Russia seems to have taken a leaf out of Ukraine’s book and adopted the use of unmanned vessels for attacking Ukrainian positions if recent reports are to be believed.
A video has been doing the rounds on social media showing what appears to be a Russian uncrewed vessel striking a bridge south of Odesa.
An 18-second video, which seems to be a recording watched on a computer screen, shows a small, swift-moving vessel passing under the bridge between two supporting pillars and exploding after around eight seconds.
The video cuts off a few seconds after the explosion without showing the extent of damage caused by the blast. The bridge in question is reportedly located in Zatoka in the Odesa region, which connects the region with the rest of Ukraine.
According to various Russian bloggers, media sources, and other OSINT experts, the vessel that hit the bridge is a Russian unmanned surface vessel; however, neither Russia nor Ukraine has issued a statement.
“From the footage, it’s hard to say about the scale of damage, but it appears that the bridge’s support structure was damaged,” the Russian Rybar Telegram channel reported.
“This is the only railroad bridge that leads to the western Odesa Region directly via Ukrainian territory. The shortest alternate route is a road that runs through almost 8 km of Moldovan territory.”
— EurAsian Times (@THEEURASIATIMES) February 11, 2023
So far, only Ukraine has demonstrated the capability to launch attacks on Russian positions and naval vessels using unmanned surface vessels (USVs).
In fact, as of November, Ukraine is also known to have launched a fundraising effort to acquire a fleet of as many as 100 such USVs, which it refers to as the world’s first ‘Fleet of Naval Drones.’
Therefore, if the object seen in the latest video is indeed a Russian USV, it would mark the first known use of this type of weapon by the Russian military in its ongoing military campaign in Ukraine.
According to Rybar, the bridge has been repeatedly attacked before, however, there were no previous reports of the Russian Armed Forces using unmanned craft.
Western experts warn that Russia’s alleged use of explosive-laden USVs is a new development that poses a considerable threat to Ukraine.
“Even if the attack did limited damage (as reported), it is a major new threat for Ukraine,” said American Naval Analyst H.I. Sutton. “The bridge is a strategic link between Ukraine and Moldova/Romania and has been targeted by Russia before, but with limited success.”
Did Iran Supply Drone Boats To Russia?
If this is the first time Russia has used kamikaze USV, the important question is, how do Russian forces control them? At the least, the Russians must have line-of-sight connectivity, if not more advanced communications systems, to control such USVs.
Experts believe that Ukraine used to leverage StarLink from Space X for beyond-line-of-sight direct control of its drone boats, however, in a big blow to Ukrainian armed forces, SpaceX has taken measures to prevent Ukraine from using Starlink satellite to control their drones.
Earlier this month, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said that the company limited Ukraine’s ability to use its satellite internet service for military purposes after reports emerged of Ukrainian armed forces using the technology to control drones.
“It was never intended to be weaponized,” Shotwell told an audience at a space conference on February 8. “However, Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement.”
Shotwell argued that Starlink had sent units to Ukraine to “keep the banks going, hospitals, keep families connected.” “We know the military is using them for comms, and that’s OK,” Shotwell further said. “But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes.”
Another important question is where did Russia acquire these systems from, and the answer to that could be Iran which is known to have pioneered this capability and probably even proliferated it, at least in the Middle East.
In 2017, Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen used an unmanned explosive-laden boat to storm into a Saudi Frigate al Madinah in the southern Red Sea, which exploded at the stern of the frigate, killing two sailors and injuring three more.
When asked if the object used to strike the Zatoka bridge could be Iranian tech, Sutton said, “Possible, Iran are experts at this. However, Russia has the technological base to do this internally without Iranian help also.”
Reports suggest Russian forces could use USVs elsewhere on the Black Sea, around Odesa, and even the port city of Ochakiv, which has come under repeated Russian bombardment.
Furthermore, the Russian military could also use such USVs on the Dnipro River to strike Ukrainian positions in and around Kherson city, where its troops had to withdraw in early November last year.
Sutton suggested another possibility wherein Russia could use drone boats for attacks targeting merchant shipping going to Ukraine under the Black Sea Grain Initiative and then deny its involvement and blame Ukrainian drones and/or mines.