Ukraine’s Unprecedented Mass Drone Boat Attack Was A Wakeup Call

The multi-unmanned surface vessel assault on the home of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea marked a new point in unmanned warfare. We have gotten quite of few of these kinds of seminal moments in recent years — the arrival of weaponized off-the-shelf and homemade drones in Mosul, the long-range mass drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, and the assassination attempt via drone on Venezuela’s Maduro, to name a few. But the attack on Sevastopol also marked a historic point in the history of naval warfare, although to what degree will surely be debated. While not revolutionary, the operation was certainly evolutionary, and that makes it quite important. Here’s why.

The level of success of the attack, which you can read all about in our initial reporting here, is still to be determined, but it really doesn’t change the optics of it and especially the precedent that it set.

That’s not to say that we haven’t seen ‘suicide’ drone boat attacks before. The basic concept is anything but new and in some cases dates back a century, with influences running even farther back into the annals of military history.

I will save the history lesson for later, but in more recent times, Iran and their proxy clients largely pioneered this capability operationally, converting small boats into explosive-packed radio-controlled weapons. Nearly six years ago, one struck a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea.

But Iran’s early use of improvized explosive-laden drone boats — Tehran has since evolved its capabilities in this regard, too — was a far cry from what was used Saturday morning in and near the Russian-occupied port of Sevastopol. What were up until recently crude, jury-rigged devices have morphed into purpose-built, or at least semi-purpose-built, weapon systems.

Images of improvised suicide drone boats deployed by Iran and/or its Houthi proxies in Yemen. Government of Saudi Arabia
Government of Saudi Arabia

When Ukraine’s unmanned suicide drone boat configuration first appeared on a rocky Crimean shoal in late September, it was clear that they would become a major threat to contend with. The jet-black, very low-slung, jet-drive propelled almost kayak-like boat sported multiple camera systems, bow-mounted impact detonation sensors, and what appeared to be a satellite communications antenna, and was in a very different class than what we have seen before for this type of weapon.

Ukraine’s suicide drone boat that washed ashore nearly a month before the attack on Sevastopol.

This was a near if not purpose-built configuration meant to be fast, maneuverable, hard to detect and engage, and above all else, it appeared to allow for beyond line of sight control. While not an uncommon capability on unmanned surface vessels today, it is new for ones that are intended to be expendable anti-ship weapons in their own right. Here is what we wrote about these boats, their surprising control architecture, and the implications of their use as part of our original reporting on the attack:

1.) If launched from land, these had to travel 130 miles at least. Not incredibly far in general, but for a small unmanned surface vehicle running on a jetski-like drive, there would be a major tradeoff between fuel capacity and explosives/warhead weight. That is if they were not ship-launched, but that would be a dangerous affair… as Russia keeps a close eye on movements in that area.

2.) The exact control concept for this drone boat is unclear. It appears to be a beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) man-in-the-loop concept. If so, this has huge implications for something this small and relatively unsophisticated. It puts so many harbors at risk, over long ranges, even potentially by non-state actors. They do not have to have close proximity/line of sight control of the craft to execute dynamic, reactive, opportunistic, maneuvering attacks. Of course, striking static targets would be possible beyond-line-of-sight without any man in the loop, which is also scary, but not dynamic maneuvering attacks like these today.

If this system relies on a BLOS man-in-the-loop concept, this is a new development in terms of operational combat use in naval warfare.

3.) On the other hand, it’s possible to get these into position autonomously using GPS navigation, then local ‘pilots’ picking them up within-line-of-sight to control them for their terminal targeting runs. Big advantages here in complexity and retaining the ability to dynamically maneuver and target when it actually matters. Also could be a fallback for loss of BLOS control setup.

4.) Bottomline, as we had mentioned repeatedly years ago as Iran began deploying improvised ‘suicide’ drone boats, including operationally, this would be a major threat to contend with in the future, especially when it migrates to better-resourced militaries. With that in mind, Ukraine is the perfect incubation chamber for drastically advancing these concepts and deploying them (in effect testing them and learning from those actions) operationally. These boats are akin to Ukraine’s ‘Alibaba’ long-range aerial suicide drones of the sea. Expect rapid evolution and capability enhancements.

The beyond-line-of-sight control concept, which was likely demonstrated in the Sevastopol operation, helps make very long-range attacks possible, but also lowers the risk and complexity of such an operation. While the unmanned vessels that likely executed this attack are not necessarily cheap, they appear to leverage mainly commercially available off-the-shelf parts. As such, they could cost tens of thousands of dollars each, but not many hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions of dollars that many modern types of guided anti-ship missiles cost. Here too is where the existence and proven usage of these more advanced suicide drone boats change the game. Such a capability is within the reach of non-state actors and will be more so in the future as similar components use decrease in price and increase in capability. This is especially true with global on-the-move high-bandwidth satellite communications becoming increasingly democratized.

While anti-ship missiles, especially older or lower-end types, are in the hands of some non-state actors today, they do not have the ability to independently manufacture them or deploy them en masse. This is not likely to be the case for increasingly advanced suicide drone boats in the future. Even without man-in-the-loop capabilities, as noted earlier, they could be programmed just to follow a course to a static target while remaining electromagnetically silent. This is especially concerning for operations against vessels in port and other shoreline assets, and we’ve already seen instances of at least basic capabilities in these regards in use by Houthi rebels in Yemen.

A U.S. Department of Defense briefing slide from 2017 highlighting Iranian-supplied components of a captured Houthi suicide drone boat, referred to as the Shark-33, including a guidance system with GPS-assisted navigation and optical sensor capabilities. American authorities said at the time that it was capable of tracking and engaging moving targets, as well as stationary ones. DOD
Additional details about the captured Shark-33, including that its guidance computer held 90 separate sets of coordinates. DOD

It isn’t just the hardware and control architecture potentially used here that’s new, either. In fact, it isn’t the main revelation. It’s the fact that multiple suicide drone boats were deployed in a relatively coordinated attack and then managed to push inside a highly defended harbor area. This firstly is reminiscent of the equally unprecedented suicide multi-drone attack on Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in Syria in 2018. If reports are accurate, the unmanned boat operation against Russian naval interests in Sevastopol was also paired with long-range suicide drones of the aerial variety in a layered attack concept.

Force protection of naval assets, especially at anchor or docked has been a high priority since the tragic attack 22 years ago on the USS Cole as it sat in the port of Aden in Yemen during a refueling stop. The lessons learned that day were paid for in blood and the Navy drastically increased its vigilance when its ships were at their most vulnerable — while they are totally static or maneuvering through very congested or tight waterways.

Beyond new procedures and enhanced small arms posture on deck, new capabilities came with these changes, including Mk 38 25mm chain gun-armed weapon systems and upgrades to the Mk 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), to better deal with close proximity surface threats.

A Mk 38 25mm chain gun-armed weapon system, which can be crew-served or operated remotely, in action. USN

After 9/11, when ships came into port, even at home, heavy encircling booms and barriers became the norm, and waterway escorts and patrols were drastically enhanced, especially when Navy vessels were transiting out of and coming into port. A new focus for intelligence and threat assessment personnel also became a reality. In many naval ports, there is also much protection we cannot see. These can include anti-diver defenses and underwater surveillance, and even trained marine mammals. However, no defensive posture is perfect, and often times they are focused on the previous threats, not the emerging ones.

Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia, as seen from the air in 2011. Note the heavy floating barriers that help secure the huge number of assets berthed there. (USN)

What started out largely as new tactics and procedures to defend against a small boat-borne suicide bomber quickly turned into also being able to defend against swarming small boats while underway. There were multiple factors that spurred this in the post-9/11 era, including one now notorious wargame.

Near constant operational experience and improving tactics and technologies helped harden U.S. Navy ships against such threats over the last two decades, although it is still a major concern. While all of this would certainly be critical in fending off an unmanned ‘suicide’ surface vessel attack, doing so against many boats, with no humans onboard, all at once, complicates the situation. The possibility that such an attack could in the future be launched from far over the horizon, potentially without even anyone nearby to control the vessels at all, is maybe most troublesome.

A swarm of suicide drone boats could be carried forward to regions in which their targets are located via an unassuming mothership. Then they can attack from afar with their low profile and small size making them very challenging to detect. Even their acoustic signature could be troublesome to isolate and identify in densely trafficked waterways.

A swarm of Iranian fast-boats harasses a U.S. Navy carrier strike group transiting the volatile Strait of Hormuz in 2020. PHOTO © 2019 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

Major risks exists when U.S. Navy ships are traversing these types of congested channels, especially at relatively low speeds. A swarm of these boats, like what was deployed against Russia’s naval capabilities in Sevastopol, would be tough to defend against, especially if they suddenly appear and attack from multiple vectors. Layer in a threat from drones above, and things get even more complex. The risk to non-military vessels, which are outright defenseless against such weapons, is astronomically higher.

During a time of peer-state conflict, one could imagine similar systems would be used for attacks on an adversary’s port facilities, even those located far from the core conflict area. This is especially true for forward-deployed naval base locations or those in foreign countries. Going after non-militarized vessels would be a key part of this strategy, as well, in order to degrade and slow an enemy’s logistics. Even using these systems to create massive diversions would likely be a core application.

If you give these vessels more autonomy and the ability to truly swarm — work together cooperatively — the need for even BLOS communications and command and control could be greater decreased or eliminated altogether while still maintaining dynamic navigation and attack capabilities. Sense and avoid capabilities, as well as image recognition, are now in use every day on consumer vehicles, for instance. One could imagine how big of a challenge confronting dozens of small autonomous suicide boats working together to best achieve their goal could be. And really, like so much else when it comes to low-end capabilities versus higher-end assets, it’s very much a numbers game. How many would it take to overwhelm a ship’s defenses during a particular defensive posture while in a particular location? This is not an incredibly challenging tactical question for an adversary to answer. We are seeing the same problem present itself on a grand scale when it comes to suicide drones of the aerial flavor, as well.

So here we are. Increasingly advanced unmanned boats packed with explosives will be yet another threat to contend with. Everyone is watching the conflict in Ukraine very closely, especially potentially nefarious actors including China, Iran, and North Korea. Take the latter for instance. They could unleash hundreds of similar boats — even ones that need no communications and go after static targets — onto targets in South Korea at the opening of the conflict, which already features a conventional war plan that works to achieve ultimate chaos above all else. The fact is that these are weapon systems that can relatively easily achieve considerable range and will have the command and control architecture to support them. As such, they are growing into the realm of regional capabilities.

And no, this doesn’t mean the suicide drone boat is some sort of super weapon that puts everything at risk today. That’s just not the case. Still, in a number of circumstances, they are a growing concern — especially as they evolve. And those concerns have become more dire after what happened in Crimea over the weekend. At the same time, they are also a major opportunity. Remember, potential enemies don’t have a monopoly on this concept, of course. The U.S. and its allies could mass-produce suicide drone boats of various capability levels very quickly as they already have deep knowledge of swarming unmanned surface vessel technology, as does China.

With all this in mind, expect rapid evolution in this threat category, as well as in countermeasures to defend against it, not to mention work to better exploit this concept by small and big players alike, in the wake of this milestone attack.

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