The genesis of this article came from a completely different angle, namely, the deployment of laser weapons to the battlefield. However, as things frequently go, that initial idea led to something of much more immediate interest.
Previously, the Freedomist has covered some aspects of “improvised warfare” that some seem to take as James Bond-like fantasy. Yet, as we progress through the third decade of the 21st Century, remotely controlled drones – available in most countries through their local Amazon store – capable of both conducting tactical combat surveillance, as well as tactical air support by dropping small fragmentation grenades, are serious and maturing battlefield threats, threats that military and security forces are struggling to counter.
“Improvised warfare” has been around since the first caveman grabbed the jawbone of his last dinner to bash in the noggin of another caveman trying to muscle in on the first one’s turf. Throughout military history, outside of the heroically vast and sweeping battles of storied yore, there has always lurked the “PBI” – the “Poor, Bloody Infantry” – struggling to make do with usually-substandard weapons and equipment, improvising on the fly, on the idea that “if it looks stupid, but works – it isn’t stupid.”
This is also true in naval warfare. “Suicide boats,” in the form of “fire ships”, go back to at least the 3rd Century AD in China, and the 5th Century AD in the Mediterranean, and those dates are only the earliest we have on record. The use of fire ships in combat has always been problematic, as controlling the vessels after the skeleton crews abandoned them was impossible, and the abandoned vessels could easily come back on the attackers.
As naval technology advanced however, fire ships, as such, disappeared, replaced by explosive-laden boats propelled by early steam engines. These boats had some advantages, not being as subject to winds as the old ships, and their explosive warheads were much more capable of inflicting serious, if not fatal, damage to large warships. Still, the inability to steer the boats remotely left their utility still strictly limited.
As with so many things in the military sphere, during World War 2, everything changed. The intersection of technologies with mass production and sincere desperation, allowed the first tactically useful guided weapons, not simply on land and in the air, but at sea, human control was still the primary aiming method until the last moment.
Post-WW2, the use of explosive motorboats continued, eventually evolving into actual “suicide boats”, where the crews rode the craft directly into their targets. While this was always a danger for the operators of these boats, very few navies outside of WW2 Japan set out with this as their operating profile. Beginning in the 1980’s, this began to change, first with the LTTE in Sri Lanka and with Iran in its “WW1, 2.0” war with Iraq. This is, in fact, what happened to the USS Cole (DDG 67) when it was attacked at anchor in October of 2000, as the suicide crew happily “saluted” the American crew before detonating their massive charge, nearly destroying the ship.
And then – another “sea change” (no pun intended) happened.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, and Communist China finally figured out how mix capitalism with a brutal, totalitarian governmental system, the West welcomed the Communist remnants into a burgeoning world trade system with open arms. As the global economy shifted and changed, the technology sector exploded in its own form of “business as war.” Technology once reserved only to the “Great Powers” became ‘democratized’, available at reasonable prices to the general public. While major nations certainly had far better and more capable – and much more expensive – systems, smaller states (and groups) suddenly had access to technology and manufacturing bases that significantly increased their capabilities versus local opponents (including their own citizens, but that’s another conversation, entirely).
All that was waiting was another spate of desperation to drive improvisation.
As the “Global War on Terror” (the “GWOT”) drove on in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the many small, localized wars it spawned drove desperate innovation, once again. Various ethnic and religious factions around the world desperately sought some sort of advantage. This has led to everything from “homemade tanks”, to artillery, to ‘sci-fi’ weapons manufacture.
But now, desperation-induced technological innovation has caught up with the navies of the world.
On January 30, 2017, the Saudi Arabian frigate RSN Al Madinah (FG 702) was struck and seriously damaged by an explosive-laden speedboat. Initially, it was believed that the craft was a piloted suicide boat deployed by the Shi’a Islam Houthi rebels of Yemen, which country has been in its most recent civil war since 2014. Soon, though, it became apparent that the attack craft was actually a remotely- controlled craft.
Speculation immediately turned to Iran. Iran, in addition to being co-religionists to the Houthis, was already supplying the rebels with short-range ballistic missiles and combat drones. In this regard, Iran differs from Ukraine only in that they supply their craft externally.
Given the rapid advances in remote-operations technology, it would be no great task to re-engineer common pleasure boats to function as drone attack craft; as well, the issue of a simplified, “standard issue” refit kit (similar in theory to an aircraft JDAM unit) is virtually guaranteed.
But ultimately – what does all this actually mean, in the grand scheme of things?
Simply, insurgents and guerrillas are now much more capable than they were in the past, as they are now capable to extend remote-controlled warfare into the nautical dimension. With the democratization of military training, this opens the ugly possibility of radical forces being capable of enforcing localized (if not regional) combined-arms dominance over all the most capable of national militaries.
The fact that this is an operational possibility worthy of consideration is not something that should alarm only strategic planners – it is something that average citizen needs to seriously consider.