← Insights

Beyond Drones: Addressing the Overlooked Threat of USVs


As the prevalence of unmanned systems increases, efforts to counter emerging threats associated with this technology have largely centred on addressing the risks posed by unmanned aerial systems (UAS). However, unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) present a growing and often overlooked threat to national security. While significant resources have been devoted to counter-UAS (C-UAS) technologies, the solutions to counter USVs remain limited and underdeveloped, despite the increasing sophistication and growing adversarial use of these maritime systems. This oversight is particularly concerning in light of a recent successful Houthi attack on a commercial vessel in the Red Sea. This incident marks the first confirmed strike on a commercial vessel using an unmanned surface vehicle (USV), underscoring the urgent need for enhanced C-USV measures.

The Growing Threat of USVs

USVs are increasingly utilised for a variety of purposes, including surveillance, smuggling, and offensive operations, posing significant risks to coastal and national security. In recent years, a growing number of law enforcement agencies have intercepted USVs used for illicit activities. For instance, in July 2022, Spanish police recovered semi-submersible unmanned vessels capable of carrying substantial quantities of drugs from Morocco. These vessels operated with advanced communication systems, demonstrating how criminal organisations leverage USV technology for smuggling operations. According to UDYCO , this was the first instance where an organisation was found to have managed all manufacturing phases of these vehicles.

Beyond smuggling, a particularly concerning aspect of the proliferation of USV technology is the potential for kamikaze USVs. These vessels can be loaded with explosives and directed towards maritime vessels and critical infrastructure, such as ports, bridges, and coastal facilities, causing significant damage. The stealth nature of these USVs makes them particularly challenging to detect and neutralise before they can execute their missions. This threat underscores the need for robust security measures to protect national infrastructure from such devastating attacks. Earlier this year, Houthi militants in Yemen deployed a USV equipped with explosives on a kamikaze mission into dense international shipping lanes in the Red Sea, coming within a few miles of merchant ships. This development was characterised by a senior US defence official as “bringing to light an additional layer of technological complexity [to maritime security].” Earlier this month, Houthi militants successfully struck a commercial vessel in the Red Sea with a kamikaze USV, marking the first reported successful strike on a commercial vessel using one of these vehicles. This incident foreshadows an anticipated rise in such attacks, highlighting the imminent nature of the threat these vehicles pose to commercial maritime operations.

Multi-Layered Counter-USV Solutions

Current countermeasures for unmanned systems are primarily designed to address aerial threats. Technologies such as RF detection, geolocation, and jamming have been well-developed for UASs but are not directly transferrable to the maritime domain due to the unique operational environment and technical challenges posed by USVs.

While some C-UAS technologies could potentially be adapted for maritime use, there is a significant gap in dedicated counter-USV systems. The absence of comprehensive strategies to counter USVs leaves critical national infrastructure vulnerable to potential attacks.

The increasing use and sophistication of USVs necessitate the development of targeted counter-USV solutions. Effective countermeasures should incorporate multi-layered approaches, combining detection, tracking, and neutralisation capabilities. Potential solutions include:

• Enhanced Surveillance and Detection: Utilising advanced radar and sonar systems to detect low-profile USVs. Integrating satellite and aerial surveillance can provide a comprehensive monitoring framework for coastal areas and key infrastructure.

• RF and Communication Disruption: Developing capabilities to intercept and jam the communication links of USVs. Given that USVs rely heavily on remote control and GPS for navigation, disrupting these signals can effectively neutralise the threat.

• Physical Countermeasures: Deploying intercept vessels or autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) designed to neutralise USVs. These could be equipped with non-lethal means to disable the vessels or lethal options if necessary.

Recognising the escalating threat posed by unmanned maritime systems, defence and national security agencies are beginning to emphasise the importance of developing robust capabilities and advancing research and technology in this area. For example, the US Coast Guard’s 2023 Unmanned Systems Strategic Plan identified rapidly deployable C-UUV/USV solutions for Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security (PWCS) as one of its current research projects. Historically, the USCG focussed its counter autonomous systems (C-UXS) R&D efforts solely on C-UAS projects.

Additionally, establishing frameworks will be required for any meaningful international oversight and regulation of USV technology, similar to recent international efforts concerning UAS. These types of initiatives will be crucial to managing the supply and accessibility of these devices in the years ahead.

Implications for the Security Industry

The security industry must pivot to address the emerging threat posed by USVs. This includes investing in research and development to create specialised counter-USV technologies and integrating these solutions into existing security infrastructures. Companies provisioning maritime security will need to develop expertise in detecting and mitigating USV threats, potentially opening new markets and opportunities for innovation.

Furthermore, security policies and training programmes should be updated to reflect the changing threat landscape. Ensuring that coastal and port security personnel are equipped and trained to deal with USVs is crucial for maintaining national security.

As USVs become more prevalent and sophisticated, their potential to threaten national security cannot be ignored. The current focus on counter-UAS solutions needs to expand to include dedicated countermeasures for USV. By developing comprehensive detection, tracking, and neutralisation strategies, the security industry can address this growing threat and ensure robust protection for critical infrastructure.

Chat to us

*All fields required