Q-Boats and Chaos: Hybrid War on the High Seas

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The Baltic Sea: At dawn, a ship docks at the Island of Gotland, and an armed but unidentified force emerges creating confusion and interrupting communications as it seizes key points and takes control of the island. The attackers become entrenched amongst the populace, and retaking the island is an arduous and bloody affair.

The Persian Gulf: As night falls, an inconspicuous civilian ship disgorges improvised sea mines as it passes the Strait of Hormuz and then disappears over the horizon. Hours later, the night is illuminated in a fireball, as an oil tanker strikes a mine. The Strait is closed for days while the mines are cleared, raising oil prices and creating economic mayhem.

Singapore: An unassuming civilian vessel pulls into port. Over the next few hours, unmanned submersibles, akin to torpedoes and difficult to detect, are deployed and manoeuvred into striking positions near military vessels and major civilian ships. Without warning these autonomous systems attack as one, sinking a number of vessels and creating chaos. In the confusion, other ships in port try to escape, allowing the perpetrator to blend in with the other vessels departing in panic, never to be tracked down. 

Port of Singapore (Port Strategy)

The scenarios above are just a taste of what maritime hybrid warfare may bring. While a great deal of study has examined Russia’s so-called little green men and the seizing of Crimea, there has been much less consideration of what maritime hybrid warfare may mean for projection of naval power, freedom of the seas, and international security as a whole. To address this imbalance, it is necessary to first understand what hybrid warfare actually is. In the wake of the seizure of Crimea, some commentators seemed to think Russia had developed a new form of warfare.[1] This is wrong. Indeed, the term hybrid warfare seems to be largely inappropriate given Russia’s near conventional war in Eastern Ukraine.[2] Instead, labels like shadow wars, or the original terminology of hybrid threats, which describe the action of potentially deniable forces using irregular methods but armed with conventional firepower seem more appropriate.[3] This article will examine how the use of deniable forces and irregular forces, augmented with conventional firepower, will affect maritime security, by examining the forms such operations may take, such as Q-boats and cyber war, as well as potential measures to take against them.

Swift in port at Oceandro Large Yacht shipyard, Port Suez, Egypt. Damage to the starboard bow from the alleged Houthi rebel attack is clearly visible. (Wikimedia)

Maritime hybrid warfare is simply hybrid warfare conducted at sea or in coastal regions and resides in a grey zone of conflict short of open warfare.[4] This is generally achieved through deniable operations, such as cyber-attacks or irregular forces.[5] Through obfuscating state involvement, combined with attacks designed to cause terror or coordinated propaganda campaigns, practitioners of hybrid warfare seek to destabilise their rivals making them vulnerable to invasion or other acts of aggression.[6] While hybrid warfare might be used by states, its methods could also be adopted by non-state actors. Indeed, hybrid warfare will have ramifications for maritime domains, as shown by the missile attacks on HSV Swift, so how it will be waged and methods to counter it require urgent examination.[7]

The most obvious method of maritime hybrid warfare is that of what we might call little blue sailors, the use of deniable forces to attack another’s interests, territory, or forces.[8] These deniable forces could be deployed in a number of ways: a military vessel putting non-uniformed personnel ashore to advance to their target; deployment of troops or weaponry from civilian vessels; or even the use of Q-boat-like ships to deploy mines or other weaponry. Indeed, the history of Q-boats, World War I merchant ships armed to defend themselves from U-boats, supports the idea that hybrid warfare is not new.[9] Moreover, instead of simply being defensive vessels, modern Q-boats could be far more offensive weapons due to the democratisation of technology, where weaponry becomes increasingly powerful and cheap.[10] The use of a variety of maritime forces offers the same advantages that guerrillas do as they can hide in plain sight and quickly disappear after striking. This makes them difficult to identify and respond to in a timely manner.

HMS Tamarisk, British First World War Q-ship. (U.K. Government Photo/Wikimedia)

At the same time, the striking power of deniable forces is also growing. While Q-boats could simply deploy mines or improvised explosive devices, the democratisation of drone technology and other weaponry means maritime hybrid threats will have even greater offensive capabilities.[11] The Islamic State, for example, has used commercially available quadcopter drones to give its forces tactical air power, which could be replicated by maritime forces to give lone ships local air support.[12] In another example of the potential power of small drones in the maritime domain, a photographer accidentally landed a similar drone on the HMS Queen Elizabeth while it was in port.[13] In this case no harm was done, but given that the photographer reported the incident himself, it does indicate the Royal Navy may not have considered the threat drones could pose.[14] Drones could give both uniformed military and deniable forces many advantages, and may be used by non-state groups for similar reasons. They are increasingly cheap and commercially available models can be easily customised for use in hybrid warfare.[15] Unmanned technologies—submersible, airborne, and surface—also give deployed forces surveillance capabilities even when operating in small, detached groups. Furthermore, advances in armed drones will provide these small forces with a disproportionately large strike capability relative to their numbers.[16] Indeed, as these systems get smaller and smarter, autonomous swarms of loitering munitions could overwhelm lone naval patrol vessels as well as striking softer targets such as civilian ships, oil derricks, or beach resorts.[17]

Alongside the use of physical force, human, unmanned, or autonomous maritime hybrid warfare can also involve non-physical efforts such as propaganda and cyber-attacks. Due to short staffing in crews as well as vulnerable software, commercial vessels are at risk of attack. In fact,there is evidence South Korean ships have had their navigational systems attacked, meaning ships could potentially go off course and collide without crews noticing this error until it is too late.[18] The impact of this could be severe, especially if a collision occurred at a major maritime chokepoint, as global trade would be interrupted and other vessels might be caught up in the carnage.

Maritime hybrid warfare will soon be a significant issue for nation states, naval forces, and coastguards. Advances in technology will mean small units operating deniably could increase the magnitude of their impacts through drones, loitering munitions, cyber-attacks, and propaganda efforts. Therefore, the question must be asked, “What can be done to counter this threat?” The purpose of hybrid warfare is to operate in a grey zone short of war, with the intention of making a proper response especially difficult out of risk of escalation. While some scenarios, like the attack on a port described above, are all but open conflict, they would be the coup de grace of a hybrid conflict. In other words, the final blow before open warfare starts or the victim country is forced to acquiesce to an aggressor’s demands. An effective strategy of countering maritime hybrid warfare must reduce this threat before such a major attack occurs. The key to this will be challenging, halting, and deterring these actions while they are still at a low level. Evidence suggests one of the best methods for challenging the actions of little green men, or little blue sailors, is to deploy forces capable of defeating them where they have attacked.[19] This forces the aggressor to either up the ante by acknowledging their forces and declaring war, or accepting at least a temporary tactical defeat. This can only be achieved, however, if sufficient force can be deployed in a timely manner.

Port surveillance is essential to security. (BMT)

To facilitate this, naval forces, port authorities, and coastguards must have good intelligence gathering and surveillance assets as well as the ability to share information in a timely manner. A key to gathering intelligence will be surveillance drones, which could operate over a wide area, and which showed promise tracking drug smugglers in Royal Navy operations.[20] These drones, like those hybrid warriors may use, need not just be airborne but instead can help identify incursions in a timely manner by operating in various domains. Furthermore, drones could offer better striking power for small patrol groups allowing them to more effectively challenge minor incursions. The extent that such weaponised drones should be deployed is up for debate though, as while naval vessels should certainly possess an offensive drone capability. Whether coast guards or even Q-boat-like merchant shipping should is another matter, as this would have ramifications for the rules of engagement.

Alternatively, in the future merchant shipping could be augmented with defensive weaponry such as laser weapons which, though they require a great deal more work, have shown promise against lone drones.[21] Other options for defensive weaponry could be jamming systems or an electro-magnetic pulse as a last ditch defence against a major swarming attack.

As mentioned, communication systems will have to be very streamlined to allow the timely sharing of intelligence, but this network in itself creates a vulnerability. A cyber attack that disrupts even part of this network would allow a hybrid attack to gain temporary superiority in an area as it would prevent a timely response. Clearly, civilian, state and military organisations will need to cooperate and think deeply about how best they can prepare to defeat and deter maritime hybrid attacks.

Finally, the pace of technological change is so rapid that an aggressor’s imagination is the only real limit to the methods of waging hybrid warfare. In order to address this, it is necessary to think like a potential aggressor. Naval colleges, coast guards and port officials should work together to form cross-functional red teams to consider the range of potential vulnerabilities that exist, and formulate exercises and doctrine to address these. In concert these methods will likely not prevent every act of maritime hybrid warfare, but they can limit its effectiveness and deter and defeat major attacks.

Maritime hybrid warfare has the potential to become a major issue across all the levels of warfare. Its methods are numerous, but will likely involve autonomous systems, drones, Q-boats, little blue sailors, cyber-attacks, and propaganda. Ultimately, these methods will be hard to combat, but their effects can be reduced. Through developing defensive measures against drones, such as laser and missile technology, non-military vessels and civilian installations can achieve the capability to defend themselves against surprise attacks. Moreover, by developing offensive drone systems and creating an effective communications system, military patrol vessels can quickly and effectively respond to attacks in a timely manner, enabling responses to the whole spectrum of conflict that hybrid warfare consists of.[22] Finally, the establishment of red teams, both nationally and with international partners, can help identify weaknesses before they are exploited and formulate doctrine to prevent this. Ultimately, maritime hybrid warfare will be a significant issue but it can be overcome if action is taken now.

Colum Hawken is a postgraduate student at the University of Birmingham and the Principal Administrator of the Phoenix Think Tank. His views are his own and do not represent those of any organisation he is affiliated with.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] R., McDermott, (2016), “Does Russia Have a Gerasimov Doctrine?”, Parameters, Volume 46, pp. 97-105, p. 99.

[2] A., Monaghan, (2016), “The War in Russia’s Hybrid Warfare”, Parameters, Volume 45, pp. 65-74, p. 68.

[3] D., Barno, (2014), “The Shaow Wars of the 21st Century”, War on the Rocks, 23 July 2014, Accessed 18/11/2017, https://warontherocks.com/2014/07/the-shadow-wars-of-the-21st-century/; F., Hoffman, (2014) “On Not-So-New Warfare: Political Warfare Vs Hybrid Threats, War on the Rocks, 28 July 2014, Accessed 18/11/2017, https://warontherocks.com/2014/07/on-not-so-new-warfare-political-warfare-vs-hybrid-threats/.

[4] T. Burgers, and S. Romaniuk, “Hybrid Warriors: China’s Unmanned, Guerrilla-Style Warfare in Asia’s Littorals”, The Diplomat, 16 February 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/02/hybrid-warriors-chinas-unmanned-guerilla-style-warfare-in-asias-littorals/.

[5] M. Peck, “’Little Blue Sailors’: Maritime Hybrid Warfare Is Coming (In the South China Sea and Beyond)”, The National Interest, 18 December 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/little-blue-sailors-maritime-hybrid-warfare-coming-the-south-18769.

[6] J. Stavridis, “Maritime Hybrid Warfare Is Coming”, Proceedings Magazine, December 2016, (142), https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2016-12-0/maritime-hybrid-warfare-coming.

[7] Anon, “Yemen: Houthis claim attack on UAE military vessel”, Al Jazeera, 2 October 2016, (Accessed 25/11/2017), http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/yemen-houthis-claim-attack-uae-military-vessel-161001212236896.html

[8] J. Stavridis, “Maritime Hybrid Warfare Is Coming”, Proceedings Magazine, December 2016, (142), https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2016-12-0/maritime-hybrid-warfare-coming.

[9] A., Marder, “The Influence of History On Sea Power: The Royal Navy and the Lessons of 1914-1918”, Pacific History Review, (1972), Volume 41, pp. 413-443, p. 429.

[10] D. Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains, (London, 2013), p. 32

[11] R. Kuzma, “The Navy Littorally Has A Drone Problem”, War on the Rocks, 25 October 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2016/10/the-navy-litorally-has-a-drone-problem/.

[12] J. Williams, “Killing Sanctuary: The Coming Era of Small, Smart, Pervasive Lethality”, War on the Rocks, 8 September 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/09/killing-sanctuary-the-coming-era-of-small-smart-pervasive-lethality/.

[13] K. Mizokami, “Amateur Drone Lands on the U.K.’s New Aircraft Carrier, No One Even Notices”, Popular Mechanics, 14 August 2017, http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/news/a27747/drone-uk-aircraft-carrier/.

[14] K. Mizokami, “Amateur Drone Lands on the U.K.’s New Aircraft Carrier, No One Even Notices”, Popular Mechanics, 14 August 2017, http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/news/a27747/drone-uk-aircraft-carrier/.

[15] R. Kuzma, “The Navy Littorally Has A Drone Problem”, War on the Rocks, 25 October 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2016/10/the-navy-litorally-has-a-drone-problem/.

[16] J. Williams, “Killing Sanctuary: The Coming Era of Small, Smart, Pervasive Lethality”, War on the Rocks, 8 September 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/09/killing-sanctuary-the-coming-era-of-small-smart-pervasive-lethality/.

[17] P. Scharre, “Unleash The Swarm: The Future of Warfare”, War on the Rocks, 4 March 2015, https://warontherocks.com/2015/03/unleash-the-swarm-the-future-of-warfare/.

[18] J. Saul, “global shipping feels fallout from Maersk cyber attack”, Reuters, 29 June 2017, https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-cyber-attack-maersk/global-shipping-feels-fallout-from-maersk-cyber-attack-idUKKBN19K2LE.

[19] D. Altman, “The Long History of “green Men” Tactics- And How They Were Defeated”, War on the Rocks, 17 March 2016, https://warontherocks.com/2016/03/the-long-history-of-green-men-tactics-and-how-they-were-defeated/.

[20] B. Farmer, “Royal Navy drones used to hunt pirates and migrant smugglers, sunk by cuts”, The Telegraph, 19 July 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/19/royal-navy-drones-sunk-by-cuts/.

[21] R. Kuzma, “The Navy Littorally Has A Drone Problem”, War on the Rocks, 25 October 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2016/10/the-navy-litorally-has-a-drone-problem/.

[22] A., Lanoszka, (2016), “Russian Hybrid Warfare and Extended Deterrence in Eastern Europe”, International Affairs, Volume 92, pp.175-195, pp. 178, 179.

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