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History repeats itself: Lessons from the attack on the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.


28 | 11 | 2022


The use of surface drones to attack ships anchored at the Russian base opens up a new way of approaching war at sea

In the picture

View of the port of Sevastopol on October 28, 2022, with vessel identification courtesy of @Torger78 [Planet Labs Inc. and @vcdgf555].

The Crimean port of Sevastopol, where part of the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet is stationed, was the victim of a surprise attack by several unmanned surface vehicles at the end of October, causing damage to several ships at anchor. Damage was reported to the frigate 'Admiral Makarov' (flagship of the Black Sea Fleet) and the minesweeper 'Ivan Golubets'. Open source intelligence expert circles point out that the damage was greater than declared by the Russian authorities. The attack, carried out by Ukraine, is a milestone in naval strategy, as was the one perpetrated by the British in Taranto, from which Japan learned for its action on Pearl Harbor.

The attack on the port of Sevastopol marks a turning point in naval strategy, with the use of such small USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles) capable of inflicting significant damage to anchored naval units. As analyst HI Sutton notes, the "conceptual simplicity" of USVs and their "relative sophistication set them apart from previous explosive vessels." Pending full clarification of the facts, the event has had several consequences. From entrance, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the immediate cancellation of the grain export agreement , claiming that the Black Sea Fleet ships that had just fallen victim to a "terrorist attack" are tasked with ensuring the security of the grain corridor as part of an international initiative to export agricultural products from Ukrainian ports.

However, beyond the immediate consequences - difficult to know exactly - several lessons can be drawn from what was the first massive attack that combined unmanned aerial and surface vehicles and used them as suicide drones against a fleet anchored in a port.

From Taranto to Sevastopol: History repeats itself

For those who have read about the naval battles of World War II, the characteristics of this event will remind them of one of the milestones that took place during that war: the British attack on the port of Taranto.  

On the night of November 11-12, 1940, a dozen RAF bombers took off from the aircraft carrier 'HMS Illustrious' towards the Italian port of Taranto, where part of the Italian Regia Marina fleet was stationed. There, the British planes successfully surprised a fleet that had not contemplated the option of an air attack with torpedoes, and that watched helplessly as three of its battleships ('Littorio', 'Conte di Cavour' and 'Caio Duilio') and one Wayside Cross ('Gorizia') were severely bombed. This action with torpedoes, specially modified to operate in shallow waters such as those of Taranto, was something never seen before, and more than achieved its goal purpose. Hours later, the resounding success of an operation that left three of the aforementioned ships in dry dock for many months was confirmed, and sentenced the 'Conte di Cavour' to sink a few hours later, causing, in addition, significant psychological damage among the Italian admirals.

This event not only marked the beginning of the end for naval surface warfare, but also the beginning of a new era of air control of the seas. A little more than a year later, Admiral Yamamoto, who had studied this event carefully, would plan following this model the surprise attack on the US Navy's Pacific Fleet base that precipitated America's entry into the war: the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The impact of both events resonates now, more than 80 years later, in the events of late October in the port of Sevastopol. Although on a smaller scale, the significance of this event merits highlighting several lessons that the Russian Navy - or any other - should draw from the events.

In the picture

One of the surface vehicles allegedly involved in the attack on Sevastopol. This specimen was located in late September off the coast near where the attack took place [HI Sutton].

Lessons from the attack

It is no exaggeration to say that what happened in Sevastopol is a before and after in the field of maritime warfare, just like the Taranto attack at the time. As mentioned above, it is the first time that a combined attack by unmanned air and surface vehicles has surprised ships at anchor. Moreover, it is significant that the frigate concerned is today the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, replacing the ill-fated 'Moskva' which went down last April. Of course, having a frigate as the flagship of one of the most important fleets says a lot about the Russian Navy's status . Almost more than the fact that the Russians are losing a naval war against an enemy that barely has a handful of patrol boats and logistical support vessels.

What ideas can be gleaned from this attack to prevent future incursions with this subject of vehicles?


Position of ships in port during wartime. The first and most obvious lesson of all, while still nothing new, is how to properly position ships in a base during times of conflict. A quick glance at satellite images of the port of Sevastopol reveals how closely several of the ships were positioned to each other. The port had six tank landing ships from the class 'Ropucha' in close proximity to each other. The other ships, also in close proximity, were in highly vulnerable positions: in case a bomb was dropped on one of them, the chances of hitting any goal were significantly high.

Russia should have foreseen at this stage of the conflict, and even more so with the loss of the 'Moskva', a more rigorous protection of its most important maritime enclaves. Sevastopol is one of them. A day after what happened in Taranto, the Regia Marina conveniently moved its undamaged ships to the port of Naples, to prevent additional surprises, until the security measures of the attacked base were strengthened.

Surveillance systems at instructions naval sites and major ports. It is clear that such an event was in part made possible by the lack of adequate surveillance systems. Drones are set to explode and not have to return, and their small size can make them particularly difficult to spot (especially at night). But with an adequate protection system in place around the piers, such an incursion could not have occurred without being discovered before it had a chance to inflict property damage. Moreover, the channel is long enough to allow time for the craft to be spotted; and protective measures should have been strengthened when an identical drone was found stranded in mid-September.

Russia has already lost several ships to an enemy that does not have a navy. Therefore, the most valuable lesson Russia can draw from its naval losses in an eminently land-based conflict is to strengthen its protection systems in all strategically important ports, including Sevastopol. The characteristics of these vehicles make them suitable for use in the Arctic or the Baltic as well as in the Black Sea.

More to come. There is no doubt that this attack is just the beginning of what some already consider a new area of hybrid warfare tactics. This is the first time a surface drone has been seen attacking a large vessel such as the frigate 'Admiral Makarov'. The technology and strategy applied to this weapons subject will undoubtedly bring about significant tactical changes in maritime security. Among others, the vulnerability of maritime supply chains is greatly increased by the possibility of attacks with such vehicles. Not only because they are difficult to detect due to their small size, but also because of the possibility of being used in very large swarms given how relatively inexpensive they are; a Sevastopol-like attack on a merchant ship could well put it out of service and even disrupt the supply chain.

On the other hand, it is of particular concern that Beijing is taking grade of what has happened (in all likelihood, it is), just as Admiral Yamamoto did in Taranto before planning his attack on Pearl Harbor. Both the United States and China have long been developing possible tactics involving the use of these instruments for a hypothetical conflict in Taiwan; all the more reason to keep a close eye on the evolution of operations of these characteristics.  

The Ukrainian war is playing a key role in highlighting the great logistical weaknesses blamed on the Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Navy in general. As Tayfun Ozberk points out, events like this reveal the weak status of a Navy that lacks such basic capabilities as protection of its important instructions or reconnaissance and assessment of enemy capabilities. A Navy descended from the once dreaded Soviet Red Fleet, which seems to be fading month by month.

The attack on Sevastopol will mark the beginning of a new chapter in the history of technological innovations in naval operations, as was already the case with the modified torpedoes of Taranto, the massive bombing of Pearl Harbor or the sinking of the Israeli destroyer 'Eliat' in 1967 with P-15 'Termit' surface-to-surface missiles. Much of warfare helps to shed light on future conflicts: in this case it is clear that these small unmanned surface vehicles or drone swarm attacks can cause significant damage to larger, more expensive combat vessels; and they are here to stay. But if anything has become clear, as Aldous Huxley said some time ago, it is that "perhaps the greatest lesson of history is that no one learned the lessons of history".

"Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.", George Santayana