The Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF) published a paper, in which highlights that drones have been used as loitering munitions (LM) to attack merchant ships. This is a specific type of drone with a built-in weapon and some with the capability to loiter in an area until their target is located.
he global proliferation of these rapidly advancing technologies poses a new and rising security risk to merchant shipping. Although these attacks have been focussed in the Middle East region, their use elsewhere cannot be discounted.
This information paper covers:
- The threat posed by LM such as the Shahed-136, which has been used against commercial vessels.
- Operational characteristics and trends related to the employment of these systems, and the technical characteristics of LM.
- Considerations, including guidance for best practices.
Loitering munitions (LM) are a form of UAV with a built-in weapon and the capability to loiter (wait passively) in the target area until the target is located. The number of LM attacks against both civilian and military targets in the Middle East and North Africa has risen, and since 2021 merchant ships have been targeted. The maritime industry has experienced several attacks, thought to be by state actors using LM. These attacks have generally occurred in the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. The global proliferation of these rapidly advancing autonomous technologies, to both state and private actors, poses a new and rising security risk to commercial shipping. This is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
- In the event of an LM attack, there is limited action a ship’s crew can take.
- LM pose a notable threat to commercial shipping. Recent attacks highlight the overall low-detectability and effectiveness of these platforms in targeting stationary and moving targets, both during the day and night and in most weather conditions.
- The proliferation of military grade drone technology to state and private actors confirms the need to consider countermeasures and best practice to mitigate the security risks. As conflict drives development of these new technologies, use beyond the Middle East in the maritime environment is likely.
- Switching off Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) may make a ship more difficult for a drone to detect, but is unlikely to ultimately prevent an attack. The presence of cameras and other sensors onboard the LM would counter such mitigation efforts, as the LM may still be able to track and target a vessel without its AIS active.
- Commercial systems to counter LM are being developed.
Introduction to loitering munitions
Loitering munitions (LM), are often referred to as ‘suicide’ or ‘kamikaze’ drones. These are unmanned aerial weapons that loiter over a predesignated area before hitting a target. The size of an LM, its payload, warhead, and operational range can differ, allowing for a variety of options and capabilities to conduct attacks. They are designed for single-use missions and were originally deployed by military forces for the suppression of enemy air defences. The first LM emerged in the 1980s, becoming more popular in the 1990s and 2000s. Recently LM have been used in Nagorno-Karabakh, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine by both state and non-state actors against military and non-military targets. Since 2021, they have been used against merchant ships. Given the low cost and availability, this technology is expected to be more widely used and will remain a safety and security threat for the foreseeable future.
How do loitering munitions find and fix on merchant ships?
- Threat assessment should identify areas of increased LM threat.
- Monitor and understand regional advisories and notifications.
- Consider changes to voyage routing to become less predictable.
- Review AIS policy.
- To reduce detection, consider minimising information in the data fields. For voyage related data, SOLAS requires Ship’s draught – Hazardous cargo (type – as required by the competent authority) – Destination and ETA (at Master’s discretion) – Optional – Route plan (waypoints).
- Close radar watch. Commercial radars can detect a fast-moving contact, however:
- Research suggests LM detection by radar can vary from 2-5km.
- The radar cross section of LM can be small, comparable to some birds. Most commercial radar are configured to ignore the response to avoid clutter. Some radar manufacturers offer software upgrades designed to detect small airborne targets.
- LM construction and design can have a significant impact on a radar’s detection ability, as can the LM orientation to the radar.
- The operating frequency of commercial radar for small target detection is limited, but may detect small, fast, airborne targets.
- All round audible and visual lookout.
- Limiting damage on impact:
- Crew briefed and emergency drills practiced.
- On detecting an LM, consider safe manoeuvring such as displacing the ship as quickly as possible from its original track.
- If time and safety conditions permit, consider manoeuvring the ship to reduce any impact on
the accommodation block or area where crew may be mustered.