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June 21, 2024

Ukraine's Drone Success Shapes US Pacific 'Hellscape' Strategy

A Sea Baby uncrewed surface vehicle (File photo: Security Service of Ukraine)

A Sea Baby uncrewed surface vehicle (File photo: Security Service of Ukraine)

On a website run by the Ukrainian security service, donors anywhere in the world can pledge money to build Ukraine's cutting-edge "Sea Baby" unmanned maritime drones.

It is a slick, professional site offering donors the chance to sign up for newsletters or even name the drone themselves if they donate the full $220,000 cost.

Only six meters (20 feet) long and 60 cm (two feet) high above the water level, the craft can carry up to 850 kg of explosives up to 1,000 km (620 miles), often largely undetected thanks to its low profile and stealth material construction.

Along with Ukraine's domestically produced Neptune antiship missiles, the smaller maritime "Magura" drone and foreign-made missiles such as the British "Storm Shadow", these special forces-operated, remote-controlled attack craft have sunk or damaged what Ukrainian analysts and officials say is up to a third of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Now, after a string of attacks close to and inside the port of Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea, most of Russia’s naval forces have pulled much further west in the Black Sea to the port of Novorossiysk.

That leaves them much less able to menace Ukrainian territory including the key port of Odesa, as well as making it a lot harder for the Kremlin to menace nearby Moldova militarily. Perhaps even more importantly, the threat posed by unmanned maritime drones has freed up crucial shipping lanes to allow greater grain exports from Ukrainian ports.

Last month, shipping intelligence firm Lloyds List reported that foreign grain cargoes from Ukrainian ports were now almost back to their prewar levels, although many ships were turning off their automatic identification signals while passing through the war zone. Some successfully targeted Russian vessels include sunken frigates, landing craft and a heavily damaged submarine.

On land, flying drones that can be remotely piloted by a headset to their targets are now reported to be causing more casualties on both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war than conventional artillery - a major technological shift that is now also at the heart of U.S. and allied preparations for a potential war in Asia.

'Unmanned hellscape'
At the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore last month, the head of the U.S. military's Indo-Pacific Command took the unusual step of deliberately briefing the Washington Post that secret swarms of U.S. and allied drones were now at the heart of U.S. hopes to deter China from trying to invade Taiwan – or to defeat that invasion if it happened.

"I want to turn the Taiwan Strait into an unmanned hellscape using a number of classified capabilities so I can make their lives utterly miserable for a month, which buys me the time for the rest of everything," Admiral Samuel Paparo told Post columnist Josh Rogin on the sidelines of the event. His comments were picked up across the region and beyond.

Unmanned systems – including some not publicly discussed or acknowledged to exist – would defeat any first invasion wave and win time for U.S. and allied reinforcements, he said.

The Biden administration has also backed up that message with some very public arms sales.

On Monday, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the State Department had approved the sale of more than a thousand Switchblade 300 and ALTIUS 600M loitering munitions to Taiwan's armed forces.

Both types, sometimes referred to as "suicide drones", could be flown in potentially vast numbers against Chinese vessels in the event of an invasion.

Other drones launched from closer to China’s coast from Taiwan-held islands like Kinmen could also wreak havoc on nearby Chinese military and port infrastructure, analysts suggest.

Such a campaign would probably be run in conjunction with more conventional high-tech missiles. Last month the U.S. practiced deploying both drones and land-based missiles to the Philippines, where they could significantly influence any Taiwan conflict or further escalation between China and the Philippines over the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

'Assault breaker'
The phrase "hellscape" was first used by Paparo's predecessor as head of Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, who told the National Defense Industrial Association conference in Washington last August his forces had been working to integrate unmanned capabilities in a way that could allow him to hit 1,000 targets within a 24-hour period.

That included working with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency on a data-crunching program called "assault breaker" and integrating existing commercial technology.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks used the same conference to outline the Pentagon's "Replicator" program, designed to build tens of thousands of cheap, disposable cutting-edge drones to outstrip China's production capability in a time of war.

“Replicator” and “Hellscape” both appear to have evolved and developed further since last year. Ukrainian officials say U.S. counterparts have told them there are some technologies they do not wish to share with Kyiv or use in the Black Sea to ensure it remains secret for any future wider war.

Earlier in the year, defence industry sources and some U.S. officials complained to Reuters that U.S. drone adoption had been slowed by cumbersome military processes still focused on larger systems such as warships that take years to build.

Increasingly, however, that innovation is speeding up – although some analysts say it is notable that Ukraine’s rapid adoption of maritime drones was pushed primarily by its security services and special forces rather than its mainstream navy.

Multiple new types of such weaponry are now coming to the market. This week, German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall unveiled a modified shipping container packed with 126 "HERO" attack drones that could be mass-produced and positioned in large numbers to support wider defensive positions.

The Baltic states, Poland, Finland, Sweden and Norway have already talked about using such technology as part of a "drone wall" along the border with Russia to deter attacks.

Russia, China and other potential U.S. adversaries are also expected to plough resources into similar equipment.

This month Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi forces appear to have successfully fired unmanned maritime drones for the first time, damaging the Liberian-flagged merchant vessel “Tutor”, which reportedly sank on Tuesday after being abandoned by her crew.

Video of that incident appeared to show a much more basic speedboat than the drones used by Ukraine, including at least one dummy human figure. Since then, U.S. and allied naval forces in the region report having sunk at least two more such vessels before they reached a target.

Defence officials and industry analysts both acknowledge that the sheer speed with which technology is developing is itself a problem.

Self-targeting maritime, aerial and land drones increasingly rely on “edge computing”, in which much of the analysis of information is done on the platform itself to minimise the amount of data that needs to be sent back to a headquarters.

Evolving equally fast, however, are new jamming technologies and other anti-drone measures that can render once-effective systems obsolete at speed.

One way of mitigating that risk is putting artificial intelligence on platforms so they can make their own targeting decisions. Another – although much less useful at sea – is the use of direct control cables.

Some Russian drones captured in Ukraine have been trailing more than a kilometer of cable, rendering them much less vulnerable to jamming.

Those tactics may work less well over large distances at sea. Unmanned weaponry helped bring Azerbaijan victory in its 2020 war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, and has evolved significantly since then as well as from Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

By the end of this decade, such weaponry may have shaped the future of the world.


(Reuters - The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters. Editing by Mark Heinrich)

The February 2024 edition of Marine Technology Reporter is focused on Oceanographic topics and technologies.
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