In a Tough Year on Land, Drones Give Ukraine Some Success at Sea
Bouncing over choppy waters, the Ukrainian sea drones fanned out and sped toward the Russian warship in a swarming tactic that military experts say has proved lethal and effective against what had been a dominant naval power on the Black Sea.
From the safety of a room hundreds of miles away, the drones’ pilots pushed forward joysticks to accelerate, steer and swivel deck-mounted cameras, keeping their target in sight. Russian sailors opened fire with heavy machine guns.
A brief sea battle between men and drones erupted over several minutes, according to an account from the Ukrainian drone operators. One drone sped so close to its target, they said, that when bullets struck the 500-pound warhead it was carrying, the explosion breached the hull of the Russian corvette patrol ship, the Sergey Kotov.
“When we hit the target, the whole team, of course, was filled with emotion,” said the operator of the drone. The pilot asked to be identified only by a nickname, Thirteen, while describing the battle at sea Sept. 14, one of dozens of such engagements over the past year, according to the Ukrainian military, using drones built by Ukraine.
Such attacks have been a rare bright spot in a disappointing year for Ukraine with no frontline breakthrough on the ground.
“We were screaming and congratulating one another,” the pilot said, describing the mood among the drone operators in September.
The use of the sea drones highlights a path forward for Ukraine in its fight with Russia that has been promoted by the White House and embraced by the Ukrainian leadership. The idea is to supplement weaponry provided by Western partners with armaments produced domestically by Ukraine, including innovative systems like the sea drone fleet.
Some in the U.S. military want Ukraine to pursue a “hold-and-build” strategy — to focus on holding the territory it has now and building an ability to produce its own weapons over 2024.
With a Ukrainian offensive now stalled, and little chance for advancing on land, the goal would be to create enough of a credible threat with long-range drones and missiles that there would be an opportunity for meaningful negotiations with Russia at the end of next year or in 2025.
Ukrainian sea drones, said Thirteen, the pilot who helped cripple the Sergey Kotov, have cleared a swath out to 200 or so miles from the Ukrainian coast. “It’s possible to push them back,” he said. “Russia’s reign on the Black Sea is over.”
文／Andrew E. Kramer 譯／羅方妤