Is the threat of attack drones on surface ships transitory?

In mid-February 2024, a report obtained by the American channel CBS highlighted the threat of attack drones on surface ships, and in particular on US Navy destroyers and cruisers.

He affirmed, in fact, that the American escorts deployed in the Red Sea and in the Gulf of Aden had already fired almost around a hundred Standard SM-2 and SM-6 anti-aircraft missiles, to intercept missiles, and especially drones launched by the Houthi rebels against them, or against escorted merchant ships.

These Houthi drones, like the surface drones used by the Ukrainians in the Red Sea, have created a new threat, against which allied naval escort units are not effectively equipped, causing rapid and ineffective use of anti-aircraft missiles. expensive, without being able to replace, at sea, the missiles fired. The situation is even more worrying for the Russian Navy, forced to end the majority of its naval operations in the Black Sea.

Under these conditions, many voices have been raised to highlight the drone threat on military ships, going so far as to question the relevance, for states, of equipping themselves with a costly military surface navy, incapable of protect against these inexpensive drones that can be used simultaneously in large numbers, to saturate defenses, and overcome them.

So, will drones sign the death warrant for large naval surface units? This is far from certain, because parades to respond to these threats already exist, and are actively deployed on board military ships.

Massive use of attack drones in the Red Sea and depletion of escort ship stores

Since the start of the attacks in November 2023, the Houthi rebels have launched 300 to 350 drones, as well as around a hundred anti-ship missiles, for around fifty attacks against merchant ships cruising in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, as well as against the twenty Western destroyers and frigates operating in this area, to protect them. Several merchant ships were damaged, and a Belize-flagged cargo ship, the Rubymar, sank following these attacks, on March 2, 2024.

Freighter Rubymar sunk in Red Sea
The Rubymar cargo ship sank after being hit by Houthi attack drones in early March 2024

To protect this commercial traffic, since the start of this Houthi campaign "in support of the Palestinian cause", the US Navy, but also the Royal Navy, the French Navy, as well as several other Western Navies, have deployed destroyers and frigates. Never since the end of World War II have Western navies fired so many missiles, and shot down so many air carriers, as during this mission.

Apart from a few specific incidents, concerning the german frigate Hessen, And the Danish frigate Iver Eightfeldt, Western escort ships, like their onboard systems, performed well against Houthi drones and missiles, including against anti-ship ballistic missiles intercepted by dFrench Aster 30 missiles and American SM-6.

However, the intensity of Houthi fire quickly damaged the missile stores and VLS of the deployed escorts. Cannot be restocked at sea, these ships have made more use of other means over time, such as short-range surface-to-air missiles ESSM or Ram, 127 and 76 mm naval artillery, and even their on-board helicopters, to intercept Houthi drones, relatively slow targets and easy to intercept.

However, when it comes to intercepting drones that remain out of range to attack merchant ships, as well as faster cruise missiles, the medium and long range Aster and SM-2 missiles have often been favored, quickly exhausting the reserves of the ships, and therefore limiting their combat autonomy.

Aster frigate Alsace
Although very effective, medium and long range surface-to-air missiles were not designed to intercept light and economical drones.

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