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US Navy warships have the tools to fend off exploding drones like those wrecking a Russian fleet, but it's a dangerous and evolving threat

In this photo released by the US Navy, two US Air Force F-35A Lightning II fighter jets fly alongside amphibious assault ship USS Bataan and guided-missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner in the Gulf of Oman on Aug. 17, 2023.
In this photo released by the US Navy, two US Air Force F-35A Lightning II fighter jets fly alongside amphibious assault ship USS Bataan and guided-missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner in the Gulf of Oman on Aug. 17, 2023.US Navy via AP
  • Ukraine has found success at sea by using naval drones packed with explosive to batter Russia.

  • In recent weeks, the Houthis have tried using similar weapons in their ongoing Red Sea attacks.

  • Former US Navy officers say American warships can handle this threat. Still, it's an evolving challenge.

In two conflicts separated by more than 1,000 miles, US friends and foes alike have turned to a deadly weapon to defeat their enemy's warships: small naval drones packed with explosives.

For over a year, Ukraine has relied on these systems to blast Russian warships in the Black Sea, and more recently, the Houthis have used them — albeit unsuccessfully — in their ongoing attacks against shipping lanes off the coast of Yemen.

Such engagements have raised questions about the preparedness of Western navies. US warships and aircraft, for example, are showing they're capable of defeating the Houthi's naval drones, but these kinds of systems are likely to prove an evolving threat, as they have in the Black Sea.

"What unmanned vessels allow an adversary or a navy to do is put a lot of things in the water that a surface ship has to defend against," Bradley Martin, a retired US Navy surface warfare captain, told Business Insider. "That creates a problem."

The USS Gravely transits the Arabian Gulf on Dec. 5, 2023.
The USS Gravely transits the Arabian Gulf on Dec. 5, 2023.US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Janae Chambers

Over the past 18 months, two types of drones have emerged as weapons of an asymmetrical style of naval warfare put on display in Europe and the Middle East: unmanned surface vehicles, or USVs, and unmanned underwater vessels, or UUVs.

USVs, especially the ones in Ukraine's arsenal, are essentially just speedboats packed with explosives that an operator can drive — remotely and from a distance — into another vessel and detonate. These systems can be massed in a swarm attack, and their low profiles in the water make them difficult to spot and target.

UUVs, on the other hand, more or less resemble torpedoes or submarines, and can also act as underwater mines. But they are relatively slow and limited in their targeting and maneuver capabilities, making it difficult for them to strike a ship that's moving away from them. They may be most effective as lurking threats that a ship can run into.

Ukraine's newly released Sea Baby drone "Avdiivka" during a presentation in the Kyiv region on March 5, 2024.
Ukraine's newly released Sea Baby drone "Avdiivka" during a presentation in the Kyiv region on March 5, 2024.AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

"As a general concept, USVs/UUVs are an additional threat," Sam Tangredi, a retired US Navy captain and surface warfare officer, said in emailed remarks shared with BI. "But they are not revolutionary or a game changer in terms of naval warfare."

Indeed, while today's iterations of USVs and UUVs may be new and innovative, the idea behind packing a small vessel with explosives and sending it towards an adversary is actually a decades-old practice.

A complicated threat at sea

Ukraine, which lacks a proper navy, turned to USVs loaded with explosives in 2022 as an innovative solution to battle Russia's formidable Black Sea Fleet. Through repeated USV attacks, Kyiv has managed to disperse the fleet across the Black Sea, open up a crucial maritime corridor through the dangerous waters, and disable roughly a third of Moscow's warships in the region.

As these attacks push Russia to rethink ways to better protect its naval assets, they also have other militaries watching with keen eyes, said one general in the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, which has carried out naval drone operations.

"All navies in the world are forced to revise their strategies and adjust to this new type of weapon that has emerged for the first time," Brig. Gen. Ivan Lukashevych said in translated remarks shared with BI last month.

A Sea Baby drone operated by the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU.
A Sea Baby drone operated by the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU.Screengrab via Security Service of Ukraine

One only has to look about 1,500 miles south from the Black Sea to the Red Sea, where US and coalition forces on deployment there to protect international shipping lanes from ongoing Houthi missile and drones also face the constant threat of USV attacks.

US forces have destroyed scores of USVs in Yemen with preemptive strikes designed to take out the drones before the Houthis can even deploy them. The Iran-backed rebels have, however, managed to launch a few into the water — most recently this week. They have not scored any hits with these systems, though.

The Houthis have also tried to deploy UUVs in at least two instances over the past month. But both times, the US military said its preemptive strikes destroyed the drones, which, just like the USVs, "presented an imminent threat" to American and commercial vessels in nearby waters.

The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower conducts flight operations in response to Houthi activity in the Red Sea on Feb. 23.
The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower conducts flight operations in response to Houthi activity in the Red Sea on Feb. 23.US Navy photo

Houthi USVs and UUVs, like their unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, "are a great weapon — against defenseless merchant ships," Tangredi said. "Could they get a lucky hit on a warship? Yes, chance is always an element in war."

But this is not "an unsolvable problem," he said. In other words, there are ways that warships can protect against, evade, and ultimately defeat naval drones.

'Don't let them get to you'

Russia has proven incapable of consistently stopping naval drone attacks, despite deploying machine gun crews on its warships and beefing up surveillance patrols with combat aircraft.

Former Navy officers say Russia has often shown a disregard for this threat, but the US and its coalition partners are likely a lot more aware of it and have tactics, techniques, and procedures in place so they aren't caught off guard by a naval drone attack.

Archer Macy, a retired US Navy admiral who served aboard multiple warships, said one way to protect warships in port — something Russia failed to adequately do in the past but appears to be looking at more closely — is to string anti-torpedo netting between two buoys at the surface level. It's a World War II-style tactic that he's "amazed" Russia hasn't relied on more.

Handout footage shows an explosion on what Ukrainian military intelligence said is the Russian Black Sea Fleet patrol ship Sergey Kotov that was damaged by Ukrainian sea drones at a location given as off the coast of Crimea, in this still image obtained from a video released on March 5, 2024.
An explosion on the Russian Black Sea Fleet patrol ship Sergey Kotov, which was hit by Ukrainian sea drones off the coast of Crimea, in this image obtained from a video released on March 5, 2024.Ministry of Defense of Ukraine/Handout via REUTERS

"Why they haven't done that beats me," Macy told BI. "That's my first answer to a USV or to a UUV attacking ships in port — don't let them get to you."

Beyond ports, US Navy ships that are underway have several options to defeat USVs and UUVs. The first is to simply out-maneuver them in the open waters.

"If you think you're in a threat area, the first thing you do is you speed the hell up and then you zig-zag," Macy said. "Again, this is a World War II lesson — there's nothing new here. But like I said, everything old is new again."

A view of the USS Gravely destroyer in the southern Red Sea on Feb. 13, 2024.
A view of the USS Gravely destroyer in the southern Red Sea on Feb. 13, 2024.AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

Beyond that, American warships — or, in the case of the Red Sea battle, a carrier strike group — have a litany of tools and weaponry at their disposal. This can include advanced radars, surveillance aircraft, helicopters, and a layered defense made up of machine gun fire and Mark 45 lightweight guns. Aircraft like F/A-18 Hornets, P-8 Poseidons and SH-60 Seahawk helicopters boost the detection range from ships and can help destroy the targets.

"I would not ever underestimate the potential to do damage," Martin said of the drone threat, "but I think that the US Navy and the coalition navies are fairly well-prepared to deal with it."

Adding 'costs and worries' to defenders

While naval drones have gathered recent attention due to their employment around the Black Sea and Red Sea, their role in future conflicts remains to be seen.

These weapons are unlikely to change the calculus of tomorrow's battles because other weapons are still capable of the missions that naval drones are being used for, Tangredi said. They're also a short-range threat; engagements farther out would require bigger and more expensive drones with likely satellite-based command and control.

The Black Sea and Red Sea are relatively confined battle spaces, meaning there's only so many places a warship can go, which eliminates a lot of targeting problems that someone operating USVs and UUVs might face.

The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) on November 26.
The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower on November 26.US Navy photo by Information Technician Second Class Ruskin Naval

The same can't be said about the vast Western Pacific, where many fear that the US and China may clash one day as tensions between the countries continue to rise. Should Washington and Beijing one day go to war in the region, the maritime domain would likely be the key battleground between the two sides.

Naval one-way attack drones of long-enough range could contribute to a Pearl Harbor-like surprise attack on a key homeport. But their utility may otherwise be quite limited. Martin said it wouldn't be very practical for a military to use naval drones in the Western Pacific and try to find warships that are operating hundreds of miles away and constantly moving.

But today's naval drones are constantly evolving. Lukashevych, the SBU general, said Ukraine's Sea Baby systems have received several modifications over time, including larger warheads and the ability to travel farther — hundreds of miles. They have also become cheaper, sturdier, and more efficient in the water, he asserted.

In this photo released by the US Navy The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Finn (DDG 113) prepares to come alongside Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship Cesar Chavez (T-AKE-14) in the East China Sea, on Jan. 21, 2024.
In this photo released by the US Navy The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Finn (DDG 113) prepares to come alongside Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship Cesar Chavez (T-AKE-14) in the East China Sea, on Jan. 21, 2024.Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stack/US Navy via AP

And as the technology changes, so does the threat environment.

"The US Navy has done a tremendous job defeating these USVs and UUVs while they're operating or while they're in Yemen," Shaan Shaikh, a fellow with the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, told BI.

"But that doesn't mean that it's always going to be the case," he added. Naval drones can potentially carry a large payload, and if they manage to get through undetected and hit a ship, "there could be significant damage."

"We're seeing these systems becoming increasingly proliferated," Shaikh said. "We know that if they do strike, they would very likely be effective. And they're certainly adding costs and worries to defenders."

Read the original article on Business Insider