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Swarm attack: taking on piracy’s deadliest tactic

22 Dec 2020 (Last Updated December 17th, 2020 09:36)

The threat of swarm attacks to navies is growing across the world, and with it the importance of staying ahead in the development of defence systems. Alex Love speaks to QinetiQ about its technological approach to countering piracy swarm attacks.

Swarm attack: taking on piracy’s deadliest tactic
An animated swarm simulation can prepare ship operators for hostile vessels attacking from multiple angles. Image: (all images): QinetiQ.

Swarm attacks are an unpredictable threat for even the best-equipped naval fleets due to the high volume of small, fast-moving vessels involved. Failure to prepare for such an attack risks naval defences becoming overwhelmed and decreases the effectiveness of a fleet’s medium and long-range weapons.

Hostile fast boats may be equipped with weapons such as anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers, or packed with explosives intended for a collision. Furthermore, swarms are increasingly being controlled remotely, allowing the operator to launch an attack while being well out of the firing line and deploy more aggressive tactics than crewed vessels.

In order to combat this threat, sheer firepower alone will not suffice; a swarm attack needs to be outthought.

“It’s all about their manoeuvre of the ship and how they actually avoid it in the beginning. It would obviously be due to intelligence as well, and this is all coordinated from the command platform,” explains Jules Werner, business development manager at QinetiQ Target Systems.

“When a ship deploys, they look at their training. Their intelligence is huge. So they would have a good idea, hopefully, that there is some sort of threat as they go into a certain area. A surprise attack can happen anywhere and that’s when they need to be ready for it.”

Preparing for a swarm attack

Training is vital to prepare crews for defending against a swarm attack. While computer simulations are helpful and widely used, training in real-world environments is considered even more important. QinetiQ provides solutions to help navies and shipping operators train to combat these threats.

“For a warship, army or air force to go into an operational area, the confidence and morale of the troops is from actually seeing that weapon system working as it’s been designed to do,” says Werner.

“You can do as much training and as much simulating as you like, but until you actually see that weapons system fire or that missile system launch from that platform to hit that target, that’s the only way you’re actually going to get that confidence to go into battle. Knowing that your systems work appropriately; you’re trained appropriately as well to be able to deal with the current threat.”

Typically, a navy or commercial shipping company will have a solid idea of where the highest risks are based on geographical location. Crews passing through these areas must be prepared to encounter a swarm attack.

“We are constantly looking at what’s going on with the threat. We’re always looking at how we need to change our targets going forward and look at what the threat is out there,” adds Werner. “We know swarms are out there, that can impose a threat globally.

“We’ve seen the damage that’s happened in Saudi Arabia, and attacks on allied ships in the past. And also other threats that we have from the likes of Iran – they have fast patrol boats, these are very small, they’re quite prepared to put weapons on these types of small vessels and they go very, very fast.

“From a ship going through something like the Suez Canal, for instance, or the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf, this really does pose a very big threat. Our allied forces need to be able to train appropriately to be able to deal with this.”

Training vessels to defend piracy swarms

For real-world training exercises, QinetiQ provides highly manoeuvrable vessels to simulate those most commonly used in a swarm attack.

“We can swarm up to 40 vehicles at a time to give them a realistic threat. If we had 40 vehicles closing in on a ship at very high speed, weaving at 35-40 knots would be very challenging indeed to be able to take those out,” explains Werner.

QinetiQ’s main swarm training vessel is the 5m long Hammerhead uncrewed surface vehicle-target (USV-T). This is an advanced composite surface-effect hull speedboat capable of achieving speeds of approximately 35 knots in various sea states, driven by a 3l 135hp gas engine.

The Hammerhead has been designed to convincingly imitate the varied movements and vessel signatures of fast inshore attack craft involved in multivehicle swarms. “The Hammerhead is what we call a ‘kill target’. It is designed to be destroyed out on the water. It has a towing capability, which some customers use but it is literally a target that is very fast to be killed,” explains Werner.

QinetiQ’s Barracuda USV-T is a type of fibreglass hull, rigid inflatable boat. Adapted from a navy standard, the 7m vessel is powered by a 225hp marine diesel engine capable of achieving speeds of 36 knots. It can be controlled remotely more than 10nm away, as well as featuring settings for over-the-horizon control to imitate where threats are most likely to appear.

Operators receive information on system performance and the craft’s location from video signals and telemetry. The vessel can be tracked by its onboard GPS system, which can then be compared with a ship’s radar and other onboard sensors to verify their effectiveness in detecting such threats. It is commonly used to pull a high-speed inflatable towed target, which is fired upon so the Barracuda can be reused.

“The Barracuda is what we call a workhorse sea boat,” says Werner. “It’s got a very good towing capability. We would mostly look at using it towing a target. It’s still very manoeuvrable, but any engagement from a weapon system would be actually firing at the tow, not the actual boat because the boat is more expensive. However, some customers choose to use that as the main target as well. The beauty of the Barracuda is that it can also be used as a work boat on the ship for daily sea boat tasks.”

Both vessels have been widely used to train crews on naval and commercial vessels to replicate the threats they may encounter. The Barracuda and Hammerhead have been used as targets to test weapons systems such as surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, as well as naval guns and close-range weapon systems. Payload options can feature visual augmentation, including flags, flares, smoke, and strobes.

Real threat representation

Another solution in QinetiQ’s anti-swarm suite is the Active Radar Enhancement Payload, a versatile emulator that provides an accurate simulation of threats from homing missiles. Its two modes are sweeping and target acquisition. When used with an aerial target platform, it can detect incoming skimming attacks such as projectiles flying as low as 5m above the surface. The platform can also simulate scenarios involving multiple threats, providing operators with crucial experience in how to handle them.

According to Werner, QinetiQ Target Systems works to provide real threat representation, working with customers to understand their requirements and offer an appropriate solution. Any gaps in training are identified and addressed with the customer.

“If there’s a new customer that hasn’t used their weapon systems for a while, we wouldn’t suddenly go and put a swarm attack scenario straightaway,” adds Werner. “We would build up from one target, get them to understand what that target is actually doing and the threat that is replicating as it comes towards the ship. And we would help progress with that going forward, i.e. bring in two targets, maybe three.

“As soon as you go in with more than two targets, it becomes a very complex type of scenario. This type of training also benefits other members of the crew, from the bridge team to the operations room team. QinetiQ’s priority is always safety, making sure that any trial is done in as safe as possible way.”

Swarm attacks are predicted to increase in future due to the relatively low costs involved and advances in technology. While attacks from swarms of thousands of automated drones are still some years away from being a reality, it is vital for vessel operators to stay ahead of the curve.

“We work with our customers; we look at what’s out there and try to understand what other countries like China and Russia are up to as well,” says Werner. “If a customer suddenly says there’s a threat they believe is now a moving surface target that’s now doing 70 knots and we can only provide 35 knots, we then as a business would consider the investment of a faster, more appropriate target and get ahead of the game.”

Image: The Barracuda vehicle can be radio controlled and pull a high-speed inflatable towed target to configure naval weapons systems.