The drones that changed the face of war from the sky are replicated at sea, as major powers develop and deploy unmanned submarine ships (UUVs) to gain a strategic advantage in the Pacific and beyond.
The US, UK, China and Russia are developing and deploying all ships, indicating the “dronification” of future maritime warfare.
The United Kingdom, which is expanding its military presence in the Pacific, is preparing to exploit its first extra-large underwater drone to complement its Astute-class submarines. The Royal Navy’s efforts to design, build and test such a drone have been designated Project CETUS and aim to produce a 27-ton, 12-meter autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) demonstrator.
The contract for the CETUS project is expected to be finalized in FY 2021-2022, with an expected cost of £ 21.5m ($ 29.3m).
The Royal Navy is also working on the Manta Underwater Drone, an unmanned version of the existing manned submersible S201 made by MSubs, a UK manufacturer.
The United States is working on the same Orca Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (XLUUV), as the US Navy awarded Boeing contracts worth a total of $ 274.4 million to produce five Orca XLUUVs in 2019.
The Orca can be used for mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare, and strike missions without risking the lives of its operators.
China is also known to use underwater drones, with Indonesia seizes three Chinese drones tagged “Shenyang Institute of Automation Chinese Academy of Sciences” near Selayar Island in South Sulawesi in December 2020.
The same year, China has reportedly deployed 12 Sea Gliders Underwater drones in the Indian Ocean to collect oceanographic data to support underwater operations.
In addition, China is exploiting the HSU-001 Underwater Drone, which is roughly analogous to Project CETUS, Manta, and Orca drones. The HSU-001 was reportedly tested off Fujian or the Taiwan Strait, simulating anti-submarine operations.
The proliferation of underwater drones in the Pacific region is changing the complexion of submarine warfare, as the region’s maritime environment poses unique operational challenges to submarine operations.
The contested South China Sea is a semi-enclosed body of water with many underwater features and uncharted shallows, making navigation dangerous for surface fighters and crewed submarines.
At the same time, the South China Sea provides an ideal operating environment for conventional submarines in shallow water, as the region’s underwater characteristics and high sea traffic allow these vessels to go undetected. for long periods of time using environmental factors to mask their signatures.
By extension, the South China Sea is an ideal testing ground for underwater drones, as they can perform underwater tasks that can be too boring, demanding, dangerous or even dirty for humans.
Underwater drones can be used for bathymetric mapping, while recording the thermal, magnetic and acoustic properties of specific underwater passages to find blind spots where submarines can safely travel undetected.
As such, this capability is particularly suited for use in the South China Sea, which is among the most difficult bodies of water for underwater navigation due to its shallow waters, numerous underwater peaks. sailors and its sandbanks.
the recent collision of the USS Connecticut submarine with an unmapped seamount in the South China Sea illustrates the danger. In addition, these drones can also find underwater hiding places to serve as staging areas for underwater operations, or sanctuaries to avoid enemy anti-submarine warfare operations.
They can also potentially be used for minehunting and mine-laying operations. Underwater drones can explore underwater minefields and possibly disarm naval mines. They can reduce, but not eliminate, the need for specialized diving teams to recognize, identify and clear potential landing beaches for amphibious warfare operations.
Drones can also perform anti-submarine operations by actively searching and tracking enemy submarines, without endangering surface ships or manned submarines. the 1971 sinking of the Indian frigate INS Kukri by Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor illustrates the possibility that anti-submarine warships may become easy prey for enemy submarines.
The use of underwater drones for anti-submarine purposes will thus minimize the need to engage manned warships for such operations.
More importantly, underwater drones can become strategic weapons when loaded with nuclear weapons. Such nuclear-weapon underwater drones can bypass enemy missile defenses by traveling underwater, gliding near or in major coastal towns, ports and naval bases for the purpose of attack.
One of these weapons is that of Russia Poseidon drone, which gives Russia a credible second strike capability in the event of a nuclear attack.