by Rear Admiral (Ret.) Hasan ÖZYURT, Management Consultant at Meteksan Defense Inc.

Date: Issue 127 - December 2023 Update: April 21, 2024

ULAQ KAMA, the Expandable Unmanned Surface Vehicle (E-USV) jointly developed by Meteksan Defense Industry Inc. and Ares Shipyard Inc., was introduced at IDEF 2023. ULAQ KAMA is an autonomously, semi-autonomously, or remotely operated vehicle and equipped with impact-triggered explosives. The vehicle's characteristics include high-speed, long-range capabilities, agility, and a low-profile silhouette (Figure-1).

ULAQ KAMA captures attention with its name 'KAMA (DAGGER),' offering a glimpse of its significance. Upon closer expert examination, it becomes hard to overlook the meticulous and perfectionist design, powerful artificial intelligence, and many other hidden features under the hood.

Actually, the use of unmanned vehicles in naval warfare dates back to ancient times. The Chinese fire ships of the 3rd century AD serve as the earliest examples. The English employed them against the Spanish Armada in the 16th century. Instances of this idea were also practiced during World War II, by British, Italians and Japans utilizing explosive-laden suicide ships or boats for attacks on their adversaries. However, the military use of this concept waned against advanced warship defense systems, leading to its abandonment. Or so we believed until the Russian-Ukraine conflict. A series of attacks were carried out by Ukraine using USVs which were constructed with very basic means in small workshops. Below is a list of some the Ukrainian attacks that were conducted up until the time that this article was written, and it demonstrates that our assumption might not be accurate.

  • Attack on Admiral Makarov Frigate and mine-laying ship (October 29, 2022).
  • Attack on intelligence ship Ivan Khurs off Istanbul Strait (May 24, 2023).
  • Attempted attack on Russian intelligence ship Priazovye (June 11, 2023).
  • Kerch Bridge attack (July 19, 2023).
  • Attacks on Russian LST Olenogorsky Gornyak and oil tanker SIG (August 4, 2023) in Sevastopol port.

Ukraine's explosive-laden USVs emerged as a result of a long-anticipated trend: automation. Rapid technological maturation and expanded automation are driving the accelerated development Unmanned Systems. Enhanced automation, with AI, enables complex tasks, ensuring widespread military applications. Formerly exclusive technologies are now accessible, fostering the adoption of unmanned systems by states and non-state actors.

The intensive use of Unmanned Systems in the Russia-Ukraine conflict by various parties is a reflection of the inevitable integration of existing technology like all available resources into a full-scale war effort. However, Ukraine's more open-minded and creative approach in this field is clearly observable through its applications. This observation is succinctly summarized by a Ukrainian soldier commanding kamikaze USV attacks in an interview: “It would take the Russians 10 years or more to develop countermeasures against these types of weapons because they are trying to counter a 21st-century weapon with equipment from the 20th century. We have a 100-year gap between us and them”.

Having discussed "The Inevitability of ULAQ KAMA," let's now delve into its capabilities and explore the operational and tactical options it offers in naval operations. When viewed through the lens of a naval professional, the following specifications of ULAQ KAMA hold significant promise in the naval theater:

Rapid and affordable production

  • Range exceeding 200 NM with speeds over 50 knots
  • Minimal chance of detection due to its design (small RCS, ultra-low IR)
  • Operability in narrow waters, harbors, and open seas, even in GNSS-denied conditions
  • Precise delivery of a 200 kg explosive payload at the target's waterline upon impact
  • Capability for solo or swarm attacks
  • Anticipation and countering of target evasion
  • Agility in the face of defensive fire
  • Deployment from the coast or a small vessel, such as a tugboat
  • Persistence in an area until a suitable target is detected
  • Discrimination between targets
  • Safe return or self-destruction to avoid collateral damage
  • Autonomy, semi-autonomy, or remote operation with humans in or on the loop
  • Considering these integrated features, the pioneering position of Meteksan Defense Industry Inc. and Ares Shipyards Inc. in the field of USVs becomes evident. ULAQ KAMA, as a member of the ULAQ USV family, represents the realization of conceptual ideas in this field.

Military professionals often use the term “asymmetry” to describe leveraging imbalances for success in warfare. This manifests through force size, training, doctrine, morale, geography, intelligence, logistics, and technology advantages. For example, an absence of symmetry arises if you possess weapons your adversary lacks. Similarly, asymmetry arises when your combat aircraft remain undetectable or execute missions beyond enemy air defense range.

ULAQ KAMA is an “asymmetric” weapon with its low profile that hinders detection, high speed and agility. Its unmanned nature, ease of production, cost-effectiveness and the incorporation of artificial intelligence are other important asymmetrical factors. Referring to the statement of the Ukrainian soldier, a weapon system like ULAQ KAMA embodies a 21st-century armament in all respects, presenting an asymmetry against 20th-century defense technologies.

Although ULAQ KAMA is a new weapon, comparing its effectiveness and applications with existing capabilities could provide a sound approach to understanding its potential. 

Compared to sea mines, which are cost-effective and easily obtainable weapons, ULAQ KAMA offers a potential solution to the limitations of regional scope, static nature, and poor target discrimination capabilities associated with sea mines. ULAQ KAMA has the capability to generate operational effects similar to those of sea mines across broader areas and in a more flexible manner, while also complementing the intended effects of mine warfare.

ULAQ KAMA shares several resemblances with torpedo attack boats that are currently out of service. These attack boats, known for their low radar cross-sections, high speeds, and exceptional maneuverability, had the ability to stealthily approach surface targets and launch torpedoes undetected. Furthermore, they employed group tactics when engaging targets. ULAQ KAMA brings even more advanced features, including significantly higher speed, greater maneuverability, and a much lower silhouette. A striking parallel can be drawn between the group tactics of torpedo attack boats and ULAQ KAMA's swarm attack capability.

Rather than a direct comparison between ULAQ KAMA and Anti-Ship Missiles (ASMs), the primary Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) weapon, a more insightful approach is to explore their complementary aspects. ASMs, being high-speed, long-range, fire-and-forget weapons, have a significant likelihood of hitting their targets. However, their cost and limited inventory necessitate careful employment. To maximize their effectiveness and exploit their over-the-horizon capabilities, obtaining accurate and up-to-date target information becomes crucial. Conversely, surface vessels' defense systems are becoming increasingly proficient in countering ASMs. 

Reviewing ULAQ KAMA's features, its potential to complement ASMs, becomes evident. ULAQ KAMA's asymmetric advantage against an adversary's detection systems renders it a compelling candidate for ASuW operations. 

For example, utilizing a swarm of 3-4 ULAQ KAMA boats is akin to launching a salvo of 3-4 ASMs at a warship. This approach saturates the target ship's defense systems, increasing the likelihood of a successful engagement. The targeted ship is likely to activate its close-in weapon systems in anti-surface mode, depleting its ammunition load. This scenario creates an opportunity for subsequent ASM engagement.

An undetected neutral contact near your actual target may mislead an ASM's seeker. ULAQ KAMA on the other hand utilizes advanced sensors and AI to autonomously or remotely perform precise target discrimination. This enhances accuracy in engagements and enables effective attacks on enemy surface units in areas like bays or ports, where ASMs fall short. Furthermore, ULAQ KAMA serves as a precise target reporting unit for ASMs by accurately relaying detected target positions.

The tactical surprise effect inherent to detecting asymmetry of ULAQ KAMA can be particularly advantageous in regions where distances, such as littoral waters, are shorter compared to open seas. 

Based on the fundamental doctrine that the primary objective of naval operations is to attain maritime superiority and subsequently establish control over the seas, enabling unrestricted use of naval forces while preventing adversaries from achieving the same. The example of Ukraine underscores how a weapon like ULAQ KAMA can be successfully utilized to limit the adversary's freedom of action in the naval theater, even when faced with relative force disadvantages.

ULAQ KAMA's satellite control system, and artificial intelligence support enabling operations at distances of up to 200 nautical miles (NM), along with its capability to be deployed from the shore or other platforms in unexpected areas, will extend the operational reach of friendly forces and present adversaries with strategic dilemmas. When integrated with other capabilities, ULAQ KAMA emerges as a supportive asset for Anti-Area Access Denial (A2AD) operations.

The incident involving the Ukrainian USV attack on the Kerch Bridge on July 19, 2023, exemplifies another potential of weapons like ULAQ KAMA. It demonstrates that ULAQ KAMA has the capability to target not only ships but also critical facilities with maritime access.  

When evaluating ULAQ KAMA’s resilience against adversary defensive fire, several factors come into play. Firstly, its small size and exceptional agility make it a challenging target. Furthermore, the choice of using an inert explosive payload that won’t detonate upon a hit, the addition of ballistic protections to critical components, and the incorporation of robust bilge pumps to expel water resulting from hit-induced breaches all contribute to ensuring its survivability and mission success.

In conclusion, thanks to the technological maturity reached, ULAQ KAMA’s inevitable emergence can be characterized as the revival of an old idea empowered by the latest technological capabilities. When used in conjunction with other capabilities and integrated in a complementary manner, it will serve as a significant ASuW capability