Jet Skis: The Secret Weapon in Ukraine’s Commando War on Crimea

a group of boats on a lake
Jet Skis: Ukraine’s Secret Weapon in CrimeaCapture from Ukrainian military video - Wikimedia Commons

Tearing through the midnight water on a machine-gun armed jet ski while being pursued by heavily armed patrol boats and combat aircraft seems like a better fit for a James Bond or Fast and Furious film than for real life intelligence agents.

But a video posted by Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence agency allegedly portrays exactly that situation, showing Ukraine’s Artan special forces unit withdrawing from a coastal raid targeting Russian forces in western Crimea.

It shows a formation of jet skis and a few motor boats full of Artan commandos, all equipped with infrared goggles and assault rifles. Some of the boats have mounted machine guns, seen being reloaded and blazing away at enemy forces.

An SBU social media post, while declining to specify the date of the footage, claims Artan commandos “…landed on the western coast of the [Crimean] peninsula, as well as on the Tendriv and Kinburn spits. The special forces engaged in a fierce battle with the Russian invaders in the specified occupied territories, inflicting significant losses on the enemy.”

A CNN interview with a violinist-turned-commando named ‘Muzykant’ clarifies that the speedier jet skis are launched from larger motor boats once close enough to the target. Muzykant also stated that the October raid took place during rough seas, with waves cresting up to six feet high.

a blurry image of a room
Rearview from Ukrainian motor boat using infrared goggles showing headlights of five commando-laden jet skis exfiltrating from a raid on Crimea in October 2023.Capture from Ukraine Defense Intelligence video - Wikimedia Commons

While exfiltrating after completing their sabotage mission in Crimea, the Artan operators were also engaged at sea. According to the SBU social media post, “the enemy tried to pursue the special forces on surface high-speed patrol boats with aviation support.”

Russia’s Navy maintains a large fleet of Raptor-class, patrol, and Grachonok-class ‘anti-saboteur’ boats designed to guard against infiltrators—whether they be combat divers, on mini-submarines, or on boats themselves. A minimum of four Raptors—each bristling with a heavy 14.5-and two 7.62-millimeter machine guns and boasting a maximum speed of 55 miles per hour—were reportedly on patrol that evening. At least a couple pursued the withdrawing raiding force. They may also have had air support from Russian Navy helicopters (Ka-27, Ka-29 or Mi-8s), jet fighters, or Be-12 amphibious maritime patrol planes.

putin attends annual navy day parade
Russian sailors sail on the Yevgeny Kolesnikov, a Project 03160 Raptor-class patrol boat, during the annual Navy Day Parade on July 30, 2023, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Four out of RussiaContributor - Getty Images

Muzykant’s 10-man unit escaped unscathed. However, Ukraine’s intelligence service acknowledged ‘some losses’ were suffered at some point during the raid.

Russia released footage of what it was claimed was a Yamaha jet ski abandoned by the Ukrainian raiders, as well as of a man with an injured shoulder that they allegedly captured during the raid being interrogated. Russia’s defense ministry also claimed that its combat aircraft intercepted a boat and three jet skis. Perhaps the Russian aircraft disabled one prong of the Ukrainian raid while other landing forces made it ashore to their objectives.

In addition to using jet skis to insert commandos, Ukraine also employs jet skis without any crew onboard—turning them into drone boats (or USVs) for kamikaze attacks. Ukraine’s first kamikaze drone boat attack on Sevastopol harbor, which damaged a frigate and tug boat, took place on October 29, 2022. It made use of a drone boat model that was apparently based on the hull of a SeaDoo jet ski, though with major modifications. Since then, footage of a more lightly altered Kawasaki STX jet ski rigged for use as a remote-control kamikaze has also emerged. This was used in a July 16 drone boat attack on Sevastopol.

The past and present of military jet skis

First devised in the 1950s and 1960s, jet skis—or PWCs, for Personal Watercraft—are mostly thought of as recreational vehicles. They are fast (ranging from 50 to 90 miles per hour), cheap, and easily obtained on the civilian market—and vitally, they have just enough range (up to 150 miles on higher-end models) to be effective in littoral operations. Most can comfortably carry two personnel, but the largest models can support as many as four.

PWCs were put to military use as early as 1961, when the U.S. Navy purchased five Aqua Skimmers for testing and evaluation in the Caribbean. This lead to the subsequent development of the militarized Aqua Dart. Between 1963-1970, Aqua Skimmers and Darts were supplied to a Marine Corps unit, Navy experimental unit USNX 1-AD, Underwater Demolition Teams 12 and 22, and Seal Team 2. They were used for training and testing, but were also put into operational use in the rivers of South Vietnam.

iranian navy jet skis in 2011 exercise

Today, U.S. Navy SEALs are known to employ modified Yamaha FX Cruiser SHO jet skis, while Iran’s Marine Commandos and Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) use them to harass shipping craft in the Persian Gulf and to serve as vehicles to pick up the bailed-out pilots of kamikaze motor boats.

Ukraine is leveraging the jet skies for raids by naval special operations forces on islands in the Dnipro river estuary, which divides Kherson oblast (Ukraine holds the west bank, Russia the eastern bank). They are also putting them to use on the slender peninsula known as the Kinburne Spit and—starting dramatically on August 24, 2023 (Ukraine’s Independence Day)—the western Crimean peninsula.

Known as ‘Operation Force Awakens’ (named after the Star Wars film), 20 Ukrainian commandoes on 10 jet skis traversed 125 miles to land at Olenivka and Mayak on Crimea’s westernmost tip, known as the Tarkhankut Peninsula.

Meanwhile, a separate group of five support boats opened fire on coastal targets using machine guns and automatic grenade launchers to divert attention away from the landing party’s real target: a coastal electronic warfare station described as “so powerful, not even a compass could work within 20 miles of the shore.” The station substantially impeded the effectiveness of Ukrainian cruise missiles and drone attacks on Crimea by drowning out GPS and control signals.

Detected by Russian forces before they could plant explosives on the station, the dismounted commandos instead used rocket-propelled grenades to destroy the station and several nearby vehicles, and planted a Ukrainian flag on Crimean soil. Having spent just an hour ashore, the commandoes then withdrew on their jet skis, evading pursuing Raptor-class patrol boats and combat aircraft without losing any personnel.

This was billed as the first presence of Ukrainian military forces in Crimea since Russia seized the peninsula in 2014. Furthermore, the station’s destruction is said to have reduced GPS jamming degrading the accuracy of Storm Shadow cruise missiles used by Ukraine to strike Sevastopol, which went onto destroy a submarine, a landing ship, and the headquarters building of the Black Sea Fleet in September.

Ukraine naval raids are intended to prepare for counter offensive operations by ground forces—though any hopes of reaching Crimea in 2023 are now well in the rear view mirror, due to difficulties advancing even short distances in southern Ukraine. Skeptics may therefore question whether the bold special ops raids serve much of a purpose, given the effort and risks entailed.

In theory, however, the raids are meant to boost Ukrainian morale (and demoralize Russia) by demonstrating Ukraine’s ability to infiltrate Russian-occupied territory. By selectively disabling key defenses, the attacks can also pave the way for more destructive standoff strikes. And the naval raids may compel Russia to deploy additional assets to defend rear areas at the expense of frontline operations. Thus, we have likely not seen the last of Ukraine’s jet ski-riding commandoes.

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