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Lt Cdr Varun Kulshrestha (Retd.) asked: What could be the maritime security implications of autonomous marine vehicles for India?

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  • Abhay Kumar Singh replies: In late October 2022, the Ukrainian Navy brazenly struck Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. Despite minimal damage to Russian assets, the attack has attracted the attention of naval strategists worldwide, since it employed a major technological innovation. The attack was spearheaded by unmanned surface vessels (USVs), representing their first-ever employment in naval warfare.  A few months after the incident, a USV attack was reported in the Novorossiysk, but with minor damage. Sevastopol harbour was attacked a second time by USV on 22 March 2023.

    As per reports, these Ukrainian USVs have a length of 5.5 meters and can weigh up to 1000 kg when fully loaded. It has an operational radius of up to 400 km and can travel up to 800 km in range. The vehicle has an autonomy of up to 60 hours and can carry a combat load of up to 200 kg. Its maximum speed is 80 km/h. An autonomous marine vehicle is an unmanned system which is capable of accomplishing a pre-programmed mission in the marine environment without requiring continuous input from an operator.

    In an era where naval vessels are increasingly expensive, attacking warships with cheap, expendable, explosive-laden USVs is becoming the ultimate form of asymmetric warfare.  With the explosive growth of unmanned systems in the air, on the water, and underwater, the threat from misuse of these technologies is likely to increase not only from adversarial state actors but also from non-state actors such as terrorist groups and crime syndicates.

    India’s maritime security environment has become progressively complex with a variety of traditional and non-traditional threats. Maritime security challenges have also started taking an increasingly hybrid character, with the possible blurring of lines between conventional and sub-conventional levels of conflict. The coastal and offshore security apparatus has accordingly evolved as per changes in the nature and type of threats, with increased involvement of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard in support of the state police and security agencies. Substantial progress has been made in recent years, in response to a large, complex and dynamic challenge.

    Developing a robust maritime domain awareness (MDA) has been a key focus area towards ensuring the safety and security of vital maritime infrastructure on the Indian Coast. However, MDA for ports, harbours, and protection of military marine assets has thus far largely focused on threats above the waterline from more conventional threats like suicide boats, swimmers or unauthorized entry. Countering threats from autonomous marine vehicles had been under contemplation but has not become a priority due to perceived technological and operational challenges in mounting such attacks. These assumptions may need a review in light of experiences of the Ukraine war.

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.

    Posted on May 15, 2023