In a Historic First, Ukraine Attacked a Russian Fleet With Autonomous Robo-Ships

 This is the beginning of a new era in naval warfare.

Russia’s war in Ukraine made history again last weekend, as Ukrainian forces unleashed a daring air and sea attack against the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Conducted entirely with drones, the attack damaged three warships. The battle, which saw several of the drones destroyed by enemy fire, will go down in history as the first human vs. drone battle at sea … but certainly not the last.

The attack took place on Saturday, October 30 at approximately 4:20 a.m. local time. Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed that nine air and seven sea drones made the 100-mile trip from Ukrainian-held territory to the Russian port of Sevastopol. Russia claimed that it shot down all the flying drones, but did not comment on how many seagoing drones were destroyed.

video (above) appeared on social media shortly afterward, showing a Russian helicopter opening fire on what appears to be one of the Ukrainian sea drones. Bullets from a machine gun mounted on a Russian Mi-17 helicopter appear to splash all around the drone, but it is not clear if the drone itself is hit. Another clip shows the view from a thermal imager mounted on another seagoing drone as it approaches the flagship of the Russian fleet, the frigate Admiral Makarov. The video cuts out just as the drone appears within feet of the frigate’s hull, suggesting the drone (and camera) were destroyed as the onboard explosive payload detonated.

The drones used were likely similar to another drone Russian forces discovered on the Crimean Peninsula in late September. That drone was low-slung, sleek, and had gimbal-mounted cameras with a field of view similar to those from this weekend’s attack. The find likely warned Russian forces that an attack with such drones was imminent, which would explain why the armed helicopter was in position to defend Makarov and the other Black Sea Fleet ships.

Russian officials stated there had been minor damage to the Ivan Golubets, a mine-hunting ship. A Ukrainian journalist who shared the footage claimed the Admiral Makarov was damaged along with two other vessels that carried Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles. It’s not clear if those two other ships included Ivan Golubets and a landing ship that was allegedly also attacked. Neither typically carry Kalibr missiles ready to fire, so another possibility is they were being used to reload Admiral Makarov’s missile launchers at sea.

Russian officials have not admitted to any damage to Makarov.

Kalibr missiles are low-flying, subsonic cruise missiles Russia uses to attack targets in Ukraine. In attacking Makarov, the Ukrainian military is attempting to stop Kalibr strikes at the source. Other Russian warships likely serving as Kalibr launchers in the war include the six Type-636.3 class (NATO code name: Improved Kilo) diesel electric-powered submarines of the Black Sea Fleet. The submarines would be more difficult for Ukraine to attack, but they also would need to return to port to reload their missile supply.

The Ukrainian drone attack was the first battle that involved drone warships on one side and human-manned warships on the other. In November 1940, a group of 21 British biplanes from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, armed with torpedoes, attacked the Italian fleet anchored at Taranto. The attack was notable as the first battle between two fleets, using carrier aviation, without the ships coming within sight of one another, and inspired the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As drones become more prominent in air, land, and sea warfare, this battle will likely be considered just as influential.

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