Ukraine Situation Report: Shadowy Long-Range Kamikaze Drone Strikes Again

Crimea was under attack again, this time it was the Black Sea Fleet headquarters by the same converted ‘Alibaba drone’ we’ve seen before.

byTyler Rogoway| PUBLISHED Aug 20, 2022 9:27 PM
Ukraine Situation Report: Shadowy Long-Range Kamikaze Drone Strikes Again
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Ukraine's shadow offensive on strategic Russian targets well behind the front lines appears to be just heating up. The mysterious, 'available on Alibaba,' converted long-range suicide drone was seen in action for the second time today, this time making an attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, Crimea. The twin-tail-boom fixed-wing drone was spotted overhead just before a plume rose from the fleet's headquarters. It appears the drone impacted a roofline, damaging it, but there is no word on casualties, at least according to Russian officials.

This is the second confirmed drone attack on the Black Sea Fleet's headquarters in just three weeks. In our coverage of the last attack, we noted it seemed very likely that the operation was just a harbinger of what was to come. That proved all too accurate as targets in Crimea have since come under repeated attack, including a very successful operation against Russian Navy tactical jets at Saki Airbase. Even just the day before yesterday, Russia claimed to shoot down a drone at nearby Belbek Airbase after claims began to emerge of more explosions there. Satellite imagery proved that the base was left untouched. Other targets in Crimea have included large ammunition stockpiles, meanwhile similar targets continue to mysteriously go up in flames in border areas of Russia proper. You can read our recent report on this reality here.

The most important thing about this latest strike on the seat of the Black Sea Fleet is the weapon used. It serves as a confirmation that Ukraine is indeed employing improvised long-range suicide drones against strategic targets just as it did in a successful strike on an oil complex in Novoshakhtinsk, well beyond the border between Russia and Ukraine, last June.

We profiled the system used and its origins in our initial piece on that strike. Basically, it's a Chinese-built fixed-wing unmanned aircraft that can carry a relatively sizeable payload over long distances, essentially turning it into a slow cruise missile. The War Zone has been warning about just such weapons and their extremely low barrier to entry for many years. Now it is clear that Ukraine, prompted by necessity, has turned these off-the-shelf drones that can be bought for between $5,000 and $10,000 and turned into something between an improvized precision-guided missile and a vengeance weapon of sorts.

One Skyeye 5000mm drone being sold on Alibaba for $8,000. Credit: Alibaba
A Skyeye 5000mm. Credit: Alibaba

While special operations raids, small loitering munitions, espionage, modified cruise missiles, and short-range ballistic missiles, either clandestinely developed locally or supplied, have all been eyed as the culprit of the recent attacks deep inside Russian-controlled territory, these adapted drones remain the most likely culprit. Pairing them with other capabilities, such as short-range loitering munitions or weaponized drones, is also a real possibility.

These weaponized unmanned aircraft could work by just hitting a GPS coordinate as best they can, but it's also possible that they navigate to a target area autonomously but are then 'picked up' by a nearby man-in-the-loop operator and guided on their terminal attack run, offering greater flexibility and precision. The use of the drones in broad daylight — when most of these mysterious attacks have occurred, including this latest one in Sevastopol — could make sense if they are using a simple camera not well suited for nighttime operations for terminal guidance.

Regardless, it seems that until recently, Crimea's main Black Sea port, the jewel of Russia's land 2014 land-grab, is now very much in a wartime defense posture. Anti-aircraft artillery has been highly active in recent hours and patrols of helicopters and ships appear to have expanded. It seems Russia is scrambling to put any type of measure in place — no matter how futile — to protect the city from more attacks. Obviously 'security theater' is also a factor here.

Of course, the big question is where are the air defenses? It may seem puzzling that a slow-moving drone approached from afar and flew hundreds of feet over the most strategic city on a highly militarized peninsula that is under attack, and on a perfectly clear day, made it to its target seemingly unmolested. This has become a recurring theme when it comes to Russia's much-vaunted air defense systems during this war. That being said, spotting slow-flying smaller craft can be hard for even advanced air defense systems. Software and operational changes may even be needed to reliably detect them and engaging them is another matter. But Russia has had years to prepare for this as their main base in Syria has come under repeated drone attacks over the years. Beyond that, Russia's close-in defense layer should be especially ready for this type of attack, but that repeatedly doesn't seem to be the case.

We will likely be seeing a lot more of these drones as Ukraine continues to expand its fight against Russia's invasion beyond its own borders.

We will continue to keep an eye on events in Sevastopol, but let's get to some of the other development in the now nearly six-month-old conflict.

The Latest:

Darya Dugina, daughter of far-right Russian idealogue Alexander Dugin, died tonight outside Moscow when her car exploded. Video had quickly begun circulating after the blast showing what appeared to be Dugin at the scene, visibly upset, providing additional evidence of who the occupant of the vehicle was. Russian authorities have now confirmed that Dugina was inside the Land Cruiser Prado, which belongs to her father, when it blew up.

The incident immediately prompted discussions about whether this might have been a targeted assassination, and that it may have been aimed at Dugin himself.

Dugin, who is in Putin's inner circle and has been described in past as "Putin's brain," has expressed a number of extreme viewpoints over the years, including challenging the legitimacy of Ukraine as an independent entity and of the national identity of the Ukrainian people. There have been discussions about how Dugin's viewpoints on Ukraine directly influenced Putin's, and may have contributed directly to Russia launching its all-out invasion of the country. Dugina has leveraged her father's name to become a notable political figure in Russia in her own right, and has espoused similar viewpoints regarding Ukraine in the past. She was also under international sanctions as of last March.

If this incident is conclusively determined to have been an assassination — it seems unlikely that it is anything but that — it could well prompt some form of direct retaliation from the Kremlin or other escalation in the current conflict.

The biggest open-source intelligence mystery of the last 24 hours has been a video of an M142 HIMARS launcher on a road that was geolocated inside Ukraine. While the presence of this vehicle in Ukraine is not strange, the country has 16 of the launchers already, what is odd is the rear of its launcher cradle and the munitions pod in it. It features some type of slightly protruding cover we haven't seen before. While some have claimed this is proof that ATACMS short-range ballistic missiles are in Ukrainian hands, there doesn't appear to be any hard evidence of that.

We could be seeing an improvized cover for transport (which makes some sense) or the newest configuration for the pre-loaded weapons pods, which can pack a single ATACMS ballistic missile or six 227mm rockets, including M31 GMLRS guided rockets that have proven so valuable to Ukraine in recent weeks.

The rear of the pod has some resemblance to ones in the conceptual videos we have seen from Lockheed Martin for Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), which will replace ATACMS. Two PrSMs can be carried in a single pod. However, this weapon is still in testing and is new to the United States, making it an unlikely addition to Ukraine's arsenal.

A rendering of a HIMARS launcher loaded with a PrSM missile pod from a Lockheed Martin promotional video. (Lockheed Martin screencap)

It's possible HIMARS is being used to launch another type of missile indigenously developed or imported, one that may be longer than ATACMs. We just don't know.

While the U.S. has stated repeatedly it has not given Ukraine ATACMS to fire out of its M142 or M270 launchers, neighboring Romania has acquired ATACMs, and it is possible they gave some to Ukraine, although such a transfer would absolutely require U.S. approval. This would also risk running afoul of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary arms control mechanism, which places significant restrictions on the transfer from one country to another of missiles, like the ATACMS Romania just acquired, with ranges of 300 kilometers or more. The United States is a party to the MTCR, but holds the position that it does not impact transfers to other NATO members. Romania is not a member of the MTCR, but has agreed to abide by its rules, while Ukraine is both a party to the agreement and not a NATO member.

The bottom line here is that this could be just a cover of some kind or a new pod configuration or some type of short-range ballistic missile capability, we simply don't know at this time, but the first two options seem more likely than the last.

Ukraine's info war game has been at its very best, trolling Russia on multiple fronts. Like this post about Russia's heavy dependence on western electronics for their weapons, something TWZ was among the first outlets to dive deeply into.

On the push to have European countries ban Russian tourism:

And then there was this gem, depicting Ukraine's growing advanced weapons capabilities via a Ninja Turtles meme:

The Ukrainian government staged a 'Russian military victory parade' in Kyiv, like the one Moscow maybe thought they would have after taking the country in a matter of days, but instead of operational hardware, the street was lined with ravaged Russian vehicles the Ukrainian military destroyed in combat.

We may have a new Russian tank turret altitude record:

Russia's own information warfare machine is also hard at work:

The U.K. Ministry of Defense's latest intelligence assessment has a stalemate tone with almost no gains occurring on either side, but with Ukraine's strikes on Russia's rear supply areas potentially being a major help in keeping advances at a minimum:

There is a ton of chatter about major events occurring during Ukraine's Independence Day next week. Zelensky is warning of a major act by Russia while others have discussed Ukraine putting on a full court press against Russian targets deep behind enemy lines. Zelensky stated:

“We should be aware that this week Russia may try to do something particularly nasty, something particularly cruel. Such is our enemy. But in any other week during these six months, Russia did the same thing all the time – disgusting and cruel.”

Often these types of ominous dates come and go without a major incident to mark them, but this one, in particular, seems to have a lot of anxiety surrounding it.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com

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