Naval drones use a new type of threat

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) ‬

Al Jundi

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