Starlink boosts Russia’s sea drone with P-15 warhead in play

During a routine patrol near the Romanian village of Tuzla on Wednesday, April 3, 2024, the Coast Guard made a fascinating discovery – a mysterious marine drone. Intriguingly, the drone was disguised as a typical search and rescue speedboat, complete with a matching paint job, but its unusual upside-down navigation sparked curiosity. 

Starlink boosts Russia's sea drone with P-15 warhead in play
Photo credit: Flickr

A series of planned actions followed this surprising find. The baffling marine drone was moved to the Capu-Midia naval test site, an isolated location situated 14 kilometers from the bustling environment of Constanta port. The Romanian Ministry of Defense’s experts embarked on rigorous investigations and, following their analysis, decided upon the drone’s fate. This strange contraption was deftly detonated two days later, on April 5, 2024, putting an end to its seafaring journey in a remarkable display of controlled force. 

Interestingly, news of this incident wasn’t made public until April 6, 2024, due to media reports. Meanwhile, Defense Romania’s profile portal authors were only able to document a vague statement from the Romanian Ministry of Defense, which simply referred to the object as “clearly a sea drone”.

Starlink boosts Russia's sea drone with P-15 warhead in play
Photo credit: Flickr

Overall, this scenario is quite distinct. Imagine a remotely-controlled maritime vehicle, unlike anything in the Ukrainian Defence Forces’ known arsenal of sea drones, drifting in the Black Sea near bustling civilian shipping routes. It’s an unusual sight, to say the least. 

This intrigue deepens as it is discovered that this device was constructed from a search and rescue boat. To anyone aboard a nearby vessel, it would have seemed to be nothing more than that, thus escalating the possible threat it presented. 

The plot thickens further still with unofficial reports surfacing on the Telegram channel of the Russian “Center for Strategic and Technological Analysis,” also known as bmpd. Their information suggests that the device was engineered from an old rescue vessel that displaces 3 tons of water, utilizing a Starlink terminal as its control unit. The true game-changer, however, was the alleged warhead. Believed to be from the first-generation Soviet anti-ship missile, the P-15, this detail transforms the entire narrative. 

Starlink boosts Russia's sea drone with P-15 warhead in play
Photo credit: Don S. Montgomery

If these speculations prove accurate, and it indeed is a warhead from the Soviet P-15 missile defense system, we encounter two crucial points. Firstly, we could potentially be dealing with a formidable apparatus. After all, the base version of the P-15 missile boasts a high-explosive fragmentation warhead weighing 480 kilograms. However, the P-15M Thermite variant takes things a notch higher, with a substantial warhead tipping the scales at 513 kilograms. 

Secondly, given that only Russia and Romania have the capabilities to possess [either stored or in operation] P-15 missiles in the Black Sea region, it’s highly plausible that this remote-controlled surface-to-air missile was engineered by the Russians. If this proves to be the case, it could pose additional threats to shipping routes, particularly those toward Ukrainian Black Sea ports. 

On a separate note, but in a significant historical event, BulgarianMilitary.com reported earlier this year on February 8 that Elon Musk’s satellite systems, Starlink, are being used for navigation by the Russian military. This surprising information was brought to light by the Ukrainian military. They revealed that these systems entered Russia via Dubai and were activated in contentious regions. These encounters have been widely shared on social media platforms by Ukrainian soldiers.

Poland donated 5,000 Starlink satellite terminals to Ukraine
Photo credit: HDBlog

“A shift in tactics is becoming evident. The frequency of their Starlink usage has caught our attention. Honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. Starlinks were being distributed to Russia in large quantities through Dubai. Once these accounts are received, they’re activated and used in the territories they control,” a message shared within the military community online stated. 

Historical data does suggest instances of Starlink utilization by adversaries but on a much smaller scale. Adding to this knowledge reports from Ukrainian soldiers indicate a significant dip in internet speed at the front lines. “Multiple connections seem to be affected. This problem is becoming quite widespread in our area. Back in spring, the same number of personnel used Starlink in Avdeevka without encountering any problems, but now…” a soldier shared his concerns. Emerging evidence supporting these claims includes screenshots documenting internet speed tests showing speeds as low as 0.3 Mbps. 

Elon Musk, the founder of Starlink, claimed via his Twitter profile that the company avoids selling to Russian customers and does not ship to Russia or its citizens. However, the assertion that the stations are sourced from a third location – Dubai, remains unconfirmed. Given the possibility that there may be non-Russian residents who could potentially purchase Starlinks and offer them to the Russian armed forces, this claim by Musk lacks concrete proof.

Russian military use Starlink imported from Dubai and licensed
Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba

Starlink has emerged as an essential asset to the Ukrainian forces, equipping them with the robust communication and coordination capabilities crucial to their network-centric military strategy. However, the adeptness of Russian electronic warfare systems has caused significant disturbances in the command and control system of the Ukrainian forces, specifically in the region of Avdiivka. This strategic initiative has disrupted the relay of intelligence and instructions from the Ukrainian forces’ Western allies and Kyiv. 

The suite of electronic countermeasures deployed by the Russian forces has had a substantial impact on the communication link between the Ukrainian leadership and their field units. This break in communication has left Ukrainian commanders deprived of an immediate link to their superior command. Consequently, they’re in search of measures to reinstate communications outside the coverage area of electronic warfare. 

In yet another course of action, the Russian military has begun the physical removal of exposed Starlink terminals in the regions under their control. This marks the first broad and multifaceted execution of electronic warfare against the Starlink system, echoing past achievements noted in the Zaporizhzhya sector. Early reports from this year reveal that several command and control bunkers housing Starlink terminals were decimated in the Orekhov area of Zaporizhzhia.

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