Defence Industry

Unmanned Surface Vehicles: The Tides of Change in Naval Warfare
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol. 39.1, Jan-Mar 2024 | Date : 16 May , 2024

The naval warfare landscape is undergoing a profound transformation with the advent of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). These autonomous ships, ranging from small drone boats to large unmanned surface vessels, are poised to revolutionise naval operations by offering increased endurance, versatility, and the added advantage of being cost-effective.

The US Navy is spearheading the USVs at a rapid pace, investing heavily in the development of Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs) and Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSVs).

Envisioned as low-cost, high-endurance, and reconfigurable platforms capable of accommodating various payloads, LUSVs and MUSVs are expected to play a pivotal role in anti-surface warfare, strike missions, intelligence gathering, and electronic warfare operations. With the Navy’s substantial budget allocations for research and procurement, unmanned surface vehicles are rapidly evolving from concept to reality, ushering in a new era of autonomous naval capabilities.

Evolution and use of USVs in Naval Warfare

The evolution of naval warfare represents a dynamic process shaped by technological innovations that have continuously expanded strategic and operational capabilities. Initially, naval forces operated oar-powered and sail propelled vessels with limited range and basic armaments. Over time, technological advancements have driven several key trends that collectively mark the progression of naval capabilities.

One notable trend is the expansion of the operational theater, evolving from the constrained range of ancient galleys to the global reach of contemporary navies. This expansion has been facilitated by advances in ship design and propulsion systems, enabling naval forces for military diplomacy in peace time and in war to project power across vast distances.

Technological developments in communication, navigation, and weaponry have also led to reduced reaction times and quicker weapon deployment, enhancing the ability to detect, engage, and neutralize threats more efficiently.

Moreover, the integration of stealth technologies, long-range strike capabilities, and unmanned systems have decreased the risk and exposure of naval personnel to enemy actions, while advancements in precision-guided munitions, targeting systems, and directed-energy weapons have increased the effectiveness and lethality of naval firepower.

These developments have collectively revolutionized naval operations, redefining the parameters of naval warfare and strategic maritime dominance.

These innovations have not only enhanced the range, speed, firepower, and overall combat effectiveness of naval forces but have also necessitated changes in naval tactics, such as the increased use of long-range engagements, the importance of air power, and the growing role of submarines and aircraft carriers. Moreover, the ongoing integration of emerging technologies like unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and directed-energy weapons is expected to further transform the future of naval warfare, as exemplified by Ukraine’s successful employment of USVs against Russian naval assets in the ongoing Russo-Ukraine conflict.

Advantages of USVs

Unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) provide substantial strategic advantages in naval warfare, presenting modern naval forces with versatile and effective assets. One of the primary benefits of USVs is the reduced risk to personnel, as these vehicles can operate in hazardous conditions that would be perilous for human crews. This capability not only minimizes human casualties but also allows for the execution of more aggressive missions. USVs also offer increased endurance, capable of continuous operation without the logistical and human resource constraints of crewed vessels, thereby reducing overall operating costs.

In terms of operational flexibility, USVs can be deployed in a variety of roles, including mine countermeasures, reconnaissance, anti-submarine, and anti-surface warfare, thereby enhancing the tactical options available to commanders. They also provide real-time intelligence, improving situational awareness of enemy activities and maritime conditions. The cost-effectiveness of USVs is another significant advantage, as they require fewer human-centric resources and maintenance.

USVs are highly versatile, capable of being equipped with an array of payloads like sensors, weapons, and communications systems, allowing them to adapt to a wide range of mission requirements. Their expendability compared to manned vessels enables engagement in high-risk operations without the same level of financial or human loss concerns.

From an operational efficiency standpoint, autonomous USVs can optimize navigation and logistics based on dynamic environmental and situational data, leading to more efficient route planning and resource utilization. Moreover, the potential for integration of eco-friendly propulsion technologies in USVs underscores their environmental benefits, contributing to reduced emissions and pollution.

The ongoing advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and sensor technologies promise to further enhance the capabilities of USVs. Improved autonomy and situational awareness, coupled with developments in swarming tactics and human-machine collaboration, are poised to significantly advance the operational effectiveness and strategic value of USVs in naval warfare.

Case in point: Ukraine’s Successful Deployment

Ukraine’s strategic deployment of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), particularly the MAGURA V5 model, has been a transformative element in its naval operations against Russia, achieving significant tactical successes. These USVs, termed “kamikaze USVs” (KUSVs), have been instrumental in damaging approximately 10 Russian vessels in the Black Sea, underscoring their effectiveness in asymmetric naval warfare. The successful utilization of these KUSVs has compelled the Russian Navy to adopt a more cautious and defensive stance regarding fleet deployments.

Analytically, Ukraine’s use of these unmanned systems epitomizes an “attritable” strategy, demonstrating how inexpensive, expendable drones combined with sophisticated technologies can yield substantial operational advantages, offering cost-effective means to counteract conventionally superior enemy threats. This approach provides a crucial strategic lesson for other nations, notably the U.S., regarding the integration and utility of unmanned technologies in modern warfare.

Looking forward, Ukraine’s ambitious plan to manufacture one million drones in the upcoming year, supported by the formation of dedicated drone operator brigades and battalions, signifies a deepening commitment to leveraging unmanned systems in its military doctrine. This development not only reinforces Ukraine’s operational capacity but also serves as a blueprint for enhancing the defensive capabilities of other nations, particularly in regions like the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean, where extending the defensive perimeter of island nations is a strategic necessity.

Geopolitical and Strategic Implications

The strategic implications of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) in naval warfare are significant and multifaceted. USVs act as force multipliers, augmenting the capabilities of manned naval forces by undertaking high-risk missions in contested environments and serving as expendable assets, thus allowing manned vessels to prioritize critical tasks.

They are especially effective in asymmetric warfare, where their cost-effectiveness and expendability enable smaller navies to employ swarming tactics against larger adversaries, potentially altering the balance of power. In terms of distributed maritime operations, USVs extend the reach and persistence of naval forces, enhancing situational awareness and enabling more agile and responsive operations through autonomous functioning and networked swarming.

These vehicles also bolster power projection by providing additional platforms for strikes, surveillance, and support in amphibious operations, thereby increasing the combat effectiveness and deterrence posture of naval forces. Furthermore, USVs contribute to logistics and sustainment by acting as unmanned cargo vessels or resupply platforms, reducing the logistical burden on manned vessels and enhancing operational endurance.

However, the proliferation of USVs introduces regulatory and legal challenges, including issues of use, command and control, and compliance with international maritime laws, necessitating careful consideration for their responsible and ethical integration into naval warfare.


The proliferation of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) in naval warfare represents a significant shift in strategic capabilities and operational dynamics. As mentioned briefly earlier, these autonomous platforms offer a multitude of advantages, including reduced risk to personnel, increased endurance, operational flexibility, real-time intelligence gathering, and cost-effectiveness. As nations like the United States and Ukraine continue to invest in and deploy USVs, their integration into naval forces will undoubtedly shape the future of maritime and technology-driven operations.

However, the strategic implications of USVs extend far beyond their tactical advantages. Their disruptive potential to facilitate asymmetric warfare strategies, enable distributed maritime operations, enhance power projection capabilities, and streamline logistics operations could fundamentally alter the balance of naval power. Simultaneously, the ethical, legal, and regulatory considerations surrounding the use of autonomous weapon systems and the potential for escalation or miscalculation in conflicts involving USVs must be carefully navigated. As the tides of change sweep across the naval warfare landscape, a balanced and well-informed approach, grounded in strategic analysis and professional expertise, will be crucial to harnessing the full potential of these cutting-edge technologies while mitigating their associated risks.


  3. 1851-2001
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dhruv Bansal

is a research associate at CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left