In the war, Ukraine resorts to unmanned watercraft. There are several ways to combat these drones. Other countries are also developing such weapon systems.
On September 21, off the outskirts of Sevastopol, the sea washed a strange piece of flotsam ashore. It was quickly agreed that the approximately five and a half meter long object was a so-called “unmanned surface vessel” (USV for short). The drone ship was in all likelihood on a reconnaissance mission – assembled by savvy tinkerers who are to Ukraine what Q is to James Bond.
On October 29, reality struck. Accompanied by a remote-controlled anti-aircraft armada, an armada of drones advanced to the naval base of Sevastopol, the home port of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Ukrainian reports and drone footage show three direct hits, including on the fleet’s flagship Admiral Makarov and two other ships. On November 18, a large explosion followed at a Russian oil terminal in Novorossiysk, which was also said to have been triggered by naval drones of the same type.
“For many, these attacks mark the beginning of a new era in naval warfare,” wrote author, blogger, and naval analyst H.I. Sutton, who examined video footage of the Ukrainian drone ship. This could bode ill not only for Russia. All actors who work at sea are affected – in the navy or in the civil sector. For its part, Ukraine announced on November 11 that it intends to produce 100 identical models. Financed, she hopes, through crowdfunding.
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Until the Ukrainian attack on the Black Sea Fleet, strapping explosive devices to remote-controlled boats was largely reserved for irregular forces. In 2017, Iran tested this model against Saudi oil tankers. Things really got rolling, however, when the Houthi movement, a rebel group against the Saudi-backed government of Yemen, apparently with Iranian backing, began using unmanned speedboats loaded with dynamite.
Also in 2017, one of these boats rammed the Saudi frigate Al Madinah in the Gulf. Two sailors were killed in the explosion. Since then, the group has carried out more than 20 other attacks on merchant ships and coastal facilities, according to data compiled by Hårvard Haugstvedt of the University of Oslo’s Center for Research on Extremism.
Partisan drones can also be found beyond the surface of the sea. In 2021, for example, the Israeli Navy destroyed a submersible drone carrying an explosive device minutes after it was deployed by Hamas members in the Mediterranean. According to Israel, Hamas had been honing this technology for years. Each ship can transport around 30 kilograms of explosives.
In general, however, governments are taking a different approach in their efforts to keep armed ships unmanned. It seems that the world’s navies are less interested in strapping bombs to ships and dropping them on their targets. The focus is on unmanned watercraft, which are equipped with guns and guided missiles and can be used like any other warship, only without sailors on board.
In this context, the American Navy tested a rigid hull inflatable boat with missiles and a remote-controlled machine gun back in 2012. Over the next few years, it plans a multi-billion dollar development campaign for a wide range of UPSs, some of which could potentially reach the length of a superyacht and carry long-range missiles, among other weapons.
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With a large number of similar programs, China has also tried to keep up with the pace of the American initiatives. An example is the highly armored ship “JARI”, which regularly features at arms exhibitions around the world, including dummy guns and torpedoes. There are many indications that China is interested in using and exporting this technology itself.
Meanwhile, Israeli state-owned defense contractor Rafael has spent years perfecting a high-speed UPS called the Protector. In 2017, the company equipped one of these models with Spike anti-tank guided missiles and then presented it with live ammunition at a NATO exercise. EDGE, a state conglomerate of the Emirates, is also developing a comparable ship in cooperation with the Israeli company IAI.
Elsewhere in the world, the UK has been developing similar technology since 2019 as part of its NavyX project, which it refreshingly honestly dubs the Autonomy and Lethality Accelerator. Greece, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea and Turkey are also about to deploy armed UPSs.
However, a certain lack of imagination is inherent in all those projects – known to date. They are to naval warfare what combat drones like General Atomics’ Predator and Reaper are to aerial combat: a revised, unmanned version of the modus operandi used to date. What Ukraine appears to have demonstrated is the maritime equivalent of the quadrocopter. This could lead to asymmetric warfare at sea – a development for which governments are unprepared.
For a small military power or non-state actor with sufficient competence, the technology used on the Ukrainian ship would not be prohibitively expensive. After an analysis of the available images by Sutton, the propulsion system appears to have come from a Sea-Doo jet ski.
In its donation documents, Ukraine claims the cost of each boat was $250,000. A single anti-ship missile, on the other hand, is traded for several million dollars – good value for money for Ukraine. For example, 200 kilograms of explosives can be transported in the cargo hold to the waterline of a ship and cause critical damage there, which – in contrast to missile or drone impacts higher up in the ship’s hull – would cause the object hit to sink.
Unmanned watercraft appear to be in the tradition of commercial aerial drones, which went from hobby curiosity to deadly security threat overnight, unnoticed by governments. Scott Crino, founder of consulting firm Red Six Solutions, advises governments on how to protect themselves from aerial drone attacks. For years he has been alerting authorities to the risk of harmful drone operations at sea. “The usual reaction,” he reports, “is a head nod.”
It’s not just the Navy that has cause for concern. As the Houthi attacks have shown, merchant shipping is also at particular risk. Measures to avert danger on merchant ships are usually based on deterring attacking ship crews by non-lethal means such as sonic cannons, floodlights, water cannons and barbed wire. While some ships are equipped with armed guards, their small-caliber weapons would be of little use against an upgraded drone boat whipping the waves, Crino said.
The infrastructure on the coast is also at risk. Six of the recorded Houthi attacks were aimed at civilian ports and oil terminals. According to the US State Department, one of these attacks caused “significant damage” to a tanker from Singapore. If the suspicion of a drone boat is confirmed, the Ukrainian offensive against Novorossiysk would be proof that any well-secured port facility can become a target.
The absence of a crew offers additional advantages to unmanned watercraft. Without cabins, their construction is geared towards pure camouflage purposes. The fact that the Ukrainian boats protrude only a few centimeters above the water surface makes them almost invisible to radar systems and cameras. In contrast to an underwater drone, however, the possibility of radio contact with its pilots remains. Radio waves cannot penetrate water. It cannot be ruled out that successor models can also completely submerge under water, for example to remain undetected like a German submarine in the final attack. Hamas submarines, which are GPS-controlled on the sea surface, may already be using a similar concept.
Unmanned ships also allow for more daring maneuvers. In the event of a planned kamikaze attack at sea, a group no longer has to rely on one person “who might lose their nerve at the last second,” explains Scott Savitz, chief engineer at US think tank Rand Corporation. The footage of the attack on Sevastopol shows the drone playfully penetrating the enemy hail of bullets.
What measures remain to stop a UPS? The immediate answer so far has been to adapt weapons that already exist. A few years ago, the French armaments company Thales converted its LMM Martlet supersonic missile for use against small, fast surface ships. The new technology will be used on British frigates from 2024. The US Navy also recently completed the so-called “Surface Warfare Mission Package” (in German: “mission package for the surface war”), consisting of two 30 mm guns, two rigid hull inflatable boats and a helicopter. According to the company, the aim of this system is to combat small, mobile boats that operate both with and without a crew.
Beyond such makeshifts, both America and Britain have been flirting with laser systems said to be up to the task. It remains unclear how mature this process actually is. The American tests aboard the USS Portland in the Gulf of Aden focused on a stationary target. All British tests known to date have been carried out on land.
When it comes to rendering flying drones harmless, “spoofing” techniques are often used, which disrupt the radio connection or gain control of the aircraft. It cannot be ruled out that this method can also be used against UPSs, says Crino, although increasingly effective countermeasures in the form of encrypted connections and increased autonomy are emerging.
The proposal to fight drones with drones is also – theoretically – conceivable. An entourage of UAVs can be used as “scouts and bodyguards,” Savitz said, scanning the horizon for incoming USVs and attacking them if necessary. In June, the UK Ministry of Defense awarded a rush contract to defense contractor BAE Systems to develop an aerial reconnaissance drone to be used aboard frigates “to combat unmanned watercraft.” A government spokesman pointed out that the Navy is working to combat “new threats on different terrains”. However, he did not comment on details of drone defense.
As is often the case when a new technological threat emerges from the shadows, armed forces resort to rather unusual means. For example, WWI-style indicator nets for intercepting submersibles and semi-submersibles could experience a renaissance. Savitz also names an American program that, based on the defensive secretions of the hagfish, is developing a secretion that could clog the propellers of incoming USVs.
But neither firepower nor slime alone will be enough in response. “By the time you’ve gotten into the area of effect of a point defense system,” says Craig Allen, a US Coast Guard commander, “it’s quite late for a successful counterattack.” Early detection will therefore play a key role – although Crino notes that this can be difficult in conurbations such as ports or busy shipping lanes.
The measures also assume that drone boats will arrive individually. More likely, however, is their deployment as a battalion. “It’s actually very difficult to stop a single enemy target,” Allen says, “but the problem gets more complicated with each additional target.”
This is especially true when the boats in a flotilla work together without human presence – a future prospect that is not far off. Such swarming abilities have been developed in the West for some time and are becoming increasingly widespread. For example, the Turkish arms manufacturer Aselsan recently presented the Albatross-S, a high-speed UPS that claims to be able to operate in droves and exchange information about targets. Meanwhile, engineers at China’s College of Weaponry Engineering in Wuhan are working on “hunting algorithms” that will allow swarms of USVs to take on multiple targets at once. Good luck trying to stop them with a web.
The article first appeared in The Economist under the title “Ukrainian ingenuity is ushering in a new form of warfare at sea” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.
The original of this article “Ukraine uses new war tactics and thus scares Putin” comes from The Economist.