TOKYO — A race is heating up among the world’s navies to build fleets of crewless boats capable of missions on and under the water, according to maritime experts.
The U.S. is developing maritime drones for missions that could range from gathering intelligence, conducting reconnaissance and carrying out surveillance to disabling sea mines, protecting manned ships and securing ports, according to Capt. Duane Ashton, of the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Maritime Systems Program Office.
“A lot of countries are looking at unmanned surface vehicles and (unmanned) underwater vehicles for mine countermeasures,” Ashton said. “We assume that some of our potential adversaries have or are pursuing the development of unmanned systems.”
Jens-Olof Lindh, project manager for unmanned surface systems at Sweden’s Kockums shipyard, said that although there might only be a few hundred unmanned maritime vessels in operation worldwide, he expects those numbers to increase substantially in the next few years following the path set by airborne drones.
“There is a large consensus that the importance of unmanned maritime vehicles will increase,” he said.
China, India, Singapore, Israel, Britain and France are among the nations interested in developing sea drones, Lindh said.
“Of course there will be an arms race of some kind,” he said. “The Chinese are coming really quick. They had no (unmanned) programs four years ago and now they are presenting several, at least on the air side.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that China showed off more than 25 models of unmanned aircraft at the Zhuhai Airshow in November. The Swedish sea drone builders were invited to present their work to a group of Chinese experts in Beijing recently but declined, Lindh said.
Dirty and dangerous missions such as mine sweeping or moving through parts of the sea where there are explosive gases are likely to be among the first duties taken over by unmanned maritime craft, he said.
Sea drones offer many advantages, including the ability to operate semi-autonomously or remotely for long periods of time in many environments, Ashton said. The unmanned boats rely on sensor systems, such as radar, cameras and audio devices, to provide information to remote operators.
The fact that drone aircraft operators already control missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from comfortable offices in the U.S. suggests that sea drone operators could be based anywhere.
A U.S. Navy PowerPoint slide comparing the performance of unmanned maritime craft to flying drones shows that vessels traveling on the water have better endurance and accuracy and can carry larger payloads than their flying cousins. Undersea drones are harder for the enemy to detect and have better stability that other unmanned craft, according to the Navy.
However, the new technology is a double-edged sword, Lindh warned.
“An obvious use for USVs (unmanned surface vehicles) is as seaborne IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” he said. “You can expect small boats will be converted into bombs. That’s why navies are training against small boats.”
Work is under way to develop systems that can control multiple maritime drones. In the future, enemies could attack with swarms of unmanned vessels forcing navies to create defensive unmanned fleets to counter them, Lindh said.
Another maritime expert, Rick Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said there is clearly an arms race to develop undersea drones for combat missions.
The Chinese are attempting to develop a family of unmanned undersea vehicles, he said. They have an anti-mine underwater drone in service and have worked with the Russians to develop a deep-diving unmanned vessel, which could one day perform military missions, he said.
One of the biggest advantages to the underwater drones is they don’t need to be defended, and the few missions they can perform are vital, Fisher said.
Obstacles holding up the deployment of unmanned maritime craft include legal concerns over who would be liable in the event of a mishap if there is no crew on the vessel, and the need to establish logistical support for the vessels within navies, Lindh said. The European Defense Agency has established programs to address such issues on behalf of members of the European Union, he said.
Despite the growth in undersea drones and smaller unmanned surface boats, Fisher said, large unmanned ships are not likely to replace aircraft carriers or destroyers in the near future.
The U.S. Navy appears to see little value in developing large unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) when a similarly-sized manned ship would be more useful, he said.
“For surveillance missions, a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) would travel faster and have a potentially longer stand-off range for safety compared to a larger USV,” he said, adding that massive amounts of satellite bandwidth would be required to control unmanned ships in battle against aircraft or submarines.