On November 04, 2022, Russian news agency Ria Novosty shared a video on its Telegram channel showing Russian forces striking a Ukrainian Gyruza-M-class patrol boat with a Lancet loitering munition.
According to the footage, the gunboat was stationary, and its engines appeared to be at stop status, and the Lancet drone struck the ship from the port side. While the location of the attack has not been officially confirmed by either side, respected Twitter user “Capt_Navy,” who is a former officer in the Russian Navy, claimed that the incident occurred in the waters of the Kakhovsky Reservoir (on the Dnieper River).
Last week, Ukrainian forces conducted a surprise attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet ships by simultaneously deploying unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). We reported this incident as the first use of USVs with kamikaze capability in a conventional war. The Russian attack on a ship with loitering munitions is also a first.
Russia’s drone threat showed its significance in Russia’s surprise drone attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on October 17, 2022. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that 43 kamikaze drones were used in the attack, 28 of which attacked the capital. Three weeks after this attack, a drone targeting a ship was used for the first time in naval warfare.
In August 2021, an Iranian disposable drone loaded with explosives attacked an Israeli-operated tanker off the coast of Oman. While this incident, reported by U.S. Central Command, demonstrated that kamikaze drones and loitering munitions pose a new threat to ships, the Russian attack on the Gyruza M-class patrol boat was recorded as the first loitering munition (LM) attack on a naval vessel.
Loitering Munition: A new weapon in Naval Warfare
Because it provides a cost-effective means of attack, navies have become more interested in using loitering munitions. In 2021, IAI announced a contract with an unnamed Asian country for the naval version of the HAROP loitering munition, while the U.S. Navy awarded Raytheon a $32 million contract for the Coyote Block 3 (CB3) Autonomous Strike – a fast-track project to achieve the capability to launch unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV). The envisioned concept of operations and tactics, techniques, and procedures are intended to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and precision strikes from maritime platforms.
Loitering munitions fill a gap between cruise missiles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), and share several characteristics with both. But they have differences. A loitering munition is not like a cruise missile because it is designed to stay in one place for a long period of time, and it cannot be compared to an unmanned combat aerial vehicle because it is designed to attack and has a built-in warhead.
The loitering capability of these systems allows users to detect and track potential targets over an extended period of time before an attack occurs. Loitering ammunition could enable greater accuracy compared to similar weapons.
Loitering munitions are;
- Steerable, while much comparable munitions are not,
- Cheaper than some guided munitions that provide a similar level of precision
- Several models of Loitering munitions have midcourse guidance, which allows operators to abort an attack mid-flight and safely put the aircraft down.
The recent developments in terms of loitering munition purchases of the countries, and the usage of these weapons in the most recent conflicts (or wars), such as in Karabakh or the Russo-Ukrainian war, have been showing that kamikaze attacks with the loitering munitions will be a solid part of the countries’ operation plans in the future.
Of course, LMs are not as sophisticated as cruise missiles, but forces may be able to deploy hundreds of these drones for the price of a single missile, and swarms of drones can saturate the enemy’s air defense system. This saturation can have more catastrophic effects than a single missile on the enemy, but at the very least it can open the door for missile attacks to come.
Missiles are quite expensive weapons even for the richest countries. Although Russia is one of the largest missile producers in the world, even the country suffered from a shortage of guided missiles and began to use LMs for small strikes.
Although relatively small and difficult to detect with old-school radars (not AESA radars), LMs are not undefendable. A single LM is not a difficult target for a warship’s point defense missile system. But when deployed in a swarm configuration, the problem becomes more complicated.
This is because even air defense frigates have limited fire control channels (sensors) and weapons against them, and may engage several of the LMs at the same time. But if the enemy deploys dozens of LMs to attack a naval task force, it is almost impossible to destroy them all. And consuming air defence missiles, which cost more than a million dollars, against a 5000-USD drone is another problem. The missile arsenal of ships may not be sufficient to repel a tense attack. In that case, the principle of “quality over quantity” could be reversed. Small combatants such as Fast Attacking Crafts or Patrol Boats have no chance against such swarm attacks because LMs can strike them even close to the coast.
Due to the explosive charge of these small drones, they are not enough to sink a large surface combatant but depending on the number and specifications of the LMs, they can cause heavy damage to neutralize these ships.
Also, it should not be forgotten that these weapons are flying assets equipped with EO sensors. They can provide intelligence information and assess targets before they strike. They can contribute to the recognized maritime picture, update targets for future missile strikes, provide battle damage assessments, and improve maritime situational awareness.