The threat of surface (ships) or subsurface (submarines) drones has increased significantly, as these unmanned vehicles can target civilian and military assets near coasts or far at sea. Furthermore, organized crime syndicates have used such naval drones to attempt to transport illegal drugs.
The Russian-Ukrainian war has helped shed light on this important development, especially given the Ukrainian army’s use of unmanned ships and submarines to attack Russian maritime assets as well as energy pipelines. Therefore, the use of this type of drone is expected to have severe repercussions on security around the world, especially given the advancement of its technology, decreasing cost and increasing accessibility to its components through commercial markets.
Indicators of increasing drone use
Several recent incidents highlight the emerging threat of naval drones employment, which can be explained as follows:
1- Attacking military and civilian targets: On October 29, 2022, Mikhail Razvozhayev, the pro-Moscow governor of Sevastopol, announced that Ukraine had launched an attack targeting the Black Sea Fleet using 9 aerial drones and 7 naval drones, which were directed towards the Russian port of Sevastopol (the largest city in Crimea annexed by Russia in 2014).
Another attack was carried out in mid-November 2022 against the Russian port of Novorossiysk, resulting in the destruction of a ship.
This indicates a possible escalation in the threat of unmanned naval surface vehicles, which prompted Russia to add new defences to the port of Sevastopol.
Furthermore, Houthi rebels have launched several attacks in the Red Sea from Yemen since 2017, using naval drones, most of which were directed against commercial cargo ships and oil tankers, in addition, about two-thirds of Houthi attacks (16 out of 24 attacks carried out from January 2017 to January 2021) employed naval surface drones.
2- Targeting power lines: On September 26, 2022, several explosions hit the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, causing 4 leaks in the pipeline and its eventual shutdown.
This made it clear that the pipeline was sabotaged by a state operation rather than a criminal or terrorist group.
This consensus was based on the fact that the attack used self-propelled mines or a drone submarine, which only countries can obtain.
Furthermore, the Baltic Sea is narrow and shallow, so any movement is tracked and monitored by Russia and the European countries bordering it and their respective navies, which either indicates the involvement of one of the border countries by ignoring the operation of a friendly country such as Ukraine or that a country with advanced military capabilities like Russia carried out the attack without anyone detecting it.
However, such an attack is unlikely to be launched by Russia, given that it limits its ability to export natural gas away from pipelines passing through Ukraine, therefore it is clear that the attack served Ukrainian interests by eliminating alternatives for the export of Russian gas to Europe except, thereby ensuring that Moscow does not cut off its natural gas supply, in the event that the conflict between them escalated.
This all points to Ukraine as the culprit with help from Britain, as Russia claims. Citing statements by European officials, western newspapers confirmed that Russia was not ultimately responsible for the attack on Nord Stream pipelines, according to the assessments of 23 diplomatic and intelligence officials in 9 countries, which the newspapers interviewed in recent weeks, which supports the hypothesis of Ukraine’s involvement.
3- Employing drones in illegal drug trafficking: In July 2022, the Spanish police arrested suspects involved in the manufacture of underwater drones used in drug smuggling from Morocco, in addition, rebel groups in Colombia also use similar tactics to smuggle drugs into the United States.
4- Threats of drone swarms: After the emergence of the initial threat of individual drones, a more significant threat appeared in the form of drone swarms, which are guided by artificial intelligence systems, or multiple pilots directing them to attack a specific target.
This tactic is used to overcome air defence systems protecting the target, to eventually reach and eliminate it.
In 2022, defence documents revealed that the US Navy is working on building, deploying and controlling thousands of small drones capable of moving together to overcome anti-aircraft defences in huge numbers, drawing on the lessons learned from the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Furthermore, many countries are working on the production of such swarms, including China, Russia, India, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Israel, which became the first country to use drone swarms in combat in 2021.
Unmanned surface vessels may see such development, as the initial threat was that one drone can be directed to attack a single target, but technological advancement along with lessons learned from the Ukrainian war indicate that drone swarms can be used to destroy an important naval target and overcome the defence systems protecting it.
Countering the emerging threat
Confronting any kind of drone swarm is a challenge at best, as these swarms pose a great threat to ships in crowded ports and harbours as well as their crews, given that traditional detection systems, such as cameras and radars, provide very little visibility underwater, making the reliable detection of surface or subsurface threats very difficult, if not impossible, especially considering that these naval drones are small and do not make very loud sounds.
Therefore, countries are considering several options to counter this type of threat, which can be detailed as follows:
1- Employing naval surface drones in surveillance: According to preliminary estimates, the global market for naval drones has grown from about $2 billion in 2021 to $2.3 billion in 2022, and the market is expected to grow to $4.15 billion in 2026, with the United States being the largest market for unmanned surface vehicles, followed by Middle Eastern countries.
The US has begun using drones to secure the waters of the Persian Gulf from maritime threats, such as piracy or attacks on commercial ships.
Furthermore, the commander of the US Central Command, General Michael Eric Korella, announced on November 19, 2022, that a task force led by the United States will deploy more than a hundred naval drones in the waters of the Gulf region in 2023 to counter maritime threats, confirming that the US now has the necessary technical capabilities to quickly raise awareness in the maritime field and establish an integrated network based on artificial intelligence to improve maritime security and protect global trade routes, using these drones’ ability to monitor the coasts and the high seas around the clock and in real-time, thus providing situational awareness and early warning to detect and deal with any emerging threat.
2- Deploying sonar systems: drones can be detected through the identification of the unique sounds made by their engines. This kind of system relies on artificial intelligence, which draws on databases of sounds produced by known surface or subsurface vehicles and matches them to the sounds detected in its range. However, the rapid rate of drone development and spread, dictates that these updatable databases will never cover 100 % of drones on the market, which means that such systems cannot be relied upon alone, but they can be employed in combination with other means of defence.
3- Employing unmanned swarms: One of the best solutions to counter drone swarms is to employ similar counter swarms. When deployed around important maritime assets, such as ports, naval bases, and warships, these defensive swarms, which can hunt hostile drones, will reduce the need for advanced complex sensors capable of detecting naval drones.
Furthermore, naval drones can be 3D-printed on board ships as needed using 3D printers.
4- Arming civilian vessels: While it may be difficult to arm civilian ships with cannons, it is possible, to equip them with high-precision guns and use guards on the deck to monitor approaching ships and boats, especially in narrow passages, which are often exposed to naval threats from armed groups, such as the Houthis in Yemen.
5- Deterrence through military force: One classic solution to any emerging threat is to respond through disproportionate military force to deprive the hostile forces of any advantage they may get from using the new tactic as well as inflict heavy losses that make the enemy rethink the cost of using drones further attacks.
This means cancelling out any military or strategic advantage gained by targeting and destroying the enemy’s critical assets, to deter it from using this method or tactic.
while observing the course of the Russian-Ukrainian war, we can clearly see that Russia has responded to every Ukrainian asymmetric threat, such as attacking Russian military sites using Ukrainian aerial or naval drones, by carrying out military bombing operations on large areas inside Ukraine, which recently affected critical infrastructure sites, especially electricity.
Furthermore, Russia deployed defensive measures, such as securing critical military sites using several layers of air defence systems as well as deploying naval radars to detect attacking ships.
Russia also adopted punitive political measures against Ukraine in response to the attack on port Sevastopol, such as suspending the grain agreement with Ukraine, under which Ukrainian grain is exported through ports overlooking the Black Sea, with Russian approval, particularly because the Ukrainian attack targeted ships that participate in securing the convoys responsible for the export of Ukrainian grain under the Istanbul Agreement.
In conclusion, it is clear that drones pose an emerging threat, that we can expect to see playing a major role in warfare as future conflicts escalate between major powers and with the return of proxy wars in third-party countries such as Ukraine, which increases the threat of drones, especially if countries opted to develop them as an effective weapon against their enemies, which would prompt countries to develop counter systems to deal with these emerging new threats.
» By:Dr Shady Abdel Wahhab (Military and strategic researcher)