Abandon ship: uncrewed vessels threaten Africa’s maritime security

As technology advances, African states must prepare for the crewless future of naval threats.

Maritime drone deployment in offensive operations in the Black and Red seas provides a glimpse of the future of naval warfare. On 18 February, the United States (US) Central Command reported the first instance of Houthi rebels using uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) in the Red Sea. The attack was unsuccessful – the vessels were intercepted and destroyed.

A USV, or maritime drone, is a remote-controlled pilotless boat that can operate at sea. Variations are already being used for surveillance, monitoring ports and offshore oil and gas facilities, detecting marine pollution, and oceanographic surveys.

While uncrewed watercraft aren’t new, their recent deployment shows that technology has advanced to enhance naval operations. The proliferation of uncrewed technology is outpacing African countries’ legislative and defensive measures. Given existing maritime security challenges and inadequate border protection, are African countries prepared for uncrewed technologies to hit their shores?

The area receiving the most public attention, and where the deployment of uncrewed systems will likely be most rapid, is in direct attacks on ships and maritime infrastructure – e.g. those used by non-state actors, like the Houthi rebels. These incidents occur as global naval forces show increasing interest in their potential to yield strategic impact.

As non-state armed groups and criminal networks explore uncrewed technology, so should African states

Four factors spur this interest. First is their affordability compared to traditional naval assets, with lower procurement, maintenance, and operational expenses. They come in different shapes and sizes, ranging from repurposed speedboats to more specialised vessels. Manufacturing costs vary based on specifications. Maritime drones currently used by Ukraine cost around US$250 000 per unit, while a recently launched corvette constructed for Ukraine amount to US$128 million.

Second, manufacturing a maritime drone is relatively simple. A functioning uncrewed vessel can be built from dual-use components readily available on the market. Several uncrewed surface vessels currently deployed in the Black Sea are considered ‘off the shelf’, with the engine and several other components adapted from commercial jet skis.

Third, uncrewed vessels pose a problem for conventional naval forces due to their design and the materials used for their manufacture. They are challenging to detect and identify when in or under water. Their smallness, speed, and high manoeuvrability also make them hard to destroy. Fourth, some drone variants have an operational range of over 800 km, allowing flexibility in how the vessel is used.

The successful deployment of uncrewed vessels, especially as part of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, can be seen as a proof of concept for major arms-manufacturing countries. The United Kingdom, France, Turkey, and China are developing sophisticated naval drone technology, while other countries, including South Africa, are fast-tracking this technology’s development.

Uncrewed systems are expected to see rapid deployment in direct attacks on maritime infrastructure

The US, in particular, aspires to acquire large USVs for offensive sea missions and medium-sized ones for surveillance and intelligence-gathering, reconnaissance, supply, and electronic warfare.

But features that make uncrewed vessels attractive and innovative for conventional navies also make them appealing to non-state actors.

The unsuccessful 18 February attack came days after the US Coast Guard operating in the Red Sea intercepted a vessel bound for Yemen with various weapons and USV components on board. The shipment allegedly originated from Iran, which has long invested in developing unconventional naval capabilities, including USV variants.

The Houthis themselves have a track record of using maritime drones in their military operations. The most successful deployment to date occurred in 2016, damaging a Saudi frigate and killing two sailors using USVs.

USV proliferation seems largely for now to be thanks to states delivering existing capabilities to non-state actors. The danger increases when these capabilities are passed on to other non-state groups.

This is particularly important for African states lacking the resources to monitor their maritime areas effectively –intercepting smuggling and trafficking and responding to rapidly unfolding maritime security incidents. While the Houthis don’t necessarily align themselves with active armed groups in Africa, there’s a well-documented arms smuggling route operating between Yemen and Somalia. Introducing uncrewed vessels as a source of potential maritime insecurity could compound Africa’s existing insecurity.

Evidence suggests that drug traffickers have also explored using uncrewed systems in their operations targeting the continent. In July 2022, Spanish police seized three uncrewed underwater drones intended for a French gang to support their drug trafficking operation from Morocco. This first incident is indicative of a potential trend of similar vessels being deployed for trafficking purposes.

Ukraine maritime drones cost around US$250 000 per unit, while a corvette costs around $128 million

The likelihood of criminals using USVs in Africa hinges primarily on a perceived trade-off between risks and rewards. Carina Bruwer, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies’ ENACT project, says, ‘Many illegal commodities, like drugs, are still moved in rather unsophisticated ways, such as on dhows and container vessels. This shows that these methods are still perceived as easy to get away with.’

For now, the relatively high cost of uncrewed systems for trafficking, compared to conventional methods, will likely serve as a barrier for criminal networks. This balance may change as cheaper equipment becomes accessible to non-state military groups. African countries should anticipate an increase in criminal actors' use of remote-controlled vessels.

Addressing the emerging problem of USVs may involve leveraging uncrewed solutions. On 3 January, the US Navy commissioned a new task force to incorporate uncrewed systems and artificial intelligence into the US Fifth Fleet’s maritime operations. The fleet is responsible for a wide area of operations, including the Western Indian Ocean and Red Sea, and the initiative aims to improve maritime security and safety in the region.

The deployment of such systems as part of a hybrid fleet operating near the African continent could provide valuable lessons for African navies. Adopting similar platforms could strengthen their ability to tackle maritime crimes, improving detection and identification of vessels, including small crafts, in the region.

As non-state armed groups and criminal networks test the effectiveness and utility of uncrewed technology, so should African states. They must understand the potential threat posed by uncrewed vessels and existing legal loopholes to mitigate the consequences of the inevitable spread of this technology.

Key steps should include improving maritime law enforcement entities’ capacity to detect and respond to unauthorised use of the USVs and adopting appropriate legislation to prosecute future cases.

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