By Dr. Eyal Pinko
The Saudi Ministry of Defense spokesman, Brigadier General al-Maliki, said that on April 27, a boat loaded with explosives was destroyed in front of the port of Yanbu in Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi naval vessel discovered a suspicious boat in a routine security operation off the country’s coast. As the Saudi navy vessel approached the boat, it was found that the boat was unmanned. The Saudi vessel opened fire on it and destroyed it. The Saudi firing caused a massive explosion, caused by the detonation of the explosives on it.
The Saudi Ministry of Defense spokesman said that “investigations by the Saudi authorities to reach further details about this hostile act and to determine the responsible party are ongoing, and that the person responsible for operating the unmanned vessel has not yet been determined.” According to Brigadier General al-Maliki, the Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) was on its way to carry out an attack in the Saudi port or against ships making their way to or from the port.
At the same time, the use of USV to attack naval targets in the Red Sea arena and the Gulf of Oman has become routine by Iranians and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
As early as 2017, the Yemen Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi frigate using two USVs in a coordinated attack. Both vessels were controlled remotely via a communication channel between the operators and the boats. This incident was a significant event in naval warfare, as it was the first operational activity of remote-controlled USV from long range in an actual combat event. In 2018, a Saudi naval vessel had success in destroying another unmanned fishing boat operated by the Houthi rebels before it could explode.
In 2019, another Houthi rebel attack was carried out by USVs against another Saudi ship. In July 2020, one more Houthi attempt was made to attack using USVs merchant ships passing through the Red Sea, near the port of Salif in Yemen. A Saudi naval vessel that happened to be operating in the same area identified the USVs and destroyed them.
The USVs in the service of the Houthi rebels’ naval force are not the result of a local Yemeni invention but are based on a series of developments of such vessels by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy, which supports and assists the Houthi rebel forces.
The Revolutionary Guards Navy began developing unmanned vessels over a dozen years ago. In 2010 the Navy introduced the first model of an unmanned vessel, the “Al Mahdi,” a fast boat, based on the British Bladerunner 51 racing boat model, mass-produced in Iran.
The “Al Mahdi” boat, operated remotely by an operator, can fire rockets using the remote control system via its communication channel. In the same year, these boats were already operated in the Navy of the Revolutionary Guards navy annual exercise – “The Great Prophet 5,” and an operational doctrine was planned.
Since then, the unmanned vessel industry in Iran has developed its capabilities, including autonomous capabilities, firing capabilities, video transmission to shore via communication channels, and even the development of unmanned underwater vehicles.
Another capability developed by the Iranians is a generic kit, which can be assembled and integrated with almost any boat to convert it into an unmanned vessel.
The Iranian Revolution Guards Navy sees many advantages in USV operations. These vessels are relatively inexpensive, reduce the risk to sailors’ lives, and enable them to carry out various types of missions with a wide variety of vessels. Nevertheless, the use of autonomous vessels has a psychological effect and deterrent against the Iranian adversaries.
In the Iranian naval warfare doctrine, unmanned vessels have several vital missions. The first is reconnaissance and gathering intelligence missions.
The second mission is to attack vessels and national infrastructure at sea, whether by launching different types of weapons, such as rockets, missiles, and torpedoes; or by “suicide” attacks in which the USV carries explosives and is supposed to collide with its target and explode on it.
In the USVs attack missions, they can be used to attack targets on the high seas (similar to the Houthi rebels attacks against the Saudi Navy), or they can ambush vessels entering or leaving ports, where their sailing speed is relatively slow, their maneuvering is more complex and therefore more vulnerable.
The third mission of the USVs is to commit deception operations and saturate the enemy’s maritime picture.
Since the Iranian USVs are used by the Houthi naval force, Iran’s proxy organization in Yemen, it would be reasonable to assume that similar USVs will also be operated by the Hamas and Hezbollah naval forces.
Therefore, it can be estimated with high probability that Hamas and Hezbollah will use USVs against the Israeli Navy and Israeli national infrastructure in several master scenarios.
The first scenario is a direct attack against Navy vessels (ships and submarines) or against Israeli merchant ships on the Mediterranean and the Red Sea shipping routes.
The second scenario for the terrorist organizations USV is to ambush merchant ships near the port of Haifa, the port of Eilat but mainly near the port of Ashdod, and north to the Gaza strip.
The third scenario is that the terrorist organizations will use their suicide USVs against Israel’s gas rigs at sea to shut them down and darken the State of Israel.
The fourth scenario is that the terrorist organizations’ naval forces will use the USVs for intelligence-gathering missions off the Israeli coast and perhaps even test the Navy’s detection and control system’s vigilance as part of intelligence gathering efforts for a future campaign.
After outlining and understanding the USV’s major operational scenarios by the Iranian navies, Houthis, Hezbollah, and Hamas, the Israeli Navy will be required to act on several levels to cope with this threat.
First, the Israeli Navy will be required to gather technological intelligence about the Iranian development of unmanned vessels, their capabilities, performance, how they operate, vulnerabilities, and more. Additional intelligence that will be required will be the force build-up and the USVs proliferation. In addition, tactical intelligence will be needed, such as doctrines, missions, storage and maintenance locations, and actual intentions to operate the USVs against various Israeli targets.
Secondly, as the USVs use by terrorist organizations and Iranian forces is increasing, the Israeli Navy will be required to develop and upgrade its detection systems (to detect the USVs with the low radar signature, which imposes complex detection challenges).
The Israeli Navy will need to develop jamming and disruption capabilities against communication channels and the USVs autonomous navigation systems, using electronic warfare and cyber measures.
Additional capability to be developed by the Israeli Navy is a long-distance hard-kill system to neutralize USVs’ swarm attacks at long distances and without causing much environmental damage. Such means can be a long-range accurate gun, laser cannon, and energy weapons.
Thirdly, the Navy’s command and control units will be required to exercise increased vigilance and utilize its best systems and capabilities to classify and identify the USVs as threatening platforms and to operate quickly and efficiently against them, using fast patrol boats.
Understanding that the USVs threat is increasing, it is recommended to improve the maritime security efforts around sensitive facilities and national infrastructures, such as Israeli seaports and gas rigs. In addition, Israeli-owned merchant ships sailing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Oman are advised to be vigilant and enforce their decks with more physical security measures to neutralize the USVs threats.
–The writer is a former commander served in the Israeli navy for 23 years. A PhD in Defense and Security Studies, he was a senior consultant at the Israeli National Cyber Directorate. He is a recipient of various Israeli awards including Prime Minister’s Decoration of Excellence. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda