China’s Naval Strategists Dissect Ukraine’s USV Strike on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Base

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China’s Naval Strategists Dissect Ukraine’s USV Strike on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Base

The attack on Sevastopol six months ago may not have had the intended impact, but could have reverberations for the naval rivalry in the western Pacific.

China’s Naval Strategists Dissect Ukraine’s USV Strike on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Base

Project 1241 missile boat of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation, July 16, 2019.

Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

In shaping patterns of future warfare, there is little doubt that militaries across the world will be seeking to absorb the key lessons of the Russia-Ukraine War, ranging from the employment of tanks to the use of anti-ship cruise missiles and the ubiquitous drones. For the Chinese military, these lessons might even assume a greater importance, since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lacks recent major  combat experience, and has also leaned heavily on Russian weapons and doctrine for its rapid modernization over the last few decades.

Chinese media coverage of the war in Ukraine has been extensive. The close nature of the China-Russia “quasi-alliance” means that Chinese military analysts have not engaged in the ruthless critiques of Russian military performance that have been commonplace in the West. Yet, Chinese military analyses are still probing deeply for lessons to understand the shape of modern warfare. They have taken particular interest in the U.S. employment of novel weapons and strategies. 

To fully grasp the scope and depth of these Chinese analyses it is important to take assessments from a full range of Chinese military media, which is more extensive than is often appreciated in the West. These articles are generally associated with research institutes that are directly involved in the Chinese military-industrial complex.

This exclusive series for The Diplomat will represent the first systematic attempt by Western analysts to evaluate these Chinese assessments of the war in Ukraine across the full spectrum of warfare, including the land, sea, air and space, and information domains. Read the rest of the series here.

In late October 2022, the Ukrainian Navy brazenly struck against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. While the attack did not have the hoped for result of sinking numerous Russian warships, it has attracted the attention of naval strategists worldwide, since it employed a major technological innovation. The attack was spearheaded by unmanned surface vessels (USVs), representing their first-ever employment in naval warfare. 

On the other side of the planet, meanwhile, worldwide naval developments are followed with an all-consuming interest, since the naval arms race now underway in the western Pacific could hardly be more acute. Indeed, the Chinese naval magazine “Modern Ships” (现代舰船) ran an in-depth survey of the USV attack on Sevastopol and its implications in its December 2022 edition. China is the world’s largest drone producer, and simultaneously is at the forefront of exploring drones for naval warfare applications.

About a year prior to this bold, asymmetric Ukrainian attack on Sevastopol, leading naval analyst H.I. Sutton revealed that “emergence of the new facility [near Dalian] shows the Chinese [navy is] putting a previously unknown emphasis on armed uncrewed systems as a key developmental effort.” The same article discussed a 70-foot USV that appears to have “openings for torpedo tubes on both sides.” 

Chinese sources confirm that this vessel underwent sea trials in mid-2022. Since China is on the leading edge of deploying armed drones in the naval domain, it is worth exploring this particular Chinese-language analysis of the potentially revolutionary naval engagement from the Russia-Ukraine war.

The Chinese assessment noted that the Ukrainian naval attack drones have a high degree of stealth due in part to the vessel’s “smooth shape.” Emphasizing the semi-submersible characteristic of the Ukrainian drones, in which much of the hull form is submerged, the magazine stated that “under the cover of sea surface clutter, they are difficult to detect using the shipboard sea surface warning radar.”

Likewise, it noted that such drones could be hard to pick up on conventional sonars, given their small size and shape. Moreover, the analysis observes that an attack on a port could be ideal in that respect, given that anchored ships rarely are employing active sonar, let alone towed sonar arrays, when in a moored state. 

A third advantage of using such craft for naval attack is that they appear to be somewhat difficult to destroy. The Chinese analysis asserted that typical shipboard anti-aircraft guns are not very effective against targets on the sea surface. That may be especially true when the attacking vessels are both small and fast. It explained, “The target radar reflection signal is mixed with the sea clutter and the difficulty of calibration is increased.” The article reported, moreover, that the Russian Navy appeared to have had some difficulty in sinking the attacking vessels.

While concluding that such USVs may pose a growing threat to medium-sized surface vessels, the Chinese analysis does not exaggerate the threat from these stealthy unmanned semi-submersibles. Indeed, it explicitly states that these weapons most likely could not be compared to standard torpedoes or anti-ship missiles. The former can explode under a ship’s keel, causing it to collapse under the pressure of its own weight. As the article pointed out, a modern sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) “can completely rely on its kinetic energy to penetrate the ship’s hull” and then explode with greater damage. The USV does not have these special characteristics and thus has decreased potential to sink warships.

Notably, the Chinese interpretation of the Ukrainian attack on Sevastopol is almost entirely concerned with asymmetric warfare, rather than considering this a tactic to emulate. The discussion mentioned that the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000 alerted navies to the threat of manned small boats on suicide missions, but the Sevastopol attack should put the global maritime community on notice regarding strikes by similar but unmanned small boats. This article concluded that moored ships in dual-use ports are now in grave danger, “especially from weak states’ navies and terrorist groups.”

Understanding China’s large and growing role in all the world’s ports and waterways, it is perhaps not surprising that this Chinese author underlined the danger to global maritime trade, observing, “The world’s shipping system confronts an unprecedented threat.” For example, this analysis asked: What would be the consequences if such a suicide USV were employed to sink an LNG tanker in a major port?  

The author of this naval strategy assessment then turned to the important issue of how to protect ports from this type of attack by semi-submersible drones. For U.S. audiences saturated by news related to  February’s “surveillance balloon crisis,” they might not be surprised to learn that the first solution to the threat of USV attack on ports is suggested here to be none other than the humble “floating airship.”  These balloons employing radar and infrared sensors, in combination with artificial intelligence, are said to be capable of detecting such threats at relatively long distances. 

Ship defense netting, as well as specialized warning mines, are also advised for protecting moored ships in port. Small patrol boats are also discussed extensively, but it is noted that often these make unstable platforms for firing weapons and that this could cause difficulties in destroying such USVs. Employment of gunnery, depth bombs, and other anti-frogman weapons are all discussed, with the author recommending anti-tank missiles as quite suitable.  

The paper ends with an interesting, but inconclusive, discussion of whether the Ukrainian unmanned semi-submersibles were dependent on the U.S. Starlink system for communications and guidance. 

Notably, the Chinese assessment of the Sevastopol attack did not particularly pull any punches. The Russian fleet was criticized for poor intelligence preparation and for allowing the Ukrainian attackers to get as close as they did. The author even granted the Ukrainians a kind of political victory from the battle, since they surprised and humiliated the Black Sea Fleet, yet again.  

After Beijing has launched a series of new frigates and amphibious attack ships, not to mention cruisers and aircraft carriers, it is no wonder that Chinese naval strategists are nervous about sly and stealthy attacks on surface combatants. This might be particularly true when China could be facing opponents that are known to possess advanced naval special forces capabilities.  

However, readers might also consider what is not raised in this particular Chinese analysis, but can perhaps be read between the lines. The assessment has a clearly defensive orientation and that is encouraging. But at the same time, it is well known that China itself has been investing heavily in naval special forces, and is also known to be experimenting with how drones might be used in various ways to support both amphibious attacks or sudden, precision strikes on adversary bases, including ports.