Artillery Rocket-Firing Ukrainian Drone Boat Shown During Testing

A series of imagery confirms that the widely used Sea Baby uncrewed surface vessel (USV), or drone boat, has been equipped with Grad-series artillery rockets. The rocket-armed boat has reportedly already been used to successfully engage Russian vessels. Once again, the development demonstrates that Ukraine is exploring using its growing fleet of USVs for missions beyond one-way kamikaze attacks, although there remain questions about the overall feasibility of the adaptation.

A rear view of a Sea Baby USV launching a Grad rocket while chained down during tests on land. SBU

Photos released by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) show the rocket-armed Sea Baby drone during testing on land. Two of the photos are taken against a snowy backdrop, indicating that the tests were undertaken last winter, if not before.

A frame added to the rear of the USV supports three rocket tubes on each side and two of the photos show what appear to be Grad-type artillery rockets actually being fired.

A more detailed view of the six-tube rocket launcher arrangement on the Sea Baby USVs. SBU

An unnamed SBU source told The Kyiv Independent that the rocket-armed Sea Baby drone has been used in combat “against Russian positions on the Kinburn spit,” a thin stretch of coastal land near Mykolaiv on Ukraine’s southern Black Sea coast. “This technological solution is already showing powerful results,” the source said, adding that “new surprises await the enemy.”

The location of the Kinburn spit, where the rocket-armed Sea Baby is said to have been used in combat. Google Earth

A video posted to YouTube claims to show a Sea Baby launching a rocket attack, perhaps the same one referenced by the SBU, but this cannot be confirmed. Certainly, the footage, apparently taken by an aerial drone in the vicinity, shows a salvo of approximately half a dozen rockets coming off the drone boat while it’s underway. The results of the engagement, and where the rockets impacted, is not clear.

There may have been previous references made to the rocket-armed drone boat, with an SBU spokesperson, Artem Dekhtiarenko, recently declaring that an upgraded version of the Sea Baby is now able to deliver almost a ton of explosives on a target over 1,000 kilometers [621 miles] away. “This means that the SBU can reach a target almost anywhere in the Black Sea,” Dekhtiarenko said.

While the name ‘Grad’ is often used as a catchall term for Soviet-era unguided rocket artillery, the rockets seen in the SBU’s photos appear to be the same kind as used in the BM-21 Grad, probably the best-known Russian multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), also widely used by Ukraine.

Ukrainian BM-21 MLRS
A Ukrainian BM-21 Grad MLRS. Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The BM-21 Grad fires 122 mm rockets, from a variety of different vehicles. The maximum range of the basic rockets is around 13 miles. The standard rocket type is the 9M28F high-explosive/fragmentation round, but other options are available, including incendiary, flare, smoke, and anti-tank mine.

There have been previous efforts to introduce a rocket-armed Sea Baby in the past, as TWZ has detailed. In this case, the primary targets were understood to be Russian warships.

In January this year, the SBU released another video that was claimed to show the first use of such a system, to attack Russian ships near Sevastopol in Crimea.

At the time, SBU head Vasyl Maliuk said that the video showed “Ukrainian SBU drones firing at Russian boats that jumped out of one of the Crimean military ports to sink the drones. But the drones, instead of running away, turned around and opened fire in return.”

The brief video showed what appeared to be 14 munitions fired, but, again, not the results of the engagement.

After analyzing that video, Andrii Ryzhenko, a retired Ukrainian Navy captain told TWZ that the Sea Baby was likely armed with unguided RPV-16 thermobaric rocket launchers.

In contrast, the Grad is a much longer-range weapon, with a significantly heavier payload, capable of area bombardment.

At this point, any relationship between the Sea Baby configuration seen in the latest photos and previous reports of rocket-armed USVs is not entirely clear.

Regardless, as TWZ has discussed in the past, the military utility of any kind of unguided rockets launched from a USV is at least questionable.

The Grad is already a fairly inaccurate weapon and firing it from a very small boat as it bobs around on the waves is even less precise. Whatever type of targeting system is used, the chances are the results will be fairly indiscriminate. Presumably, the trajectory of the launch tubes can be altered to change the rockets’ trajectory, but there is still the issue of the lack of stabilization.

While a lack of accuracy on land can be compensated for with steady barrages of much larger numbers of Grad rockets, the same is not an option when launching them from a small drone boat.

Ukraine Drone Boat Bridge Attack
One of the first images to be released showing a Sea Baby drone boat. Ukrainian Government Ukrainian Government

“Unguided rockets firing from a shaking platform on the go is just sporadic fire,” a Ukrainian defense official told TWZ earlier this year. “It has little practical value.”

Nevertheless, there are likely certain scenarios in which the Grad-armed Sea Baby could be useful. Especially if used in larger numbers, the drone boats could be at the very least effective nuisance raiders, prosecuting attacks on fixed coastal infrastructure.

Repeated kamikaze attacks by similar Ukrainian USVs confirm that these craft are by no means straightforward to defend against. At the same time, Russia has gotten much better at interdicting them early and keeping them from entering their harbors. The Grad adaptation would allow for standoff bombardment of these high-security areas, even if the results of those barrages are very inconsistent, if not largely symbolic. But doing so begs the question if possibly wasting these USVs, which are said to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, on such acts is worth it?

There have been other recent efforts to provide new capabilities to the Sea Baby. Earlier this month, it became clear that Ukraine has begun arming the USVs with heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. The adaptation seems to have been made to provide the drone boats with protection, and some deterrence value, against the Russian aircraft that are increasingly being used to counter them. As with the Grad rocket modification, there remain questions about how these newly added weapons are intended to work and just how practical the arrangement is.

In a most unusual development in the Black Sea ‘drone war,’ Ukraine appears to have begun arming uncrewed surface vessels (USVs), better known as drone boats, with heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. The adaptation seems to have been made to provide the USVs with protection against the Russian helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that are increasingly being used to counter them, although many questions remain about how these newly added weapons are intended work.
A Sea Baby USV underway, with a single R-73 (AA-11 Archer) heat-seeking air-to-air missile seen fitted to a launch rail at the rear. via X via X

Since the first confirmed use of the Sea Baby in combat, during an SBU attack on the Kerch Bridge in July last year, the drone boats have been implicated in a string of other operations, primarily kamikaze attacks on vessels operated by the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

For now, the combat effectiveness of the Grad-armed Sea Baby remains unconfirmed — as does the effectiveness of the modification fitted with adapted air-to-air missiles.

Both, however, fit in with broader Ukrainian plans to migrate the kinds of capabilities found on larger naval vessels and incorporate them on USVs.

“We want to break down a large warship into its functions — air defense, weapons, protection — and put these weapons on several drones,” an SBU brigadier general with the callsign “Hunter,” told the Ukrainian Pravda (UP) news outlet earlier this year. “Ukraine does not have the time or money to build large warships, but a swarm of drones, which will include anti-aircraft drones, kamikaze drones, drones with guns, and so on, can solve the issue of the fleet in a completely different way.”

Ukraine now seems to be increasingly putting that philosophy into action.

With no chance of fighting the Russian Navy on its own terms, Ukraine has adopted a much more asymmetric approach, with drone boats very much at the center. It remains to be seen how successful the concept of USVs as multi-purpose reusable platforms is, but at the very least it provides another threat — or range of threats — that the Russians will need to respond to with suitable countermeasures, something that they have struggled to do in the past.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.