Suicide Robot Boat Blamed for Attack on Warship

By Jeremy Hsu | February 21, 2017 9:48 pm
Houthi rebels used a robot boat packed with explosives to attack a Saudi missile frigate on Jan. 30, 2017. Credit: USNI News

A video screenshot shows a robot boat packed with explosives just moments before it strikes a Saudi missile frigate and explodes on Jan. 30, 2017. Credit: USNI News

A suicide boat attack that killed two sailors aboard a Saudi warship was apparently carried out by an unmanned, remotely-controlled boat. The U.S. Navy says the incident likely represents the first ever use of a suicide robot boat as a weapon on the high seas.

Suicide boat bombings carried out by human crews willing to die in the attacks are nothing new. Such an attack killed 17 sailors and wounded 39 others aboard the U.S.S. Cole, a U.S. Navy destroyer refueling in the port of Aden, Yemen on Oct. 20, 2000. But the deadly debut of the suicide robot boat as first reported by Defense News shows how fairly cheap weapons can be deployed against much more advanced warships without even requiring a human “martyr” to pilot the suicide boat.

This first known use of a suicide robot boat was carried out by Houthi rebels fighting against Yemeni government forces in a brutal civil war that has lasted since early 2015. The rebels targeted a Saudi missile frigate called Al Madinah while it was on patrol off the coast of Yemen. Saudi Arabia is leading a Middle Eastern coalition of Sunni Arab countries that has been supporting the government with both airstrikes and a naval blockade aimed at putting down the Houthi insurgency.

Video taken from the deck of the Saudi missile frigate shows the robot boat careening directly into the rear of the warship and exploding near its helicopter pad. That video was first obtained by the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) News.

The attack was first reported in the Saudi Press Agency on Jan. 30, 2017. But the assessment of the attack being carried out by a suicide robot boat did not emerge until a Feb. 19 Defense News interview with Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, commander of the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet and head of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

Donegan pointed to Iran as a likely culprit in helping the Houthi rebels obtain or develop the necessary technologies for the suicide robot boat. He also expressed concern about the possible growing threat that swarms of suicide robot boats could pose to commercial shipping passing through the Red Sea, especially given how the technology found its way into the hands of a “non-state actor” such as the Houthis.

So how can a suicide robot boat be stopped? The U.S. Navy has been testing a number of weapons such as lasers to counter the threat that small boats pose to its expensive warships. But one of the Navy’s best possible counters to suicide robot boats may be to intercept such attacks with a swarm of U.S. Navy robot boats. The U.S. Office of Naval Research has been testing such robot boat swarm technology as a way of screening and protecting larger warships. (The U.S. Navy has its own history of exper

The development of robot boats as suicide bombers should come as no surprise given the spread of militarized robot technologies on land and in the air. Islamic State has gained attention recently for converting ordinary commercial drones into flying bombs or even flying bombers. Even the U.S. Navy experimented with its own suicide drones during World War II and the Korean War.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts
  • John C

    A slow moving rubber boat successfully attacks a warship in broad daylight? You can’t defend against that?

    • Uncle Al

      No profiling, no anti-Muslim actions. Naval commanders wear pink pußy hats lest they risk a career-ending later criticized pro-active action.

      • OWilson

        You have to actually eat the poisoned mushroom, before you can discriminate against it. Gotta wait and sift through the debris before you can call it a terrorist attack! A Muslim shouting Alah Akbar could be just some guy pissed with his Big Mac.

        You need to detain at least one grannie for every black hooded suspect you shake down at midnight.

        Where I live they have police check points stopping ALL cars for DUI. Families coming home from the library, don’t matter. Down the street are two taverns with huge full parking lots. Not a cop in sight!

        I think we have a “Suicide Robot PC Society”. :)

        • Warren Pugh


        • charliematerne

          Cops aren’t aloud to sit and wait for someone to drive of a tavern parking lot. That would be entrapment

          • OWilson

            God forbid we should be allowed to entrap criminals.

            We”ll just mourn the losses!

          • charliematerne

            Yes, “God forbid” and so does the Constitution, I. e. the law of the land. I happen to like MY Constitution. Entrapment just allows the bad guys to go free and puts the cops on trial. Cops can Legally set up DUI roadblocks, support them in that Legal effore

          • OWilson

            Do you support illegal immigrant roadblocks too? :)

          • charliematerne

            What ” illegal immigrant roadblocks “?

          • OWilson

            Ya know, like DUI checkpoints, Stop and Frisk.

            THAT sort of thing! :)

      • Dennis O

        Hey Uncle Al, didn’t by any chance notice it was a Saudi, Muslim, frigate did you?

  • Patrick

    The expression “suicide robot boat” is nonsense. Robots cannot commit suicide.

    • Jerry Jewel

      Well, these ones can! 😛

    • Warren Pugh

      Not just fake news, but very ignorant fake news. It’s the press. Say anything to sell print. It is more gullible than are we. Which reminds us. Fake news has been around for centuries.

    • John Thimakis

      Exactly. Propaganda language.

    • Don Huntington

      Suicide robot boat” not a bad expression; it clearly describes the thing being referred to. (You “grammar police” are being overly harsh, in my opinion.)

      • Gerald Wonnacott

        Relax, it was joke! Uptight???

        • Don Huntington

          Missed it. Sorry!

  • Uncle Al

    the first ever use of a suicide robot boat” Wire-guided torpedoes, 55-knot Mk 24 Tigerfish (Royal Navy) “robot boat careening directly into the rear of the warship” Take out the propeller(s), shaft(s), or engine room and the ship is irrelevant. Imagine a $6 billion Nimitz-class carrier (30 knots) neutralized by a stealthed 80-knot go-fast boat.

    intercept such attacks with a swarm of U.S. Navy robot boats” The budgetary BS begins. A radar-, laser-, or stereovideo-aimed General Electric GAU-8/A Avenger (30 mm), perhaps scaled down. Whatever it hits isn’t there anymore, armored or otherwise. Best range to 4000 feet, but effective to 2+ miles.

  • Kompani

    I think fire ships were used in the 16th century so hardly a new threat. They just hadn’t read their history books.

  • jeeten

    meh…..a ciws take these out easy

  • saraboulos


    • charliematerne

      Somehow I doubt the Houthi rebels or the Yemen government read Discover

  • John Thimakis

    Interesting how they call these “suicide” rather than “guided”. The delivery vehicle for a bomb is irelevant. If there is no human on board there is no justification for using the word “suicide” other than for propaganda value.

    • Anechidna

      Also gives the terrorist a little slice of legitimacy.

    • J. Kevin Dix

      The wording is a bit suspect, but it may have been intended to suggest a device with a one-way mission. A plain, true, “robot boat”, to my mind, would be able to approach its target, attack with multiple shots fired (or even multiple types of weaponry), and retreat to fight another day. I tend to agree with the other posters who class this device as essentially a torpedo.

  • VFRdilbert

    An editor, an editor, my kingdom for an editor!! Are clicks more important than decent journalism or integrity? I guess so.

  • Don Huntington

    I can’t imagine that there isn’t enough armament on this warship to stop a small boat. You just have to be locked, loaded, and alert. Shouldn’t a warship always remain in this state? Doesn’t the radar reach out far enough to give plenty of advanced warning. (Maybe I’m missing something.)

    • Anechidna

      You could say, asleep at the wheel. They won’t be now, none of them will be complaisant.

    • tim gueguen

      Modern warships actually have a relatively small gun armament. The Saudi ship that was attacked carries a single main 100 millimeter cannon and two 40 millimeter antiaircraft guns. Presumably there’s a couple of .50 caliber machine guns mounted someplace as well. The attacking boat would have had to come from the right direction for those weapons to be brought to bear. The footage shows the ship was hit in the rear by the helicopter deck, which is certainly out of the arc of the main gun and the AA guns.

      There’s also the question of what the traffic was like around the Saudi ship. If the boat is in any way similar to boats being used for civilian use in the area they wouldn’t have known it was a threat until it was too late.

      • Anechidna

        Events such as this, piracy etc all point to th fact that most warships are purely bluff. As you rightly point out, limited close in armament is a problem. These vessels are armed to fight at long distance so anything that gets under your guard, is low tech, expendable. Is a major problem.

  • B1966J

    BREAKING NEWS!! British engineer Robert Whitehead invented the first, self-propelled, guided torpedo (“Whitehead Torpedo”) in 1866. It was refined by Whitehead and Giovanni Luppis in Fiume, Croatia and first used by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1868. Every subsequent “boat” “commited suicide” as it “self-detonated”, damaging other ships.

    MORE BREAKING NEWS!! Nazi Germany created “suicide” drones called the V2 and bombed the hell out of England over 70 years ago.

    Coming up on Discover: ISIS discovers heat-producing, chemical reaction called “fire”. Plans to use it against foreign powers. World military unsure how to combat new menace.

  • John C

    Seems like if our billion dollar warships get attacked by Vikings we’re screwed.

    • Anechidna

      Yes. Their Achilles heel, the powers that be have forgotten the problem of low tech which is the equivalent of the old wooden Trogan horse.


Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.


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