By Carl O Schuster
HONOLULU - While unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), widely known as "drones", have grabbed headlines and engaged heavily in America's ZIOCONNED overseas criminal wars, the technologies involved and their military advantages have quietly inspired a revolution in naval vessels, tactics and operations. The innovations promise to add new strategic dimensions to global maritime hot spots, including simmering tensions in the South China Sea.
Unmanned naval surface vessels were used as a form of guided weaponry in World War II, and the Cold War saw the advent of remotely piloted surface and underwater vehicles for the hunting and sweeping of naval mines. Those early "naval drones" were controlled by guidance signals sent over a wire that trailed from the back of the vehicle or, in the case of West Germany's "Troika" minesweeping system, via radio signals from a mother ship.
Technological advances have spurred the introduction of a growing range of unmanned underwater and surface vessels - UUVs and USVs, respectively. Autonomous variants, or AUVs and ASVs, are now also under development. Most have a reconnaissance mission but attack variants have already entered service and enhanced models are reportedly on the drawing board.
Like their aerial counterparts, unmanned naval vessels are intended to extend a commanders' view of the battle space and expand the fleet's area of control without increasing the number of ships, submarines and crewmen. They are smaller, more maneuverable and much harder to detect than manned systems. They typically are also cheaper to build and operate, a key factor as US defense spending faces significant future belt-tightening.
AUVs and UUVs also share their aerial brethren's reduced political sensitivity in their operations, witnessed in the mostly muted response to remote-controlled assassinations of terror suspects in theaters such as Afghanistan and remote areas of neighboring Pakistan. That may change, however, after the first USV is captured or recovered in a foreign harbor or contested maritime areas such as the South China Sea.
As was the case of UAVs, Israel has pioneered the use of modern unmanned naval vessels. Their so-called Protector USVs have been in service since 2009, used primarily to patrol off Lebanon's coast and monitor Hezbollah's activities and movements.
The Protector's small size - nine meters in length, 4,000 kilograms displacement and light composite material construction - make it especially difficult to detect and track. Its 50-knot maximum speed and high maneuverability, meanwhile, complicate any enemies' efforts to engage it.
Although light, its stabilized small-caliber automatic weapons system is accurate and sufficient to engage light craft utilized by terrorist groups trying to infiltrate or attack the Israeli coast. The latest model to enter production has a high-pressure hose system for non-lethal engagements against blockade runners trying to reach the Gaza Strip. It also has a second engine for propulsion, providing redundancy and increased reliability.
The US has followed Israel's example with a range of USVs now in testing. The first prototype was the Spartan Scout, a crewless rigid-hulled inflatable boat tested from 2001 through 2006. Weighing under two tonnes and carrying a .50 caliber machine gun, the Spartan Scout carried a range of electro-optical and infrared sensors as well as a small surface search radar.
Intended for operations from a standard surface ship, it was initially viewed as a means of extending a ship's presence and reach in surface surveillance and control missions. It was also viewed as a "proof-of-concept" vehicle to determine the future practicality and utility of USV operations.
The Spartan Scout's successful demonstration led to the Fleet-class USV designed for employment from America's Freedom- and Independence-class littoral combat ships. These unmanned units, classified as ships by the US Navy, are intended to extend littoral combat ships' presence, surveillance area and range of missions. Significantly, these USVs can be employed in mine, electronic and anti-submarine warfare as well as anti-piracy operations.
At 12 meters in length and displacing 7.7 tonnes, the Fleet-class USVs are larger than Israel's Protector and have a top speed of 35 knots and can carry up to 2,300 kilograms of equipment, either sensors, weapons or a combination of both. They are designed for up to 48 hours of autonomous operations and can be converted into a manned platform in under 24 hours. First delivered in 2008, the four units currently in fleet inventory are undergoing operation testing and expected to achieve initial operational capability by 2015.
Armed and dangerous
Three other USVs are under development in the US. The 16.5 meter Piranha USV concept, built almost entirely of the latest carbon-nanotube composite material and displacing just 3,600 kilograms, began testing in 2010. The naval drone can reportedly carry a payload exceeding 6,800 kilograms out to a range of over 2,170 nautical miles. It is being considered for a range of missions by the US Navy and Coast Guard, including harbor and coastal patrol, search and rescue, anti-piracy operations and anti-submarine warfare.
The US Navy is also testing autonomous and unmanned underwater vehicles (AUVs and UUVs). Autonomous underwater vehicles operate entirely along pre-programmed parameters, while UUVs include the capacity for control by a human operator and may be programmed to respond to changing circumstances that fall outside pre-mission expectations.
Commercial versions, used mainly for underwater surveys, marine biology research and maritime mapping, were first introduced in the 1990s. Modifying them for military applications and operations, however, required extensive development and testing programs of the technology needed for reliable control and recovery.
UUVs primary mission has focused on extending the surveillance capability and reach of the navy's submarine fleet. Early UUVs were designed specifically for launch from submarine torpedo tubes, with the first such mission launched in 2007. Although the launch was successful with the UUV returning to the mother sub, recovery proved complex.
That motivated the development of a Universal Launch and Recovery Module that enables a submarine to launch and recover larger, more capable UUVs. The module incorporates a powerful robotic arm that is used to recover the UUV and bring it aboard. Four Ohio-class former ballistic missile submarines have reportedly been modified into UUV carriers and the latest Virginia-class units will also be UUV, as well as UAV, capable.
Although fully capable autonomous AUVs and UUVs are not yet operational, the US Navy's 2004 Master Plan calls for a range of such units to be in service by 2015. Equipped with active sonar, and perhaps even non-acoustic sensors, they and their surface counterparts will be able to range far from their mother ships. They will specialize in conducting covert reconnaissance and surveillance of harbors, coastal and deep ocean waters, as well as searching for mines and submarines, without risking their mother ship's location.
It isn't clear yet how AUVs and UUVs will report what they find back to the mother ship, but the advent of blue-light laser communications systems will likely feed into a complex buoy-to-satellite-to-submarine system. While the command and control aspects of such operations have proven to be the greatest challenge in development, latest indications are that these technological hurdles are surmountable.
With naval drones promising to expand the capabilities of manned naval platforms and reduce both long-term and short-term personnel and operating costs, a growing range of nations apparently view these systems as an attractive option for meeting their maritime security needs.
Britain, Canada, France and India, to name but a few, have all stated their interest in naval drones; it would not be surprising to learn that other countries, including China and Russia, are studying, if not pursuing, development of their own unmanned naval systems.
Unmanned aerial and naval vehicles promise to revolutionize naval operations and warfare over the next decade. Their reliance on digital networks, computers, computer systems, and data links suggest that any fleet hoping to rely on unmanned systems must also dedicate a resources to dominating the electromagnetic and cyber spheres. In today's and tomorrow's strategic theaters, success in the physical world of maritime operations may well be determined by victory in virtual dimensions.
Carl O Schuster is a retired United States Navy Captain based in Honolulu, Hawaii.