Though not the first time Ukrainian forces had targeted enemy naval vessels with drones, February 2024 saw the country’s military intelligence directorate (GUR) achieve several successes. Mid-month, it said it had sunk a Russian landing ship in the Black Sea, using a handful of Magura V5 uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) to swarm and destroy the Caesar Kunikov off the Crimean Peninsula – just weeks after another successful attack on the Ivanovets. Though Russia did not confirm the news, several Russian military bloggers acknowledged the incident.

Launched in 2022, the Ukrainian Magura V5 is a multipurpose next-generation USV. Suitable for surveillance and reconnaissance, mine warfare, fleet security and patrol, combat missions and more, it’s capable of carrying a 320kg payload over 450 nautical miles (around 830km). Aerial and land deployment of drones have been a key feature of the war in Ukraine since it began in February 2022. In fact, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) estimates Ukraine is losing as many as 10,000 drones of some description each month. But now, the use of USVs during naval missions is increasingly becoming commonplace.

Though the use of USVs is not new, Ukraine is seen as a pioneer in the field. The country has developed systems with new capabilities at an unprecedented rate, with many observers seeing the conflict with Russia as a step-change in the way warfare is conducted. “I think the most advanced country [in the use of USVs for combat purposes] is probably Ukraine,” says Commander Guillaume, a French naval officer and branch manager for the Permanent Commission for Programs and Tests Commander, and who’s speaking to Defence and Security Systems International in a personal capacity.

Ukraine has deployed these USVs to devastating effect against Russia’s navy. Image Credit: Ryzhkov Serhii/

New technologies, newer horizons

Ukraine’s naval success comes at a time when USVs are not far from the headlines, with Yemen’s Shia Houthi forces deploying scores of them against military and merchant vessels in the Red Sea since the start of the year. Their growing use – largely in coastal waters – signifies a new age of naval combat. And though this development has long been predicted, one industry insider told me, that doesn’t mean it isn’t “hugely significant” – and a shift, with enormous implications, that has only just begun.

In part, this growth can be understood in terms of existing naval vessels. With traditional crewed assets reaching the end of service life, commanders are accelerating their use of USVs, with today’s naval forces increasingly interested in seabed, anti-surface and antisubmarine warfare, as well as force protection. Since the turn of the decade, European and Nato forces have firmly fixed their gaze on uncrewed vessels. In October 2022, the UK’s Royal Navy said it led ‘game-changing’ Nato tech experiments in waters near the Troia Peninsula off Portugal. It was the first time uncrewed vessels had been supported by a Royal Navy crewed vessel, HMS Lancaster, serving as the command hub for the autonomous participants.

The projected annual growth rate of the USV market between 2023 and 2028.
Markets and Markets

At last year’s exercise, during its Distinguished Visitors Day, Nato attendees spoke of the impact naval drones were having in active combat, the lessons being learned from the war in Ukraine – and how Nato itself, and of course its external allies, could enhance the capabilities of uncrewed naval vehicles.

Their cost, however, is a challenging and restricting factor for many. The US Department of Defense (DoD) – which Commander Guillaume says is investing heavily in USVs – continues to increase its budgets and spend on uncrewed technologies. But recognising the challenges posed by high costs, the US Navy has ambitions to develop low-cost USVs, with some prototypes already operational.

A bird’s eye view of Sevastopol Bay, annexed by Russia in 2014. Image Credit: Nikolay Gyngazov/

Arguably, the US is getting it right. Tapping into homegrown expertise, the DoD and US Navy in particular are developing drones – now with autonomous capabilities – at pace. Under the watchful eye of US Central Command, its Task Force 59 (TF59) had been developing USV and AI since mid-2021. Last year, it conducted a live fire training exercise in international waters off the Arabian Peninsula.

The drill focused on the operational application of new, cutting-edge uncrewed systems and AI technologies, as part of Exercise Digital Talon. It involved the use of so-called ‘manned-unmanned’ teaming – the combination of crewed and uncrewed systems – to locate, identify, target and neutralise hostile forces: in this case a target boat. With onshore personnel at the TF59 Robotics Operations Center taking the final decision to engage, a MARTAC T38 Devil Ray USV used a miniature aerial missile system to conduct several successful strikes.

Yet introducing such technology into the naval space is not without risks. Among others include the security of such systems – and the danger that human calculation may be outsourced to AI. On security, however, Commander Guillaume is sanguine. As he says, the risks posed by operating uncrewed vessels are no greater than the current threats to other advanced technologies already in use. “It’s just another form of attack which needs to be defended against,” he says, “but we have the technology, industrial assets and skill sets to defend efficiently.”

Asked whether he was worried too much autonomy was being given away to autonomous vessels – and ultimately if technology could one day replace people – the officer was also unequivocal. “Are we using autonomous learning algorithms or programmes to supplement or replace our sailors and soldiers?” he asks rhetorically. “As far as I know, that’s not the case and will probably not be for a long time.” It’s also fair to say current military doctrine is to only deploy systems under human control – and which behave in a predictable manner, with regulations demanding that. Commander Guillaume does, however, accept AI is likely more accurate, albeit within certain operating parameters.

For now, though, automation seems set to continue supporting human decision-making – not superseding it. Those innovations will likely continue, with manoeuvres like Exercise Digital Talon showing the US is moving forward at speed and with success. In Europe, though, Commander Guillaume points out that similar advances come at a cost – and not just financial. As the officer explains, while focusing on naval automation encourages the development of advanced technologies, systems are often too expensive. At the same time, he says, market forces mean that less advanced solutions – perhaps like those Ukraine has had such success with – are currently not attractive, and so are often overlooked by the continent’s suppliers.

Combatting cost

With these difficulties in mind, Commander Guillaume proposes that European navies should propose less cost-intensive technologies. Once again, the US offers a vision of the future here – notably through the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU). Established in 2015, its mission is to work with commercial partners to utilise – in some cases repurpose – existing and developing commercial technologies. With a current catalogue of operational systems from land to air, space to cyberspace, it’s now turning to maritime operations.

Its latest move focuses on so-called ‘large displacement unmanned underwater vehicles’. In February this year, the DIU announced it had awarded three prototype agreements to address ‘critical capability areas’ – including long-endurance undersea craft for subsea, seabed, and undersea warfare scenarios. As a statement by the DIU put it: “These agreements highlight the importance of improving underwater capabilities, leveraging unmanned systems, and tackling present and future maritime dangers in a cost-effective and scalable manner.”

The US approach is one Commander Guillaume suggests Europe should borrow. But funding, he says, remains difficult. “We’re investing far less in Europe due to budget constraints, and with no integrated perspective. But we’re targeting more cost intensive solutions.” The commander adds that like the US, strategic rivals are looking at less cost intensive capabilities too, potentially offering them an advantage.

China, for one, is known to be investing in such technologies. During a speech to the Communist Party Congress in 2022, for instance, President Xi pledged to embark on a concerted effort to develop unmanned aircraft and AI-equipped combat capabilities. His comments came a matter of weeks after reports surfaced of the country already having developed extra-large uncrewed underwater vessels. Satellite images showed two such vessels at the Sanya naval base in the South China Sea. Analysts suggested that their position implied they were being tested. If true, they’d represent a significant advantage over its Western competitors.

In part, catching up requires a proactive dialogue with Europe’s defence sector. “I think we in the armed forces need to be clear in what we want to order from our arms industry,” Commander Guillaume says. “Because Western companies are prone to sell high tech solutions, which may be and often are useful; but we need to build a pertinent high-low mix. That’s the key to success for modern forces.”

The average manufacturing cost of firstgeneration USVs developed and used by Ukrainian naval forces.

That’s arguably echoed by a broader philosophical shift. As the French officer puts it, European naval planners need to realise that USVs are a “consumable” asset. “It’s there to be destroyed,” he says bluntly. “Buying ten makes no sense, you will lose them – that’s the lesson in Ukraine. So, they need to be less costly.”

“I’m pro Europe, I think Europe is not a luxury but a necessity,” Commander Guillaume continues. “But as long as we fight for market share among ourselves, in every segment, we will not achieve something viable in the long-term.” Calling for regulations to support the sector, he says Europe needs to find a way to be leaders in technology and sales, rather than relying heavily on the US which, in his view, has hindered the development of the industry.

Over a third of the US Navy’s operational fleet is expected to be uncrewed by the middle of the century.
US Navy

It’s a view shared elsewhere. As European defence expert Michael Surkin has noted, Europe has “grown too comfortable living under American security guarantees,” adding it should “stop buying American kit, or do so only to fill immediate requirements in the short term.” If nothing else, it’s food for thought. Despite the uncertainty, one thing is clear: naval drones have a huge role to play and are here to stay – so can Europe afford not to have a strategy?