysk, a professor at the Norwegian Institute of Defence Studies, despite not having a substantial navy, Ukraine’s surface drones have so far stopped Russia from taking full control of the Black Sea.

Nevertheless, drone ships do have several disadvantages.

Their onboard sensors may have a narrow field of view, so it may be challenging to track moving targets without accurate location data or to spot camouflaged ships.

Moreover, those with onboard cameras require constant communication with their controller to direct them to a target, so any issues with streaming video may jeopardize their mission.

To this, Prof. Zysk says that there is no drone ship revolution yet, and “we are still in an experimental phase.” Nevertheless, she concludes that Ukraine’s strategy has caught international attention, and is “pushing other navies to develop these kinds of systems and their operational practice.”