Due to increased activity by the Houthis in Yemen, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has recently been providing almost daily summaries of their responses to the threat the terrorist group poses to international shipping, as well as merchant and U.S. Navy vessels. Most notably, CENTCOM has frequently defended against Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) and air-based threats, and now Unmanned Underwater Vessels (UUVs) have been identified in the region.

The use of unmanned maritime systems is not an unexpected tactic. Still, it does highlight that these systems are increasingly becoming an essential tool for both conventional military forces and non-state actors.

Use of USVs in Ukraine and the emergence of a Ukrainian UUV

Ukraine has successfully used USVs and other military tactics to harass the Russian Navy and push it back East.

Throughout the conflict, Ukraine has sought to disable Russian ships by employing ‘kamikaze’ USVs laden with explosives. These USVs are navigated over extended distances, directed towards the target, and triggered upon impact, operating remotely via a satellite link. Developed to enhance their operational range, these USVs have been involved in multiple documented attacks. However, the outcomes remain contested and have proven challenging to verify.

Prominent USV strikes have included the assault on ships in Sevastopol harbor in October 2022. Despite the frigate RFS Makarov successfully defending against the attack and seemingly sustaining no damage, the minehunter RFS Ivan Golubets was hit. Another significant event was the second major strike of the war on the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to Russia, seemingly executed by detonating a USV beneath the bridge on July 16, 2023.

Ukraine has introduced a second generation of USVs with an extended range, enabling strikes further east. On the night of August 3, 2023, the Ropucha-class landing ship RFS Olenegorskiy Gornyak was targeted off the port of Novorossiysk in the eastern Black Sea. Ukraine not only released a detailed video of the attack but also provided verifiable evidence through photos and videos showing the heavily listed ship as it made its way into the harbor.

On February 14th, within two weeks of the destruction of the missile ship Ivanovets, Ukrainian forces claimed the sinking of another significant Russian warship, the Caesar Kunikov, a Ropucha-class landing ship, in the early morning hours. The claim was substantiated by video footage showing the ship at sea off Alupka in Crimea being repeatedly struck by Magura V5 sea drones operated by the country’s military intelligence services.

On August 23, 2023, numerous Ukrainian social media accounts shared a video unveiling Ukraine’s latest underwater suicide drone named “Marichka.”

As per the footage, the Marichka is a black UUV measuring 6 meters in length and boasting a range of approximately 1000 kilometers. It is capable of executing attack, transport, or reconnaissance missions.

Recent Red Sea USV and UUV Activity

The tactic of the use of unmanned systems in both the air, ground, and maritime domains will continue to proliferate around the world. Look no further than the increased use of USVs against U.S. Central Command forces in the Red Sea. Examples of recent unmanned systems in the maritime domain include:

Between 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. (Sanaa time) on Feb. 17, CENTCOM reported via X that it successfully carried out five self-defense strikes against three mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, one unmanned UUV, and one USV in Iranian-backed Houthi-controlled regions of Yemen. This marks the first observed instance of Houthi utilization of a UUV since the onset of attacks on Oct. 23.

From 1:15 p.m. (Sanaa time), Feb. 16, to 1 a.m., Feb 17, CENTCOM reported four anti-ship ballistic missiles were launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen into the Red Sea. It is assessed that three of the missiles were launched toward the commercial vessel MT Pollux, a Panamanian-flagged, Denmark-owned, Panamanian-registered vessel. There were no reported injuries or damage from MT Pollux or any other ship in the area.

Additionally, between 1:40 p.m. and 6:45 p.m., CENTCOM successfully conducted two self-defense strikes against one mobile anti-ship cruise missile and one USV in Yemen.

On Feb. 14, from 1:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. (Sanaa time), CENTCOM forces executed four self-defense strikes, effectively targeting seven mobile anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), three mobile unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and one explosive USV in Houthi-controlled regions of Yemen. These assets were poised for launch against ships in the Red Sea.

On Feb. 10, from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Sanaa time), CENTCOM forces effectively carried out self-defense strikes targeting two USVs and three mobile anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) located north of Al Hudaydah, Yemen. These entities were poised for launch against ships in the Red Sea.

On Feb. 9, from 3:00 a.m. to 9:40 p.m. (Sanaa time), CENTCOM forces carried out self-defense strikes targeting two mobile USVs, four mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, and one mobile land attack cruise missile (LACM) ready to launch against ships in the Red Sea.

Countering the emerging USV and UUV maritime threats will likely be a high priority for naval forces worldwide. As these counter-UxS technologies and tactics are developed, the naval forces will simultaneously build their own maritime-based unmanned vessels for offensive and defensive maritime operations.

Post Image- MANAMA, Bahrain (Jan. 29, 2024) Sailors stand watch in U.S. Naval Forces Central Command’s (NAVCENT) maritime operations center in Manama, Bahrain, Jan. 29. NAVCENT/U.S. 5th Fleet’s area of operations encompasses about 2.5 million square miles of water area and includes the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean. This expanse, comprising 21 nations, includes three critical choke points at the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and the Bab al-Mandeb. (Image Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jacob Vernier)