Underwater drone warfare: a new battlefield

Today, there is an increased emphasis on underwater warfare, with the US and Russia investing in powerful unmanned platforms. Drones are becoming progressively integral to military operations. They minimise military casualties as a drone acts as an assemblage, with a distanced team of operatives controlling its movement.

Singer describes this innovative shift to drone warfare as ‘robotics revolution’. A revolution in military affairs adverting from the atomic bomb. Currently drones are employed in limited military operations; however, it is thought in the near future they will be utilised in every aspect of military practice. 

In preparation for the arriving future environment of warfare which entails an emergence of an increasing number of autonomous underwater drones, the U.S. Navy has selected 23 companies in a $794.5mllion contract to support the research and development of undersea drone mobilities. Currently UUVRON-1s are utilised for surveillance and mine-sweepingClark predicts that soon more of these devices will enter the US fleet.

However, the US underwater drone programme is creating discord with China. The nature of the drone’s mobility makes entering territorial seas and even harbours is far easier. With China’s military practices (including the established offshore military bases) already being intensely monitored in the skies, undersea drones increase the US presence in Chinese territory. The proliferation of drones and their roles creates conflicts with the 1982 UN convention regarding the law of the seas. Drones are justified by many as marine scientific research equipment; however, the US’s interference in Chinese territory as led to the Asian superpower claiming the drone’s purpose is to survey and is an act of ‘preparation of the battlefield’, thus non-peaceful, and as such should be prohibited.

The Russian underwater drone programme is a significant contrast. In 2015 the ‘Cephalopod’ was revealed. Described as a “killer underwater drone”, armed with torpedoes, its purpose is to destroy enemy submarines; an intent that poses a serious concern to the Western military. Its mobility contrasts with the US UUVs; it is larger in size, with thrusters to hover, and it is designed for endurance rather than manoeuvrability. Therefore, its purpose with regards to mobilities is to defend rather than travel distances to engage.

Furthermore, a Russian state-owned arms maker has reportedly unveiled an innovative underwater assault rifle armed drone that is designed to defend naval bases, port facilities and bridges from enemy assault teams.

(Scale design of Russian Cephalopod)

The US Navy clearly highlights its intended use of underwater drones is to survey and mine-sweep regions, essentially not posing any lethal threat to other territories. However, its interferences with Chinese waters has produced offshore confrontation. Additionally, Russia’s launch of the Cephalopod conveys a clear intent to play an active role in offshore warfare. Therefore, plans have been drafted by the US Navy to weaponise their new fleet of UUVs, to combat the threat prompted by Russia and China.

It is conclusive that this ‘robotic revolution’ is producing a new battlefield, but the consequences of this innovative technology are uncertain, and are producing worldwide concern.


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