Maritime drones are a hot topic in many navies, but Ukraine has become the first to form a specialized unit using explosives-armed drones. The recently revealed 385th Separate Brigade is unique in the world. And it has been formed from war needs.
On August 24, as part of the Independence Day celebrations, President Zelensky recognized a unique unit in the Ukrainian Navy. The 385th Separate Brigade uses a number of “special purpose unmanned naval systems.” Among them are the explosive-laden maritime drones that have plagued the Russian Navy in the Black Sea.
It is one of the clearest signs of the changes we are witnessing in the war; the Ukrainian Navy has a unit dedicated to a mode of warfare that essentially did not exist 1.5 years ago.
Every new drone model revealed has to fit into an invisible development timeline. We only see what Ukraine, or sometimes its targets, are willing to show. The development of these drones is not a simple iterative process. Analysis of the information made public suggests that several desperate programs exist. This article is based on open sources.
First-generation maritime drone
The fact that there are several “families” of designs suggests that they come from different manufacturers and organizations. Some may come directly from the Ukrainian Navy, while others may have been developed by Intelligence agencies such as the GUR (Ukrainian Defense Intelligence). Others may be private initiatives based on commercial or crowdfunding.
This apparent duplication of efforts will bring with it pros and cons. Some might consider it ineffective. But this is also how innovation occurs in times of war; it is a symptom of the circumstances.
The first generation of “maritime drones,” properly known as USVs (Unmanned Surface Vessels), appeared for the first time in September 2022. On October 29, 2022, they carried out a spectacular raid on Sevastopol, giving the first signs of their potential for combat. They didn’t sink any ships, but they came close. It was a threat that Russia had to take seriously.
These early USVs were a cross between a jet ski and a canoe. Several of the later designs followed this idea. In general, they are intended to be fast and low profile, much smaller than a crewed boat could be.
Magura and the Sea Baby
SpetsTechnoExport, a state-owned company, has promoted the latest Magura family. Magura, which stands for Maritime Autonomous Guard Unmanned Robotic Apparatus, has been used in several attacks. It has an impressive payload capacity of 320 kg (705 lb). It reaches a maximum speed of 42 knots and an announced range of 450 nautical miles (833 km).
Another family is the “Sea Baby”. It looks larger than the Magura but is still compact. It was revealed by the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) and is likely to have come from another manufacturer, possibly the government. It can reportedly be equipped with an 860 kg (1,900 lb) warhead, much larger than the other models. The Kerch Bridge was used and severely damaged on July 17, 2023.
Simpler USVs, based on dismantled jet skis, have also been observed off Sevastopol. It is unclear whether they were armed or used as decoys. They are likely cheaper and faster to build than USVs with custom-made hulls but less capable overall.
Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), basically underwater drones, are inherently stealthier than USVs. Naturally, Ukrainian companies have been developing underwater vehicles.
In May 2023, the Toloka TK-150 UUV was unveiled at the launch event for Brave 1. Brave 1 is a government technology cluster that combines state, military and private sector developers. The Toloka TK-150 is a very small drone, just 2.5 meters long. It is deduced that the device would work with a sensor mast to navigate and identify its target. It is possible that it is designed to contain a warhead for attacks on ships.
More recently, another group, AMMO Ukraine, introduced its own UUV. The “Marichka” is much larger than the Toloka TK-150, at 6 meters (20 ft) long and 1 meter (3.2 ft) in diameter. AMMO Ukraine announces that it can be used to attack warships and bridges and for intelligence gathering and transportation functions. AMMO Ukraine is crowdsourcing the construction of a fleet of Marichka drones.
It is unclear which USV models are operated by which units, although the 385th Separate Brigade certainly plays an important role. The Ukrainian military keeps these capabilities secret and only reveals what it chooses. There are likely other models of maritime drones that we do not yet know about.