Evaluating the Black Sea Drone Operations

Drones have been used extensively for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations (COIN/CT Ops) during the US “War on Terror”. The first combat drone usage in a symmetric conventional battlefield occurred during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020. However, the performance of the Turkish-developed Bayraktar TB2 UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) marked a watershed moment in the recent history of warfare. Despite a promising performance, drones are still believed to be in a nascent developmental phase and of limited application against a more capable foe – for example, Russia. Still, recently, Ukraine has used drones with remarkable effect in the Russia-Ukraine conflict by delivering significant attrition to Russian forces.

TB2 UCAVs have been used for anti-armour, anti-infantry operations, and Suppression and Destruction of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD-DEAD). In parallel, it has been used for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) roles which in turn have increased the overall efficiency of Ukrainian forces. A unique aspect of the Russian-Ukraine conflict is the employment of drones in naval combat. The TB2 drone has emerged as the weapon of choice for Ukraine to challenge Russian dominance in the Black Sea. TB2 falls in the category of MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) UCAV and cannot carry anti-ship missiles. Instead, it is armed with laser-guided micro-munitions, which are effective against smaller targets. In theory, TB2 cannot engage Russian Warships from standoff ranges, and its small weapon package cannot sink a big warship. But despite all technical limitations, Ukraine has inflicted a significant toll on the Russian Navy.

The recent conflicts have showcased that drone systems – particularly when used in conjunction with electronic warfare (EW) and other conventional weapons – can show promising combat functionality in various combat conditions.

As per Ukrainian officials, TB2 was used by Ukrainian Navy to detect and track Moskva – the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which was subsequently struck and sunk by shore-based Neptune Anti-Ship Missiles (ASMs). In this sense, TB2 was used as a force multiplier to augment the capability of a conventional weapon system. Moskva, with its long-range air defence system (S-300 SAM), was a key naval asset for denying the enemy the air space of the Black Sea. The sinking of Moskva opened space to Ukrainian air power, thus turning the Black Sea into the first-ever naval battlefield for drone warfare.

The first confirmed kill of Ukrainian TB2 UCAVs was a Russian Raptor fast patrol boat. In May 2022, TB2 destroyed a Russian Tor SAM (SA-15 Gauntlet) deployed on Snake Island. A subsequent Russian attempt to redeploy a similar air defence system on Snake Island was also thwarted the next day when a drone strike sank a Russian landing craft with a SAM system on board. Per the recent reports, TB2 drones have destroyed four patrol boats, one landing craft, three air defence systems and command posts deployed on Snake Island. These drones have also contributed to the sinking of the Moskva cruiser and Vasily Bekh rescue tug from shore-based missiles.

The growing losses forced the Russian Navy to install air defence systems on Snake Island hastily and to use air defence on frigates to provide protective coverage to its other naval assets. However, the losses of Russian patrol and landing crafts against TB2 UCAVs continued. The growing attrition compelled Russia to abandon the strategically important Snake Island in June. Currently, Ukraine has re-established its units on this island. Drones have played an important role in this crucial achievement.

It is worth noting that in the course of the conflict, the drones on both sides have been shot down by air defence systems. For example, on 12 April 2022, off the west coast of the Crimean peninsula, a TB2 was shot down by Russia’s frigate Admiral Essen using the Shtil-1 air defence system. The losses, however, in comparison with manned aircraft, are within reason.

The absence of a man in the combat platform is the unique ability that is increasingly expanding unmanned systems’ combat utility. Besides human life security, drones also offer lower acquisition and operational costs and shorter training cycles when compared with manned aircraft. Combined with the simpler logistical requirements and feasible incorporation of commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies in drone systems, drones are more user-friendly. They have better operational leverage, particularly in a specific high-risk environment.

The recent conflicts have showcased that drone systems – particularly when used in conjunction with electronic warfare (EW) and other conventional weapons – can show promising combat functionality in various combat conditions. Additionally, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has demonstrated drones’ utility as an efficient and reliable means of combat in naval operations. As technology continues to evolve further, more and more military operations will be undertaken by unmanned systems. This proves that the transition from manned to unmanned systems – particularly in kinetic warfare – is already in progress and will reshape future power projection patterns.

Ahmad Ibrahim

The author is an independent researcher and holds an M.Phil in Strategic Studies from National Defence University, Islamabad.

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