The War in Ukraine and its Impact on the Future of Naval Warfare: The USV Dimension


By George Galdorisi

If one story has dominated the international news for the past ten months, it is Russia’s egregious invasion of Ukraine, a war that shows no sign of abating, and which is the largest conflict in Europe in over three-quarters of a century.

The breathless daily reporting has kept the planet’s inhabitants well-informed about the day-to-day details of this conflict, but it will likely take many years to fully understand and unpack the lessons learned regarding what is occurring and Ukraine.

While there are many stories that have been generated regarding this conflict, as well as some nascent lessons learned, one of the most prominent is how Ukraine has been able to use unmanned surface vehicles to attack Russian ships.

The attack on the Russian Navy in the port of Sevastopol in October of this year brought new attention to the capabilities of these unmanned maritime systems, and will likely spur the development of USVs by many nations and navies.

All that said, it is important to realize that this is not a completely new means of warfare, but one that is centuries-old. A bit of perspective is important.

Fire ships were used in ancient China during the battle of Red Cliffs on the Yangtze River, as well as in the Eastern Roman empire in many battles during the time of Byzantine Empire.

Fire ships were also used during the Crusades, and later in the allied victory over the Turks in the battle of Navarino. These fire ships continued to be used during the age of sail through the Napoleonic Wars. Later, they were used during the Greek War for Independence in the 1820s and 1830s.

In the American experience, fire ships were used during the Civil War when the Confederate Navy used them to attack Union ships on the Mississippi River.

As steel hulls replaced wooden ships, and explosive devices became prominent, fire ships were no longer effective weapons. They were replaced by unmanned surface vehicles carrying explosives.

During World War I and World War II, Germany used explosive remote controlled speedboats to protect their coast. One of the most prominent of these was the FL7 electronically controlled motorboat. This unmanned boat carried 300 pounds of explosives, and was designed to be rammed into any British ship that came near the German coast.

Originally they were controlled by a driver who sat atop of 50 foot tower on shore, steering them through a 50 mile long cable that spooled out of the back of the boat. Subsequently, the Germans shifted the operator from a tower onto a seaplane that would fly overhead dragging the wire. Both methods proved unwieldy, but with the invention of wireless radio control, the Germans found that these boats became more effective

What does this have to do with warfare today?

Actually a great deal.

The aforementioned attack on the Russian Navy in Sevastopol ushered in a new era of drone warfare. Unmanned maritime vehicles have been evolving rapidly over the past decade, and now they have gone to war.

In an era where naval vessels are increasingly expensive, attacking these ships with cheap, expendable, explosive-laden USVs is the ultimate form of asymmetric warfare.  For example, a U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke destroyer costs over $2 billion, and the U.S. Navy‘s new DDG(X) ship is projected to cost over $3 billion. The efficacy of using unmanned surface vehicles to attack naval vessels is clear.

However, what is lost in this aspirational use of unmanned surface vehicles to attack naval vessels is precisely how the USV will actually hit a highly maneuverable naval vessel.

Operating these USVs completely autonomously is likely not a viable tactic, since where a naval vessel is located at one moment will bear little resemblance to where it will be hours or even minutes later.

One tactic that is gaining purchase stems from a concept first articulated in the Department of Defense’s Third Offset Strategy.

The technical aspect of this concept of operations (CONOPS) is centered around a concept called man-machine teaming, and is one that most defense analysts suggest represents the most effective means of prevailing in the future battlespace.

Briefly, here is how this CONOPS would work.

This tactic would combine modern U.S. Navy helicopters, such as the Seahawk and Nighthawk, with small and medium agile unmanned surface vessels such as the MARTAC Devil Ray T24 (24ft) and T38 (38ft) unmanned surface vessels.

While there are many unmanned surface vessels that the U.S. Navy is either considering or developing, what these USVs bring to the table is a high cruise speed, an extremely high burst speed of 60-80 knots, and the ability to operate beyond human capability, making high speed, high-G turns that enable them to outmaneuver, or intercept, even the most modern and agile naval vessels.

This CONOPS leverages the best aspects of what humans and machines can do together. Imagine a U.S. surface combatant that discovers an adversary surface ship in a hot-war situation. Clearly, the goal is to “out stick” the enemy and disable or destroy that ship before the U.S. Navy ship takes a hit. High performance in both speed and maneuverability will be the key component.

This CONOPS builds on what has been the essence of naval warfare for centuries. It means giving one ship the ability stand-off from an adversary vessel and out of range from its weapons, while delivering ordnance that can achieve a mission kill, or even sink the adversary ship. How might the U.S. Navy ship most effectively engage the enemy?

One standoff tactic would be to send a helo armed with hellfire missile to strike the enemy ship. However, with a range of, at best, seven nautical miles for the hellfire missile, that puts a $37M SH-60R/S Seahawk/Knighthawk helicopter and its crew well within the range of adversary anti-air systems. Clearly, this is not a viable tactic.

What if, instead, the U.S. Navy surface combatant carried a number of Devil Ray USVs armed with on-contact explosives and launched them toward to adversary ship. That would be a good start, but if the adversary ship was over the horizon, these USVs would not get to their intended target.

This is where the Seahawk/Knighthawk comes in and accomplishes the essence of manned-machine teaming envisioned in the Third Offset Strategy. The aircraft could launch, and while staying well-outside enemy anti-air platforms, use a simple tablet to steer one, or ideally more, Devil Ray USVs toward the adversary ship until impact. This “swarm” tactic has been modeled by various organizations such as the Naval Postgraduate School and Naval War College and has proven to have deadly effectiveness.

This is where many defense experts see manned-machine teaming going in the future.

Now it is time to go beyond modeling and simulation and try out this CONOPS with helicopters and USVs.

The U.S. Navy is planning an ambitious series of exercises, experiments and demonstrations in 2023 and beyond, and this way of tipping the balance in the favor of U.S. Navy forces is one that ought to be explored as a priority.

Featured Photo:  Devil Ray operating at high speed and preparing for high G turn. Credit: MARTAC