Maritime Drones Unexploited potential

Drones have clearly and repeatedly demonstrated their utility in military operations ashore‭. ‬More recently Azerbaijan is using them successfully against Armenian forces‭. ‬But drone usage has not been limited to states‭. ‬Non-state actors have also had remarkable success‭. ‬ISIS conducted over 80‭ ‬attacks on Iraqi forces during four months in 2016‭ ‬and Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine used drones to drop grenades that destroyed hundreds of thousands of tons of Ukrainian ammunition‭.‬

The American use of drones in the last 20‭ ‬years of counterinsurgency and counterterror operations means virtually everyone is aware of the increasing capabilities and proliferation of military drones‭. ‬In fact‭, ‬there is no questioning the rapid improvements‭ ‬in these military platforms‭. ‬But what is often overlooked has been the extensive use of commercially available and even locally‭ ‬built drones by Russian separatists‭, ‬Ukrainian military units‭, ‬and ISIS‭. ‬For a fraction of the cost of military drones‭, ‬these commercial units have provided a way for non-state actors to develop air power‭ ‬–‭ ‬however primitive‭.‬

Although they have not been used for attacks in the maritime domain yet‭, ‬drones clearly have enormous potential to support maritime surveillance‭, ‬reconnaissance‭, ‬and strike missions‭ ‬–‭ ‬at a fraction of the cost of current systems‭. ‬

Commercial Drones

Although most coverage of drones focuses on military and hobby uses‭, ‬the use of drones by businesses to perform critical everyday tasks is growing exponentially‭. ‬Business Insider Intelligence predicts drone sales will increase 66%‭ ‬per year over the next three years in four main sectors‭: ‬agriculture‭, ‬construction and mining‭, ‬insurance‭, ‬and media and telecommunications‭. ‬The inevitable result will be rapid growth in capabilities and a decrease in cost of drones‭. ‬

It is vitally important to remember we are returning to the normal condition of civilian led technological progress‭. ‬Military and government research facilities pioneered many of the major technological advances from the 1940s until the 1990s‭. ‬Prior to that period‭, ‬most military useful technologies were developed by commercial entities‭. ‬Since the 1990s‭, ‬civilian firms have provided‭ ‬exponential increases in the capabilities of a wide range of technologies with military applications‭. ‬This has been particularly true in the field of drones‭. ‬While militaries have led the way in the development and deployment of very large and expensive drones‭, ‬commercial firms have vastly expanded the capabilities of these platforms at orders of magnitude less cost‭. ‬Planners should expect these improvements to continue at high and‭, ‬at times‭, ‬exponential rates‭. ‬Thus they must keep an eye on commercial as well as military drone developments‭. ‬

One of the key drivers of commercial drone technology is the desire for aerial drone delivery of packages to businesses and private residences‭. ‬The requirements to execute this mission are‭: ‬vertical takeoff and landing‭ (‬VTOL‭), ‬1‭ ‬meter delivery accuracy‭, ‬GPS independent flight‭ (‬to prevent loss of navigation where GPS signals are blocked‭), ‬electronically hardened circuits‭ (‬flight paths may take drones past powerful emitters‭), ‬range‭, ‬and payload‭. ‬A quick scan of those attributes indicate they are almost exactly the same ones needed for a useful military drone‭.‬

Maritime operations

With that as background‭, ‬we can turn to the potential of drones in the maritime domain‭. ‬Maritime drones currently include unmanned aerial vehicles‭ (‬UAVs‭), ‬unmanned surface vehicles‭ (‬USVs‭), ‬and unmanned underwater vehicles‭ (‬UUVs‭). ‬Both military and civilian‭ ‬organizations are improving the performance of drones in each of these environments‭. ‬Autonomous‭, ‬semi-autonomous‭, ‬and remote controlled drones are currently operational in each category‭. ‬And‭, ‬in the relatively confined waters of the Middle East‭, ‬even relatively short-ranged land based drones can be critical players in the maritime arena‭.‬

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

UAVs have already performed well in for long-endurance but low observable surveillance missions‭. ‬Aerovel’s Flexrotor is a commercial leader in this class‭. ‬Weighing only twenty-five kilograms and needing only a 6‭ ‬meter by 6‭ ‬meter operating pad‭, ‬this vertical takeoff and landing drone provides long-endurance‭ (‬thirty hours‭), ‬visual‭, ‬and infrared surveillance with live downlinks to a range of 160‭ ‬kilometers‭. ‬As early as 2016‭, ‬it operated from icebreakers in the artic and yachts in Central‭ ‬America‭. ‬It is designed to provide inexpensive aerial surveillance for border protection‭, ‬fisheries control‭, ‬search and rescue‭.‬‭ ‬At‭ $‬200,000‭ ‬a unit with low operating costs‭, ‬the Flexrotor or drones with similar capabilities are clearly a vastly less expensive surveillance and reconnaissance platform than today’s manned aircraft or patrol boats‭. ‬

In addition‭, ‬technological advances have reduced the size of both synthetic aperture radars‭ (‬SAR‭) ‬and electronic warfare packages enough that it is practical to put these systems on aerial drones‭. ‬The Promoco 150‭ ‬UAV can execute a ten hour mission carrying‭ ‬SAR‭, ‬electro-optical and infra-red systems‭. ‬The Israelis have been operating and improving the Harop for over a decade‭. ‬It carries electro-optical‭, ‬infra-red‭, ‬and electronic warfare sensors and has six-hour endurance and a 1,000‭ ‬kilometer range‭. ‬This loitering munition can be vertically launched from a canister ashore or at sea and be controlled via radio or operate autonomously‭. ‬It is currently operated by six countries‭. ‬

As noted above‭, ‬firms are also working hard to develop UAVs for package delivery by quadcopters‭, ‬fixed wing‭, ‬and helicopter drones‭. ‬Competition for drone delivery systems is intense and involves hundreds of companies worldwide producing drones that vary from inexpensive‭, ‬local delivery systems to autonomous systems like Volans-I that can deliver up to 800‭ ‬kilometers at speeds over‭ ‬300‭ ‬kilometers per hour‭. ‬Drone Delivery Corporation Canada is nearing operational status on an autonomous helicopter drone that‭ ‬will deliver 180‭ ‬kilograms out to 200‭ ‬kilometers‭. ‬Drones have delivered to offshore oil platforms and ships at sea‭. ‬Clearly these systems have potential for surveillance‭, ‬resupply‭, ‬and even strike operations in a maritime environment‭. ‬

For the military market‭, ‬Kaman is improving the K-MAX unmanned‭, ‬semi-autonomous helicopter that the U.S‭. ‬Marine Corps used with‭ ‬remarkable success for two years in Afghanistan‭. ‬It proved capable of lifting 2700‭ ‬kilograms and sustained a 95%‭ ‬readiness rate‭ ‬throughout the two year deployment‭. ‬

At the top end‭, ‬air forces are experimenting with autonomous drones that will act as‭ ‬“loyal wingmen”‭ ‬to manned aircraft‭. ‬The U.S‭. ‬Air Force is testing the XQ-58A Valkyrie drone‭. ‬It has a top speed of over 1,000‭ ‬kilometers miles‭ ‬per hour‭, ‬can deliver 260‭ ‬kilograms of ordnance‭ (‬two small-diameter bombs or air-to-air missiles‭) ‬out to 2,500‭ ‬kilometers‭, ‬and‭, ‬because it is VTOL-capable‭, ‬does not require an airfield‭. ‬Kratos offered the aircraft at‭ $‬2‭ ‬million a copy if purchased in lots‭ ‬of one hundred‭. ‬While primarily being considered as a land-based drone‭, ‬its long-range means the Valkyrie could provide air cover for maritime operations‭. ‬Given its VTOL capability‭, ‬it might even be adapted like the Harop to operate from ships much smaller‭ ‬than an aircraft carrier‭. ‬

Unmanned Surface Vehicles

Commercial operators are seeking fully autonomous ships to cuts personnel costs and reduce accidents‭. ‬Lloyds’‭ ‬Register has even developed a scale to determine the level of autonomy for future ships‭ ‬–‭ ‬from 0‭ ‬for no autonomy to 6‭ ‬for a fully autonomous seagoing vessel‭. ‬A Norwegian firm has already contracted for two autonomous‭ ‬ferries to operate in the inland waters of Oslo Fjord‭. ‬But even the most optimistic estimates state that it will be a decade or‭ ‬more before fully autonomous commercial vehicles can safely sail the open ocean‭.‬

On the military side‭, ‬the U.S‭. ‬Navy is moving rapidly into unmanned surface vehicles‭. ‬Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s Battle Force 2045‭ ‬envisions up to 150‭ ‬unmanned naval vehicles by 2045‭.‬ ‭ ‬Even as the Navy looks well into the future‭, ‬it has successfully sailed the Sea Hunter‭, ‬an unmanned autonomous surface vehicle‭,‬‭ ‬from California to Hawaii and will integrate it into carrier strike group exercises in 2021‭. ‬In its 2020‭ ‬budget‭, ‬the Navy requested‭ $‬579.9‭ ‬million in research and development funds for unmanned vehicles‭. ‬It envisions large unmanned surface vehicles‭ (‬LUSV‭)‬‭ ‬30-60‭ ‬meters long‭, ‬displacing 1,000‭ ‬to 2,000‭ ‬tons‭, ‬and equipped for anti-surface and strike warfare‭. ‬Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles will be 15-60‭ ‬meters long‭, ‬displace 500‭ ‬tons‭, ‬and focus on ISR and EW operations‭. ‬It is also experimenting with autonomous swarms of small craft for maritime patrol of key passages‭. ‬China has developed an unmanned surface vehicle remarkable similar‭ ‬to the Sea Hunter as well as armed smaller craft‭. ‬The Royal Navy is also conducting experiments with unmanned surface vehicles‭. ‬

Unmanned Undersea Vehicles‭ ‬

The U.S‭. ‬Navy is also moving rapidly into unmanned underewater vehicles‭ (‬UUSV‭). ‬These include everything from the Orca Extra-large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle to very long endurance surveillance craft to self-deploying mines‭.‬

The Orca XLUUV is projected to have a range of 6,500‭ ‬miles and an endurance of one month for autonomous operations‭. ‬It will be capable of delivering a variety of payloads from sensors to weapons‭. ‬The UK Ministry of Defense is also exploring the opportunities presented by this system‭. ‬At roughly‭ $‬50‭ ‬million per unit‭, ‬these provide a very economical alternative to manned submarines‭. ‬

The U.S‭. ‬Navy is investing in medium and small UUVs for a variety of missions from payload delivery to surveillance and patrolling‭. ‬They are drawing on the experience of civilian researchers who for years have used UUVs in large numbers to conduct oceanographic surveys‭. ‬Some of these vehicles can remain at sea for up to five years by exploiting temperature differentials in the thermocline and communicating via satellite during periods on the surface‭. ‬These drones are particularly useful because they can operate in shallow coastal waters too dangerous even for small boats‭. ‬The autonomous operation allows for hundreds to be deployed at a fraction of the cost of keeping a survey ship at sea‭. ‬Some companies have developed swarms of drones that cooperate to survey an area at speeds vastly exceeding traditional techniques‭. ‬By adapting the sensors on these vehicles‭, ‬they can be used for security surveillance of maritime spaces‭. ‬

They can also be used as weapons by changing the payloads delivered by medium and small drones to mines or torpedoes‭. ‬For instance‭, ‬the U.S‭. ‬Navy Hammerhead mine will be deployed from unmanned underwater vehicles‭. ‬It will loiter in an assigned patrol area‭ ‬to hunt for and sink enemy submarines‭.‬


Rapid technological advances driven by competition in both the military and commercial fields are providing remarkably capable drones that can provide support to maritime operations in the air‭, ‬on the sea‭, ‬and under the water‭. ‬Of particular importance‭, ‬they can do so a significantly less cost than current manned systems‭. ‬National navies and commercial firms have just begun to explore the use of these systems‭. ‬They clearly have the potential to radically change maritime operations globally‭. ‬

‮»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬T‭. ‬X‭. ‬Hammes

Al Jundi

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