From the spark that was Nikolai Tesla wowing the crowds of New York’s Madison Square Garden with his four-foot long, steel-hulled, radio-controlled boat (patented in 1898) and his follow-on “dirigible wireless torpedo,” we are now going on 125 years of unmanned surface and subsurface vehicles, with an easy bent towards using them in warfare.
With stops at the German Fernlenkboot (FL) of the Great War and the Italian Motoscafo da Turismo (MTS) unmanned explosive motorboats of WWII, today’s maritime lingering/loitering USV munition has been well proven in the Black Sea.
Following up on the dramatic attack late last month on the Russian 4,000-ton Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate Admiral Makarov and smaller Natya-class minesweeper Ivan Golubets by Ukrainian USVs more information on these “killer kayaks” have surfaced including an excellent photo essay that has popped up on Reddit of no less than a half-dozen of these little black boats under construction and testing, including design details and the mix of commercial-off-the-shelf components and local supplies (Rotax 3-cylinder engines from a Canadian Sea Doo jet ski– which only run about $2-3K each— a Starlink receiver, old Warsaw Pact-era contact exploders, et. al).
Like Tesla’s boat, they are low-lying and relatively deep of hull for stability
Note they appear to be arranged on portable launching cradles that can be reused.
H.I. Sutton over at Covert Shores, who has been covering these boats since the beginning, has compiled this rough specs list for these crafts which reportedly cost a bargain of just $250K each (as opposed to an MK-48 Mod6 torpedo which runs $10m in its current format):
Length: 5.5 meters Full weight: up to 1,000 kg Operational radius: up to 400 km Range: up to 430 NM (800 km) Autonomy: up to 60 hours Combat load: up to 200 kg Max speed: 43 knots (80 km/h) Navigation methods: automatic GNSS, inertial, visual Video transmission: up to 3 HD video streams Crypto protection: 256-bit encryption
Although the Russians by far outstripped Ukraine’s naval forces (which were mostly coast guard in nature) at the outset of the war in February, the smaller country has proved an underdog with a lot of bites when it comes to littoral operations. Besides sinking the 14 April 2022 sinking of thecruiser Moskva and a handful of other incidents, the Ukrainians keep slugging away.
Russia’s current Black Sea flagship vessel, the relatively newly commissioned 4,000-ton Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate Admiral Makarov, was damaged and possibly disabled during an audacious Ukrainian drone attack on Sevastopol over the weekend. The attack included a swarm of aerial drones coupled with a flotilla of small water-borne USVs. TASS reported that all the air drones had been destroyed, but it nonetheless seems Makarov is badly hurt and possibly two or three other ships damaged as well with the Russians confirming at least some problems with the Natya-class minesweeper Ivan Golubets.
The attack videos, widely available, look like something out of a Bond movie.
They appear made of several commercial off-the-shelf components including a jet ski drive train with a contact exploder on the bow and a Starlink antenna for uplink
Via Covert Shores
While the propaganda victory to Kiev/Ky’iv is great, the Russians soon retaliated by canceling the ongoing grain shipping program from Ukraine ports to hungry third-world countries, which is kind of a bummer for places like Ethiopia and Sudan.
Still, those who are interested in anything expeditionary who are not paying attention to the great possibilities– and the great threats– that go with drones are not really paying attention.
With that, Russia has admitted to the largest warship sunk in combat since 1982 (ARA Belgrano/ex-USS Pheonix) and its first cruiser lost since 1941 (Chervona Ukraina/ex-Bogdan Khmelnitsky/ex-Admiral Nakhimov).
Moskova is also the largest warship lost (reportedly) to an anti-ship missile in combat, surpassing the Royal Navy’s well-documented loss of the 4,800-ton Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield (D80), which, like Moskova, foundered under tow after a missile attack left her a burnt-out hulk.
Speaking of anti-ship missile news, the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research announced on the same day Moskova was hit by the Ukrainians, that it had conducted (in February) a “Historic Test of New Laser Weapon System.”
The test involved Lockheed Martin’s Layered Laser Defense (LLD) weapon, intended “as a multi-domain, multi-platform demonstration system. It can counter unmanned aerial systems and fast-attack boats with a high-power laser—and also use its high-resolution telescope to track in-bound air threats, support combat identification, and conduct a battle damage assessment of engaged targets.”
And it splashed a drone “representing a subsonic cruise missile in flight.”
Sure, just about every dangerous wave skipper out there is super (or hyper) sonic these days, but don’t get lost in the sauce that this was a shootdown by an all-electric, high-energy laser weapon, which could be the way of the near future.
“It’s a challenging problem, but Navy leadership at all levels see the potential for laser weapons to really make a difference,” Dr. Frank Peterkin, ONR’s directed energy portfolio manager, said. “The next few years are going to be very exciting as we work with the Navy and joint partners to make the capability we just saw demonstrated by the LLD a reality for the naval warfighter.”
Back at the height of the Red Storm Rising days of the Cold War, the Soviet Project 1164 Atlant (Slava-class) guided missile cruisers were scary. At 611-feet overall and 11,500-tons full load, they were bigger than anything the West had with the exception of the one-offs USS Long Beach (CGN-9) and HMS Blake (C99).
After all, with a COGOG suite that allowed for at least 32 knots, powerful (for the Soviets) over-the-horizon sensors, and 16 bus-sized SS-N-12 Sandbox anti-ship missiles– each capable of carrying 2200-pounds of high explosives or a tactical nuke at Mach 3+ to ranges thought to exceed 300nm– they looked a lot like carrier-killers, especially if used in congested waters and/or in conjunction with waves of cruise-missile carrying Backfire/Bear bombers.
It should be no surprise that the ONI made a special effort to capture and disseminate good images of Slava and her sisters, back in the days when HUMINT behind the Iron Curtain often ended up in a basement with a Makarov.
A bow view of the Soviet cruiser SLAVA, 8.11.1986 Note those 16 big SS-N-12 Sandboxes. DN-ST-86-11108
A vertical view of the Soviet guided missile cruiser SLAVA underway, 6.20.86 DN-SN-87-06825
A port quarter view of the Soviet guided missile cruiser SLAVA underway 1.29.86 DN-SN-87-06829
A port beam view of the Soviet guided missile cruiser SLAVA underway 1.28.86. She has carried several hull numbers over the years, with the most recent being 121. DN-SC-86-03642.
While ADM Sergey Gorshkov– Brezhnev’s decoration-girded Mahan, Tirpitz, or Jacky Fisher– planned for at least 10 of these big cruisers, only three were completed by the end of the Cold War. Bigtime prestige ships that signaled the old powerful days of Yakov Smirnoff jokes, the modern Russian Navy kept those three in flagship roles– with Slava (now Moskova) in the Black Sea Fleet, Ustinov in the Northern Fleet, and Varyag in the Pacific Fleet– even if they rarely left port.
ex-Slava, 2022 Russian Black Sea flagship Moskova (121), in a pre-Ukrainian War photo. Certainly still a handsome ship even at 40 years old.
She gained prominence in the Snake Island (“F You, Russian Warship”) incident last month (yes, I know those guys didn’t die) and the Ukrainians even issued– this week, a stamp to commemorate it, showing a sole Border Guard with an AK standing off with Slava/Moskova.
All of which leads us up to the news that Moskova has reportedly been hit by two Ukrainian RK-360MC Neptune shore-launched anti-ship missiles yesterday as the ship’s very formidable air defenses were being diverted by a low-flying TB-2 drone or two.
These big guys:
Able to operate well inland from the coastline with OTH targeting cues, the domestically produced AShM is a rough equivalent of Harpoon based on the Soviet Kh-35 (SS-N-25 Switchblade) anti-ship missile with a smaller warhead and longer range.
There seems to be some fire to the proverbial smoke on this, and the Russian Defense Ministry had issued a statement, repeated on state media, that a fire had caused munitions to explode and the crew had been fully evacuated.
This jives with reports that the big Russian cruiser was broadcasting SOS messages in morse and over voice channels in the clear.
01.00 Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation announced the fire and the following explosion of ammunition on the Moskova. The department is talking about the fire on the cruiser. The causes of the fire are being established.
01.05 from Moskova, an SOS signal was sent
01.14 as a result of fire and explosion, Moskova began evacuation and listed to port.
01.47 On Moskova, the power has completely disappeared. Everything is bad.
02.07 In Turkey, they claim that 99.99 percent within an hour Moskova may sink (54 sailors from the cruiser were saved by a Turkish ship. )
02.48 In Turkey and Romania, new outlets say that the cruiser Moskova has sank.
Likewise, the Montreux Convention means Russia cannot replace any losses of ships in the Black Sea Fleet with other Russian Navy vessels.
If Moskova has in fact been sunk, it would be the largest warship since ARA General Belgrano (C-4)/ex-USS Phoenix (CL-46), was sent to the bottom almost exactly 40 years ago in the Falklands, dispatched by a trio of three WWII-era unguided Mk 8 mod 4 torpedoes from HMS Conqueror (S48).
It would also be the first Russian cruiser sunk since the Admiral Nakhimov-class light cruiser Chervona Ukraina was sunk in November 1941 by German aircraft (Ju 87, Stuka’s from II./StG.77) at Sevastopol.
Chervona Ukraina (Soviet Cruiser, 1915-41) photographed in 1935 or later, probably at Istanbul. Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 89395
As an interesting sidenote, Chervona Ukraina was laid down at Nikolayev on the Black Sea as Nakhimov under the Tsar and was renamed Bogdan Khmelnitsky while on the ways by the Skoropadskyi Ukrainian breakaway government in 1919, making her kinda-sorta a Ukrainian cruiser for a minute.
Nonetheless, increasingly, it appears the Russians have feet of clay.
The minutes after the Russian offensive into Ukraine kicked off, RIA Novosti, which is owned and operated by the Russian federal government and is basically just a descendant of the old Sovinformburo, released a fairly wild piece by commentator Petr Akopov that, while it has been zapped from RIA’s website proper, still exists in web archives.
So interesting, and mechanically translated, excerpts (with commentary added), basically painting the conflict as a civil war that is correcting the wrongs of 1918, when the old Russian Empire fell apart, and 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed:
A new world is being born before our eyes. Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has ushered in a new era – and in three dimensions at once. And of course, in the fourth, internal Russian.
Russia is restoring its unity – the tragedy of 1991, this terrible catastrophe in our history, its unnatural dislocation, has been overcome. Yes, at a great cost, yes, through the tragic events of a virtual civil war, because now brothers, separated by belonging to the Russian and Ukrainian armies, are still shooting at each other, but there will be no more Ukraine as anti-Russia. Russia is restoring its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together – in its entirety of Great Russians, Belarusians and Little Russians (Ukrainians). If we had abandoned this, if we had allowed the temporary division to take hold for centuries, then we would not only betray the memory of our ancestors, but would also be cursed by our descendants for allowing the disintegration of the Russian land.
Vladimir Putin has assumed, without a drop of exaggeration, a historic responsibility by deciding not to leave the solution of the Ukrainian question to future generations.
Now this problem is gone – Ukraine has returned to Russia.
Did someone in the old European capitals, in Paris and Berlin, seriously believe that Moscow would give up Kiev?
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry has set up a Telegram channel with videos that it says show captured Russian soldiers– which the country says they have over 200– and in public statements say they were tricked or otherwise threatened to take part in the operation. These statements were replayed on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is of course paid for by the U.S. government.
These kinds of videos are extremely distasteful, no matter who puts them out, as EPOWs should never be made to release public statements while in enemy custody.
However, it does kind of point to the fact that the Russians seem to have pushed into Ukraine with their “B Team” of second-line units and recalled reservists outfitted with old equipment– the better to soak up Ukraine’s limited supply of expensive donated MANPADS and ATGMs (NLAW, Javelin, Stinger, Panzerfaust 3, etc).
Notably, when you see Russian vehicles and aircraft in videos and images from the conflict they are older models with none of the cutting edge types (e.g. Su-57 strike aircraft and T-14 Armata tanks) seen. Further, there are few divisional- or even brigade-size maneuvers, with the Russians sticking to battalion-sized elements, as well as a lack of significant night-time operations, another indicator of lower-trained, under-equipped troops.
Now a half-week in motion, Russian troops seem to be facing growing morale and logistics issues, with videos circulating widely of tanks and AFVs parks on roadways out of fuel and with poor (no) perimeter security. As anyone who has been around tracks can vouch, armor is the Great White shark of the battlefield, always hungry, always looking to top off every day, whether on the move or not.
The Pentagon on Sunday acknowledged, “We believe that their advance was slowed both by resistance from the Ukrainians, who have been quite creative in finding ways to attack columns and, number two, by the fuel shortages and the sustainment issues that they have had.”
The British MOD had the same take on Saturday:
With the Russian lines of communications being very porous, and growing longer every day, the current Ukrainian bywords seem to be “Ласкаво просимо до пекла!,” or “Welcome to hell” with roadway signs defaced with the warning and official government ministries signing off their social media posts with the catchphrase.
Ironically, as far as I know, the most popular pop culture reference to this is in the tragically underrated popcorn action film Men of War (1994) in which Swedish strongman Dolph Lundgren, portraying former SF weaponsman Ameri-Swede Nick Gunar, uses it when taking on a group of mercs looking to carve off a random South Pacific island for its value in guano. Welding a CG-84, he also delivers a great “Spring, era jävlar” line, which is funny if you know Swedish.
The Ukrainians say the current tally (as with all “body counts” issued during war should be taken with a grain of salt) 60 hours into the war is:
Aircraft – 14 (including an Il-76 reportedly full of VDS) Helicopters – 8 Tanks – 102 Combat armored vehicles – 536 Guns and howitzers – 15 SAM (Buk-М2) – 1
The war is also getting very asymmetric, with reported “Russian saboteur teams” engaging in wild gun battles in Kyiv and elsewhere. These units, dressed in Ukrainian police and military uniforms, and in Ukrainian-marked vehicles, are a throwback to Skorzeny’s Battle of the Bulge Operation Greif and need lots of pre-planning.
The European Union announced direct military aid to Ukraine for the first time in EU history (€500 million worth) on February 27 while Germany announced a dramatic reorientation of its foreign policy to mitigate the threat that Russia poses to Germany and its allies. Germany will prioritize military spending and energy independence despite short-term economic costs.
Unexpected new allies such as Belgium, Sweden, and Germany are all sending Ukraine anti-armor weapons directly from their war stocks while France and Denmark have announced they will allow volunteers– including furloughed military personnel– to head to join a new “foreign legion” set up by Kyiv and recruited through the country’s embassies and consulates abroad.
A number of Americans have been war tourists in Ukraine since 2014, sometimes paying for it with their lives, and I am 100 percent sure this next wave will be high and deep. I can vouch that some of my own acquaintances have messaged they will be taking an extended vacation in Eastern Europe starting as early as next week, a sticky proposition if captured, as they are on the Retired Reserve rolls.
While peace talks are reportedly on the horizon, there seems to be little hope of them yielding any results in the near future. I hate to say it is WWIII by proxy, so maybe let’s just call it the Winter War Part II.
I grew up reading books like WWIII: August 1985, Red Storm Rising, and Team Yankee as a kid. After all, I was a military brat growing up in a coastal town that was mass-producing destroyers, cruisers, and LHAs as fast as they could hit the water because the Russians– led by Ivan Drago— Were Coming.
Now we have this conflict in Ukraine, the closest thing to a modern near-peer war since 1982, and while it is many things, it is not entertaining.
I don’t have the space, intestinal fortitude, and energy to detail what is already being termed the Russo-Ukrainian War, encompassing an estimated 180,000 Russian ground troops against a mobilized 240,000 Ukrainian army and paramilitary forces.
But I do have some interesting notes that I have noticed while watching a war unfold on my phone in real-time.
While “official” losses in terms of human life are slim compared to World War daily figures– the Ukrainians claim to have inflicted 800 casualties while suffering under 450 of their own, the images and video coming from the region would seem to belay that as a gross underestimation on both accounts.
The assault started in darkness this morning, Ukrainian time, with a Russian missile barrage of around 100 intermediate-range, short-range, and cruise missiles, the official said. Missiles came from land, sea and air platforms.
The Russians used roughly 75 fixed-wing, heavy and medium bombers as a part of their assault. The targets were primarily military bases and air defense nodes.
The British MOD said:
In the early hours of the morning, President Putin launched a major unprovoked assault on Ukraine, firing missiles on cities and military targets. The invasion came despite weeks of Russian claims that they had no intention of invading.
Then later in a day-end update, remarked that “It is unlikely that Russia has achieved its planned Day 1 military objectives. Ukrainian forces have presented fierce resistance across all axis of Russia’s advance.”
The Ukrainians claim to have knocked out 30 much more modern Russian tanks, 130 assorted military vehicles, and 14 aircraft as well as capturing a handful of Russkis, while the Russians claim to have totally neutralized the Ukraine air defense net, made in-roads into the country from at least five points, and have shot down nine aircraft that managed to get off the ground.
In another, it looks like the Western NLAWs and Javelins rushed to the country by NATO have taken their toll on Russia’s most advanced combat vehicles, defeating stand-off cages and other countermeasures, leaving lots of broken armor and blunted convoys in their wake. Their recently-withdrawn British, Canadian, and American (Florida National Guard’s Task Force Gator) training cadres are no doubt nodding into their whisky as they watch the footage.
Ukraine troops have shown off lots of Western-supplied Stinger MANPADS, M141 BDM (SMAW-D), the NLAW, and the Javelin ATGM, seen above their transit cases.
While the Russian VDV and Spets guys are fanatical, a lot of these Russian troops, especially those driving trucks and recovery vehicles without adequate top cover, are likely conscripts. Cannon fodder. I almost feel bad for them.
Regardless, depictions of Ukraine’s two newest patrons, of our ladies of the top attack, St. Javelin and St. NLAW, are circulating widely.
Further, while the Russians have steamrolled Ukraine’s airfields and at least one (some reports say damaged) SU-27 made an emergency diversion to Romania, there does seem to be a Fulcrum driver that is– and this could be wild propaganda– been holding his own around Kyiv, downing a reported six Russians. The feat would make him the first attributed European air ace since Korea.
I can vouch that there is a stirring video purporting to be a low-flying Ukrainian MiG-29 dogfighting with a Russian Sukhoi Su-35 (but looks to me just like two Fulcrums working high-low).
The David and Goliath struggle has been exemplified by the reported lop-sided stand on Snake Island by 13 Ukrainian border guards against the Russian cruiser Moskova, with the words “Russkiy voyennyy korabl’, idi na khuy” now ringing around the globe.
Finally, in a return to low-tech, with both sides fielding much the same kit– after all, Ukrain inherited most of its equipment from the old Soviet Union– the Russians are using an “Invasion Stripe” recognition stripe in the form of a painted-on “Z” despite the fact there is no such letter in the Cyrillic alphabet, something that had been noticed by reporters in Belarus as far back as the 19th.
Either way, if you’re the praying sort, the Ukrainian people could use some.