How Ukrainian naval drones force Russian fleet to abandon Crimea

HUR drone operator
HUR drone operator

NV journalists were able to get first-hand experience of how Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence (HUR) operates its flotilla of Magura V5 naval drones to gradually squeeze Russia’s Black Sea Fleet out of occupied Crimea.

A lone figure in military uniform and balaclava stood on the shore of a large lake, behind a large mobile console. A few dozen meters into the lake, a boat-shaped surface drone was cutting through the surf, resembling a large blue fish.

That spring day, NV arrived at this water reservoir to meet these two — a soldier and his drone.

The man, almost without moving, operated the blue drone with a large remote control, disclosing only his nom de guerre – the Thirteenth: the man hides both his name and face.

He’s not just a drone enthusiast, but the commander of HUR’s Group 13. Maritime drones are their key weapon, the use of which made the Russian Black Sea Fleet leave its main base in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea, and move eastward to Novorossiysk, Russia. The Russians also abandoned operations in the western part of the Black Sea. This, allowed Ukraine to resume exporting its grain to the world, propping up the national economy.

Group-13 achieved these results in just one year of its existence.

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Petty lords of the sea

The history of Group-13 began in the summer of 2022, when the Thirteenth, who at that time had no experience in operating drones, was tasked with creating a unit of unmanned boats. The goal was ambitious — to bring kinetic action to the Russian fleet.

The drones themselves didn’t exist at that time. A team of Ukrainian engineers, whose names and office whereabouts are kept secret, developed the first domestic maritime drone only in late 2022.

For some time, the 5.5-meter-long vessel, capable of being a reconnaissance and patrol device, as well as a destroyer, which Ukraine’s SBU security service was interested in, didn’t even have a name. However, later the agency started developing its own drone, and the first prototype was taken over by HUR at the initiative of its chief, Kyrylo Budanov. Around then, the drone was dubbed Magura, and Group-13 began to master it.

Private investors, whom the intelligence officers don’t name for security reasons, have poured cash into the project. HUR only said that the industrial site where drones are manufactured is well-protected.

The intelligence doesn’t disclose the current cost of one Magura V5 drone, which has a warhead of up to 250 kg and can travel almost 800 km without refueling.

Experts close to the production process explained the price depends on the logistics chain. For example, only a few companies in the world produce communication systems for such drones, and they must be purchased and delivered, which affects the final cost. The same applies to other foreign-made components, of which there are many in a single Magura drone.

Half a year after the start of production, in May 2023, Group-13 conducted its first successful operation, hitting Russia’s Ivan Khurs intelligence ship near the Bosphorus. However, the damage wasn’t critical, and the ship was able to get back to Sevastopol.

In fact, this was a combat test: as the Thirteenth recalls, the drones were having communication problems at the time, and the team hadn’t yet worked out all the kinks out.

Three Magura drones approached the ship at dawn, under the cover of fog. The Russian sailors damaged two drones, but the third was able to hit the target.

However, according to the Group-13 commander, this was a great result for a first mission.

More followed, such as the destruction of Russia’s Akula and Serna amphibious assault boats, the Ivanovets missile boat, the Caesar Kunikov large landing ship, and the Sergey Kotov patrol ship.

“We’re the most efficient unit in the world, no one else has such results,” the Thirteenth says, with palpable pride.

Western experts and media also highly appreciated these successes. The AP wrote that Ukrainian drones loaded with explosives, equipped with advanced GPS modules and cameras “wouldn’t look out of place in a James Bond movie.” In turn, Forbes wrote “rather than trying to infiltrate Russia anchorages in small groups, the satellite-controlled drones attack in wolfpacks at night.”

Meanwhile, Budanov admits that drones, both aerial, maritime, and ground, are the weapons of the future. Above all, they preserve the most valuable thing — the lives of Ukrainian soldiers.

Read also: Magura V5 naval drones caused $500 million damage to Russian Navy - HUR

Iterative development

HUR doesn’t disclose the number of people currently serving in Group-13, as well as their whereabouts. The Thirteenth only said that not only military personnel had been recruited into his team, but also civilians who had experience in operating drones, and even shipbuilding specialists. The latter look for vulnerable spots on enemy ships and simulate attacks so that the drones cause maximum damage to enemy vessels.

At the initial stages, drone operators learned to get a feel for how these devices handle, take into account the force of inertia, wind, waves, and many other factors, including the mobility of potential targets.

The already mentioned Sergey Kotov patrol ship, the latest “trophy” sunk in the early spring of 2024, turned out to be extremely nimble, the Thirteenth recalls.

“We were surprised at how it maneuvered, how it fled among civilian vessels,” he said.

“One moment, you’re staring at its stern, and after a few seconds it makes a sharp 90-degree turn.”

The hunt for the patrol ship lasted almost two days. The Russians knew about the activity of Ukrainian drones in the area and scrambled aircraft to look for them, to no avail. All eight Magura drones attacked the ship on March 5. Three of them were damaged, but the rest successfully hit the target and sank it.

Later, Russian aircraft spotted the three damaged drones and “destroyed” them.

Recalling the operation, the Thirteenth explains: his unit receives data on enemy ships from various sources. The drones themselves move on autopilot for most of their combat missions, while Group-13 soldiers operate them directly in the attack phase, after receiving information about the departure of the “prey” from a port.

Read also: Ukraine equips its Sea Baby naval drones with Grad multiple rocket launcher systems - NV source

A navy of the future

The Thirteenth says the drones improve after each mission. But it’s impossible to compare the first Magura prototypes and the latest ones that sank the Sergey Kotov patrol ship — they might as well be completely different devices.

Former Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zahorodnyuk says he’s impressed by the progress of domestic drones. After all, only a few years ago, according to him, maritime drones were only conceptual models at international weapons exhibitions. And now Ukrainian engineers have brought this idea to practical implementation.

“We can say with great confidence that Ukraine will become one of the world’s main exporters of maritime drones after the war,” Zahorodnyuk adds.

When Ukraine’s current naval doctrine was being developed in 2019, it was about two directions, namely a traditional navy and a “mosquito” fleet, military expert Mykhailo Samus explains. The latter are light-weight, high-speed, versatile platforms that can perform basic fleet functions, but are much cheaper than the usual frigates and destroyers. The concept of a traditional fleet won at that time, the expert says. But the current successes of maritime drones have proven the advantages of the “mosquito” approach.

Budanov, who is clearly fascinated by the potential of drones, told NV that HUR is now planning to expand its unmanned product line, and they’ll soon be able to hit not only ground and water targets, but also aerial ones. Currently, intelligence-related specialists are working on putting air defense equipment on an unmanned platform and training the AI-driven system to find, track, and shoot down aerial targets.

“It’s not an easy task, but it’s achievable,” Budanov says.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine