Ukraine’s 21st century war on a shoestring and the tech the West is racing to copy

Press/Media: Expert Comment


Experts said that Ukrainian advances in boat drones would be of enormous interest to other heavyweight military powers as they race to develop their own USV weapons or “platforms”. Dr Adam Fenton, an expert in unmanned naval vessels at Coventry University, said: “There is and will continue to be huge interest in this tech from navies around the world because of its enormous potential to disrupt current strategy and tactics.”

The development of the kamikaze boats, which are powered by modified jet-ski engines and have a range of up to 450 nautical miles (800km) using imported satellite and optical guidance systems, is a totemic example of the success of Ukraine’s defence technology sector. One Western military observer described it as a “cross-over between [James Bond’s] ‘Q-branch’ and a DIY store”, capable of outsmarting the enemy in areas, such as aviation and naval combat, where the Kremlin has an overwhelming advantage in terms of material.

Some of the weaponry flowing out of Ukraine’s military ateliers has a distinctly ad-hoc, quasi rudimentary flavour to it.

A group of volunteer engineers last month unveiled the Trembita, or “people’s missile”, a cut-price, crowd-funded cruise munition designed to be launched in salvoes of 20 or 30 at a time to overwhelm Russian air defences and strike ammunition dumps and command posts up to 90 miles behind enemy lines.

With a price tag of about £8,000 each, the rockets are designed to be a typically pragmatic Ukrainian riposte to the Kinzhal hypersonic and Kalibr cruise missiles launched by Russia at a respective cost of £1.6m and £800,000 each. Named after a type of traditional horn played by shepherds, not all the Trembitas will be fitted with the 25kg warhead they are designed to deliver. Instead, their roaring pulse-jet engines – fuelled by ordinary petrol or diesel – are designed to have an effect on Russian troops that is as much psychological as it is tactical.

Other weaponry, however, is designed to be world-leading, not least because in order to do the job required it needs to stretch the limits of what has hitherto been possible in the military sphere.

The MAGURA V5, described by its inventors as a “next-generation multi-role [USV]”, is known to have been deployed along with other drone boats and robotic submarines in Kyiv’s ongoing campaign to deter and harass Russian gunboats operating out of the Sevastopol naval base in occupied Crimea.

Dr Fenton said: “It’s likely that Ukraine were the first ones to gather all these components and put them together in this configuration, with the war providing the urgency for that, which itself is impressive.

“They are driving a massive strategic upheaval in offensive naval tactics. The ability to strike remotely from distances of up to 500 nautical miles [575 miles] without any risk to human crew at a fraction of the price of a large naval platform is a huge tactical advantage in favour of smaller navies.”

Such wartime success is part of a dictum of military usefulness and public-private partnership which Ukraine’s leaders are pointing to as a model for the country if it is to evolve beyond reliance on Western donors for advanced weaponry.

In April, the Ukrainian defence ministry unveiled a new type of underwater drone backed by artificial intelligence – the “Toloka” TLK-150 – produced as a result of an investment partnership between the state and homegrown technology companies.

Period6 Aug 2023

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Media contributions


  • uncrewed vessels
  • artificial intelligence
  • naval operations
  • military tactics
  • maritime security
  • drones