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Drone strikes: new challenges for maritime security

MariTrace, 13 December 2022

Image source: NASA Visible Earth

On 15 November an explosive-laden Shahad-136 aerial drone hit a commercial tanker in international waters east of Oman, piercing a 30 inch hole in the tanker’s stern. M/T Pacific Zircon had departed the port of Sohar, sailing east into the Gulf of Oman, deactivating her AIS mid-afternoon local time on 14 November; her last reported AIS at 10:40 UTC placed her 9 nm NE of Dawanji, Oman. 29 hours later, Zircon reported her position almost due east of Ras-Al Hadd, approximately 153 nm from Oman’s eastern-most shoreline, just within the Omani EEZ. The drone strike that damaged her outer hull was reported to have occurred at approximately 19:30 on 15 November. Forensic analysis by the US Navy Laboratory in Bahrain of fragments retrieved from the vessel on 16 November confirmed the drone’s provenance.

Mid-morning 18 November, a smaller drone was reported circling a vessel in the Gulf of Oman. Three days later, Panamanian-flagged VLCC Pratika - who has spent most of the past month moving crude oil between the ports of Al Ruwais (U.A.E.) and Ash Shihr (Yemen) - appears to have narrowly avoided an incident involving a drone strike on al-Dhabba oil terminal.

Fortunately, none of these recent incidents have resulted in loss of life.

But the arrival of UAS into the maritime security picture adds an additional layer of risk for commercial shipping, while headlines about the increasing use of unmanned systems in military contexts are likely to raise broader awareness beyond military spheres. In the five years to 2022, 75% of the 23 recorded drone strikes on oil and gas facilities in the Middle East have hit their target. These incidents may soon change our perspectives on maritime security.

Crews aboard commercial vessels may rightly feel they are in yet another maritime front line. A few isolated incidents are unlikely to draw a response from regional naval patrols on the scale of the coordinated efforts to combat piracy. And the arrival of drones in international and territorial waters in non-military contexts challenge grey areas in international law. Most jurisdictions prohibit the operation of drones (and any form of radar jammer) nearby ports and military vessels. Some jurisdictions even prohibit drone operations near marine mammals. Laws on the protection of maritime critical infrastructure have yet to be inked, even for fixed infrastructure.

For now, countering the threat of drone strikes and intimidation in the commercial sector remains part of the real-time threat response for vessel operators and crew. While in international waters, if an onboard security team perceives a threat to life they can act. Counter-drone technology is very expensive: at approximately £500k for a counter-drone suite, this is a significant investment for most actors in the commercial sector. Conversely, at approximately £40k per drone, a single strike is a large investment for an attacker - but carries the possibility of a very large return on the upfront investment of risk and resources, if (as in some forms of maritime piracy) the reward is a payout from hidden actors onshore.

Smaller, cheaper devices can threaten vessels by carrying a small payload. Slow-moving tankers entering or leaving port, or waiting offshore, may be at risk from opportunistic strikes designed to aggravate and threaten, rather than generate destruction and loss of life. The highest risk area for all vessels is within the 12 mile nautical limit: even beyond that zone, slow-moving tankers may be an easy target (based on her reported locations, Pacific Zircon was sailing at about 13 knots).

Defence shows are well attended by commercial suppliers claiming effective counter-drone technologies. Commercial buyers in the maritime sector are advised to choose carefully: as Ben Scott, Director at SyOps Solutions explains, ‘shooting drones out of the sky’ is a distant prospect. Even removing drones from a threat perimeter on land or around a stationary structure (such as an offshore platform) takes immense precision and skill, backed up by specialist software / hardware C2 solutions. Aboard a moving vessel, it is almost impossible: at 10km range, a responder on deck has about 80 seconds to react. Most counter-drone technology offered on the market is extremely unlikely to offer a credible deterrent. The best defence is increased detection capability, requiring 3D MIMO radar (systems in the range of £100k). Within territorial waters a vessel security team can still detect, track and identify incoming objects - and protect the crew by placing them in a safe haven above the waterline, ideally a citadel in the centre of the vessel superstructure.

For commercial shipping, mitigating this latest form of maritime threat will remain largely the responsibility of shipowners and their contracted onboard specialists. Shipping and offshore exploration companies are unlikely to take action to collectively defend maritime critical infrastructure (fixed and mobile) - or improve onboard defences - unless compelled by legislation. Permissible security actions within territorial waters are limited by laws and technology, but it is still possible for suitably trained onboard crews or systems to collect vital data that may be useful for understanding the continually evolving maritime security picture.

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