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Video Above: Can the Navy Handle Accelerating to a 500-Ship Fleet

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

Drone boats are heading to the shore of Ukraine to defend port cities and key coastal areas from further Russian attacks, a substantial development potentially of great significance given that Russia has already once launched an amphibious attack.

Few details are available for security reasons, however the Pentagon has confirmed that indeed US Unmanned Surface Vessels are being sent to Ukraine.

Unmanned Surface Vessels to Ukraine

“They're designed to help Ukraine with its coastal defense needs. And I think I'm just going to leave it at that. I'm not going to get into the specific capabilities, but they're designed to help Ukraine with its coastal defense needs,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters April 14, according to a Pentagon transcript.

This is an extremely significant development in a number of key respects, given the known performance abilities of these kinds of small drone boats. It is unclear just how sophisticated they will be in terms of autonomy, yet at very least they can easily be teleoperated by Ukrainian forces conducting Command and Control from the shore. 

Beyond this, they may operate with various levels of autonomy, bringing a range of yet-to-exist tactical advantages. USVs, whether they are armed or unarmed, can perform both offensive and defensive roles.

Certainly on the defensive site, they could offer Ukrainian forces along the coastline a beyond-the-horizon surveillance node able to “sense, see and detect” approaching Russian ships and even provide early warning of an amphibious attack. This could be crucial as it would enable Ukrainian ground forces an opportunity to consolidate defenses and mass firepower along the coast to target approaching Russian ships. 

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The USV drone boats could share data and possibly even stream real-time sensor video between one another and back to Ukrainians performing command and control on the shore. Should Ukrainians know the location of attacking Russian ships, they could target them from shore or launch aircraft to attack them.

At the same time, the USVs might offer an equal or better opportunity to conduct offensive operations as they could perform forward “node” targeting missions for coastal weapons such as anti-ship missiles. If the Russian cruiser was in fact destroyed by some kind of Ukrainian anti-ship missile, then having forward operating USVs miles away could help “pinpoint” Russian ships for attack from beyond the visible horizon.

While this development may or may not be related to reports that a Ukrainian missile was in fact responsible for the fire and destruction aboard a Russian cruiser in the Black Sea, the timing does appear significant. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Pentagon could not independently confirm that the Russian ship was struck by a Ukrainian missile

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“We did note that other Black Sea ships that were operating in the vicinity of her or in the northern Black Sea have all moved further south. They -- they -- they -- in -- in the wake of the damage that -- that the Moskva experienced, so they've all -- all -- all of the northern Black Sea ships have now moved out, away from that -- the northern areas where they were operating in,” Kirby said.

There certainly is reason to believe that the Ukrainian coastline along the Black Sea and Sea of Azov continue to be at great risk, given the range of ship-fired weapons Russia is known to operate and the essential “absence” of a Ukrainian Navy. Furthermore, Kirby was clear that “They have blockaded Odessa. Clearly, they have prevented Odesa from economic, trade, and flow of maritime traffic in and out of Odessa. But I'm not aware of anything they've done to threaten or to pose a problem for the economies of other Black Sea nations,” Kirby said.

It would make sense that Russian forces might wish to be careful along other coastal areas of the Black Sea, given that NATO-allied Romania and Bulgaria border the Black Sea just South of Odessa. This is quite significant, because despite Putin’s inflammatory rhetoric about being “at War” with NATO and the West, he does seem to be making a clear effort not to provoke NATO directly.

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization