Will unmanned seaborne drones change the future of naval warfare?

If this new capability is embraced and integrated into offensive naval arsenals, it will be a significant force multiplier in future wars. Al Majalla explains how.

The transformation of naval warfare by unmanned seaborne drones, primally driven by new technology and the advent of artificial intelligence, is a game-changing new facet of naval warfare.
Jay Torres
The transformation of naval warfare by unmanned seaborne drones, primally driven by new technology and the advent of artificial intelligence, is a game-changing new facet of naval warfare.

Will unmanned seaborne drones change the future of naval warfare?

The transformation of naval warfare by unmanned seaborne drones, primally driven by new technology and the advent of artificial intelligence, is a game-changing new facet of naval warfare that has evolved with incredible speed.

In less than two years, we have seen Ukraine—a country that lost almost all of its traditional naval assets when Russian annexed Crimea—successfully employ seaborne unmanned drone and missile attacks to drive Russia’s powerful Black Sea fleet far away from shore and out of range for their naval missiles to target Ukraine. The proven lethality of these relatively inexpensive unmanned seaborne drones, when in the hands of competent operators, makes this technology such a game-changer for maritime warfare.

For traditional navies, if this new capability is ignored from a defensive point of view, it will be a critical vulnerability, but if embraced and integrated into their offensive arsenal, it will be a significant force multiplier in future wars.

Asymmetric naval warfare is not new

For decades, advanced ballistic and cruise missiles, with hypersonic speeds and increased accuracy, have been the primary threat to naval combatants in wartime. As a result, navies developed sophisticated and expensive defence systems like the US Navy's Aegis weapons system to protect ships against these types of threats. However, at the same time, these systems were, in certain environments, vulnerable to asymmetric threats and tactics developed by both nation-states and terrorist organisations.

As a clear example of this type of threat, on 12 October 2000, a small bomb-laden boat with two suicidal crewmen pulled up alongside the USS Cole during a logistics stop in Aden, Yemen and detonated powerful explosives that tore through the hull. The blast ripped a 40-foot-wide hole at the waterline of the ship, killing 17 US sailors and injuring 40 others.

In the years after that attack, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) played a lead role in further developing asymmetric maritime threats to counter US traditional naval combatants that were on station in the Arabian Gulf. Called by some the "Iranian layered threat," this included fast sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles combined with swarms of crewed speedboats armed with machine guns, rockets and missiles along with mini-subs and small boats that deploy naval mines.

An American flag flies near US Navy boats docked at Bahrain's Salman port in the capital, Manama, on May 12, 2013, one day before the start of the biggest exercise of mine countermeasure manoeuvres in the Arabian Gulf.

The concept was to overwhelm traditional naval ships' defence systems with a barrage of different threats from the air and sea. The concept further evolved with the addition of a prolific cadre of Iranian-developed unmanned aerial drones that were initially used for reconnaissance and ultimately became a new armed component of the Iranian layered threat.

The IRGC then began developing unmanned remote-controlled seaborne drones that would explode on contact. These were called "Explosive Boats" by the Western press, and in 2016, Iran began exporting the key components of these unmanned seaborne drones to the Houthis to use in their fight against Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Although in its early stages of development, it sometimes proved lethal.

On 30 January 2017, a video made public showed an unmanned seaborne drone boat approach and crash into the rear of a Saudi Arabian Navy frigate at high speed, detonating at the waterline just below the flight deck. The attack killed two Saudi Arabian Navy sailors and severely damaged the ship.

This past winter, the Houthis leveraged this technology again when they began their much-publicised assault on commercial shipping transiting the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. At the onset, the Houthis were using barrages of ballistic and cruise missiles along with unmanned aerial drones to conduct their attacks on unarmed commercial shipping.

Despite attempts by coalition navies to counter this threat, the unrelenting nature of these attacks and the risk they posed to merchant mariners and their cargo proved too much for the shipping companies. The result was the rerouting of the lion's share of commercial maritime traffic away from the Suez Canal and around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. This new route added over a week of transit and millions of dollars to shipping costs.

However, as the attacks continued, and the US, UK and a few other nations began to conduct strikes to degrade the Houthis' weapons inventory, the Yemeni militia shifted to air and seaborne unmanned drones. In the end, despite the hundreds of missiles and drones launched over multiple months, these attacks have not had the lethality that would have been expected—especially since most were fired at defenceless commercial ships in transit close to the Yemeni coastline.

In fact, most of the missiles and drones did not reach their target or were intercepted and destroyed by coalition navies. In total, about 30 ships were damaged, but most had only minor damage, with a total of three crew members killed.

Apart from their lethality, seaborne drones are relatively cheap. A drone worth a couple hundred thousand can sink a warship worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Task Force 59

With a front-row seat to what Iran and the Houthis were developing, the US Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain saw how advanced Western technology and AI could be applied to seaborne drones and began to test drive the concept in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea over the last few years.  Using commercially available dual-use technology, TF 59 deployed a fleet of autonomous surface and subsurface drones that is constantly collecting data that is analysed and managed by artificial intelligence. 

These unmanned drones are primarily small vessels, three to 10 meters long, with a payload of radar and high-quality cameras remotely controlled by satellites.  By linking this high technology with artificial intelligence, the output yields a pattern of life mapping and alerts provided to a human operator in a naval operations centre.

Initially, TF 59 was focused on surveillance—a necessary undertaking given the vastness of the maritime commons that spans from the Arabian Gulf to the Red Sea. However, recently, TF 59 began experiments with sea drones carrying munitions and, in October, carried out its first live missile test from an unmanned speedboat. The T38 Devil Ray successfully launched a miniature missile system to destroy a target boat controlled from the shore.

Ukrainian game-changer

Ukraine changed the game when it came to seaborne drone lethality and impact versus modern naval combatants, achieving success even hundreds of miles from their coastline.  Like TF 59, they did this by leveraging technological advances, especially AI and satellite communications, combining them with innovative development and trained operators.  They were able to improve and iterate their drones, fast-tracking needed changes, and, in the end, achieved deadly results for Russian naval combatants in the Black Sea. 

To date, Ukraine's group of operators, called Group 13, have been responsible for damaging or destroying 20+ Russian ships, over 1/3 of the Black Sea fleet, and leading to the firing of both the head of the Russian Navy and the Black Sea Fleet Commander. They were so successful that Russia copied the Ukrainian concept and used a seaborne drone to attack Ukraine's Zatoka Bridge in February of 2023.

Ukraine's success using seaborne drones was not a foregone conclusion; they faced the same hurdles of long-distance horizon communications, targeting challenges, power demands, lethality, and tactics and training development that plagued the Iranians and the Houthis.  However, their innovative use of technology and fast iterative development cycle moved from simple jet skis with explosives to drones like the "Magura V5" and "Sea Baby." 

The Magura V5 is compact but powerful, about 18 feet long, weighs about 2,000 pounds, has a range of several hundred miles, a battery that can last several days and a 440-pound payload.  Combining that with the capability to transmit live video to operators has proven to be deadly to the Russian Navy.  The "Sea Baby" is bigger and reportedly capable of carrying 1,900 pounds of explosives, with a top speed of 56 mph and a range of 600 miles, which is another example of Group 13's fast-paced development work.   

These types of Ukrainian seaborne drones first struck a Russian ship in October 2022 when they attacked Russian vessels moored off the coast of occupied Crimea. Last July, Ukrainian drones hit the Kerch Bridge, a key supply route linking Russia to Crimea, and caused it to temporarily close. Ukrainian sea drones then struck a Russian port, damaging moored warships.

A general view of the Sevastopol Shipyard in Crimea (top R) on September 12, 2023, before a Ukrainian strike, and a general view of damage at the Shipyard after a strike on September 13, 2023.

 By March of this year, Ukraine had refined drones and tactics enough to damage and ultimately sink the modern and newly commissioned Russian patrol ship Sergey Kotov near the Kerch Strait off Crimea.

What lessons can we learn from Ukraine's success?  First, with the right technology, AI, and tactics combined with trained operators, seaborne drones can be lethal against naval combatants.  Second, this capability comes in at a very low relative cost. In fact, Ukraine's seaborne drones reportedly cost a fraction of the price of a typical air-to-air missile.  Each Magura, for example, reportedly cost only about $250,000—a small sum when compared to damaging or sinking a warship worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Seaborne drones in the Pacific?

The success of unmanned drones in the maritime industry has attracted the attention of US Navy planners in the Pentagon.  They are incorporating lessons from Ukraine and the Red Sea into plans to counter China's rising naval power, as evidenced by Deputy Secretary of Defence Kathleen Hicks' announcement of an initiative in August named "Replicator," to deploy hundreds of small, relatively cheap air and sea drones within the next 18 to 24 months to counter China's rapidly growing air and naval power.

More specifically, the Pentagon has earmarked $500mn each year to "Replicator", which is designed to cut through bureaucracy and fast-track the deployment of thousands of low-cost aerial and sea drones.  In January, the US Department of Defence issued a solicitation for private companies to deliver small sea drones to the navy, requiring contractors to have a production capacity of 120 vessels per year, with deployment beginning in April of next year. 

Although not specified by the initiative, it is anticipated that swarms of small sea drones could serve as a defensive barrier to enhance protection for valuable crewed assets like aircraft carriers or other high-value units.  In the hands of Taiwan, if combined with anti-ship cruise missiles, swarms of surface and subsurface drones would be a significant threat to Chinese troop-carrying ships in the event China attempts to invade Taiwan.

Will seaborne drones transform how traditional navies fight in the future?

The simple answer is yes, but only to an extent.  They cannot be used in all situations, and navies will adapt and adjust their defensive system to counter this new capability. However, the concept of overwhelming naval combatants with swarms of high-tech/low-cost drones is real, has been proven, and will only improve with time and advancing technology.  In the end, this capability will no longer be asymmetric; it will become an integral part of naval warfare. 

Traditional navies that embrace it and build sustainable programmes to leverage its strengths will be the most lethal and survivable.  Seaborne drones on the surface and below the surface will combine with missiles and airborne drones to provide naval commanders more lethality at longer ranges while also providing a clear picture of the maritime battlespace.

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