• Eyal Pinko

Unmanned Vehicles in the Maritime Domain: Missions, Capabilities, Technologies and Challenges

In January 2017, during a routine patrol in the Gulf of Aden, a vessel of the Saudi navy was damaged in an attack carried out by the Houthis using an unmanned suicide vehicle. The vehicle was apparently controlled from a distance. American sources believe that it was supplied to the rebel organization by Iran. This event is highly significant in the domain of maritime warfare, even if it did not gain much media attention, since for the first time an unmanned vehicle was operated from a distance in a real warfare environment and its full operational capability was demonstrated. This event has the potential to change the configuration of the future maritime battlefield, its strategies and its tactics and will contribute to the understanding that major changes are occurring within it.

The changes in the maritime battlefield are related, on the one hand, to the increasing application of asymmetric fighting doctrines (that are implemented primarily by China, Iran and their allies) and to littoral warfare (primarily the protection of national infrastructures and economic waters); and on the other hand to the application of technologies and integration of unmanned platforms in naval warfare, which will in the future occupy an increasingly important place in this type of warfare. It is the view of the US Department of Defense that unmanned vehicles (in the air, on land and at sea) are and will continue to be the preferred option as fighting systems for scenarios and missions that are characterized as “dirty”, dangerous or “boring”.4 In the aerial domain, both in Israel and other countries, unmanned vehicles have in recent decades increasingly occupied a permanent and central place on the battlefield and even in the civilian sector. In times of peace and in a variety of systems, unmanned aerial vehicles are used for gathering intelligence, observation, attacking targets, electronic warfare and more. Furthermore, in various countries around the world, unmanned aerial vehicles are expected to replace manned aircraft in coming decades. The unmanned aerial vehicle technology is becoming increasingly advanced and they provide a huge economic advantage and the capability of carrying out a diversity of missions, for relatively long durations, at long ranges, with a low signature and without endangering human lives. Experts claim that the level of sales of unmanned aerial vehicles is expected to reach $15 billion in 2020 (for both military and civilian uses).

In the maritime domain, unmanned vehicles are used on a smaller scale and mainly in civilian missions (usually for academic and applied oceanographic research), policing tasks and protection of ports. The operation of unmanned maritime vehicles in military missions is relatively uncommon and among the countries that do make use of them are Israel, Jordan, Singapore, Iran, the US, Britain and various countries in Europe. A number of countries are carrying out research to test and develop concepts, fighting doctrines and applications for unmanned maritime vehicles, and a number of countries, primarily in Europe, have begun processes to test unmanned platforms, which are used in the development of capabilities and technologies and in scenario testing, as well as the development of methods of operating unmanned platforms in warfare and in peacetime uses. Israel is involved in the development (and even the limited use) of a number of unmanned maritime vehicles in two main types of missions: the detection and destruction of submarines (including the already proven capability of firing torpedoes); and the protection of ports, including the ability to fire cannons and short-range missiles, as well as the ability to implement electronic warfare measures.

The transition to the development of unmanned platforms is the result of several factors: The first is the need to operate in littoral warfare situations and asymmetric warfare situations. The second is the existence and maturity of technologies that enable the development of unmanned maritime vehicles. The third is the reduction in defense budgets, particularly in the Western nations, which has motivated navies to reduce their costs. Unmanned vehicles make it possible to reduce costs considerably in terms of both acquisition of vessels and their operation and maintenance. The final factor behind the accelerated development of unmanned platforms is the desire to reduce manpower and to minimize the risk to human life as much as possible. This chapter presents an up-to-date overview of unmanned vehicles, including the mapping of potential missions, required capabilities, advantages and disadvantages of their use, key technologies in use and the challenges of integrating unmanned maritime vehicles in navies and military applications. The article will not deal with the civilian uses of these vehicles.

Read all about the classifications, potential missions, advantages of unmanned maritime vehicles, capabilities, technologies, and challenges read in the file below:

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