Navy must learn lessons from Ukrainian drone attack on Russian warships

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Ukraine’s daring attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet over the weekend should serve as a warning to the US Navy that the threat posed by explosive-laden unmanned boats to larger warships is real – and it will only get worse as drone technology continues. to improve.

As The war zone Recently reported, the Ukrainian military released video footage that allegedly shows the attack on Russian warships by unmanned surface ships, one of which may have damaged a Russian frigate, Admiral Makarov.

On Monday, a senior military official told reporters the Defense Ministry believed explosions had taken place at Russia’s Sevastopol naval base in Crimea, but the official declined to say what could have caused the explosions or the extent of damage.

The senior military official also declined to say whether unmanned coastal defense boats that the United States supplied to Ukraine were being used to attack Russian ships, and the official referred questions about Admiral Makarov to the ministry Russian Defense.

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Ukraine’s attack on Sevastopol could be a taste of the future of naval warfare, just like the November 1940 British Royal Navy attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto proved that carrier-launched aircraft could successfully attack capital ships more than a year before the Japanese Navy launched its own carrier-based aircraft to attack Pearl Harbor.

For decades, the US Navy has heard warnings about the threat posed by suicide boats. In October 2000, al-Qaeda terrorists rammed the side of the destroyer USS Cole with a boat full of explosives. The detonation killed 17 sailors aboard the ship and injured 37 other crew members.

Retired Navy Commander. Kirk Lippold, the commanding officer of the USS Cole at the time, told Task & Purpose he was concerned the Navy was less focused on the suicide boat threat because there were no other attacks. of this type against Navy warships.

Lippold said every ship in the Navy needs an officer whose sole job is to “look at the full spectrum of threats and confront it with force protection measures and intelligence to be able to determine what the best way to protect our ships. ”

The navy must be able to fight and win against close competitors, but it must also be prepared for asymmetric threats because China could eventually use remote-controlled boats to attack U.S. Navy ships based in Japan, Lippold said.

In 2002, Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper showed top military leaders exactly how much damage an adversary using suicide boats could do. Riper led the red team for a now infamous war game called Millennium Challenge 2002. During a 10-minute attack, Van Riper unleashed a wave of suicide launches that sank 19 of Blue Team’s ships and caused 20,000 casualties.

Unfortunately, the 2002 Millennium Challenge was not a wake-up call for the military. Rather than taking the lessons Van Riper demonstrated to heart, the military instead imposed a series of arbitrary limitations on the red team that were clearly aimed at ensuring victory for the blue team. Frustrated, Van Riper quit as leader of the red team midway through the exercise.

If Van Riper showed that swarm attacks with suicide boats could cripple a US force, the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen proved that unmanned boats could also serve as effective anti-ship weapons. On January 30, 2017, the Houthis used a high-speed remote-controlled boat packed with explosives to damage a Saudi frigate, Al Madinah. Iran likely provided the unmanned boat to the Houthis, Navy Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan said. Christopher Cavas, journalist at Defense News at the time.

Between January 2017 and June 2021, the Houthis reportedly carried out a total of 24 successful or attempted maritime drone attacks, Håvard Haugstvedt, from the University of Stavanger in Norway, wrote for War on the Rocks.

A Navy spokesman declined to comment when asked on Monday what steps the service was taking to protect its ships from attacks by unmanned boats and planes from Iran, China, Russia and the United States. other adversaries because the Navy does not discuss its force protection measures and the future. operations, nor does the service speculate on what-if scenarios.

China’s People’s Liberation Army is likely watching the Russia-Ukraine war closely, as its strategists have long incorporated lessons from foreign wars into its military doctrine, retired Navy Captain Thomas Shugart said. , a military innovation expert at the Center for a New American Security. think tank in Washington, DC

“That being said, it’s unclear whether this Ukrainian drone attack will make China more interested in unmanned surface ships, as the PLA is already quite focused on large-scale development of unmanned vehicles of all types. “, Shugart told Task & Purpose. . “Certainly the use of surprise in an attack like this would already be consistent with the PLA’s longstanding focus on sudden surprise strikes against opposing installations and forces.”

Retired Navy Lt. Gen. Van Riper, who led Red Team in the 2002 Millenium Challenge, says the U.S. military still hasn’t fully grasped the significance of unmanned boat attacks and is not doing only now take the first steps to deal with the threat.

Assuming China will be its future adversary, the US military has lost sight of other threats, such as Iran, said Van Riper, who added that the Department of Defense needs to spend more time s train to maneuver and launch psychological operations.

What Ukraine’s drone attack makes clear is that whatever adversary America faces, it will likely use relatively inexpensive unmanned weapon systems to counter warships. US military and other high-tech weapon systems.

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