Underwater drone technology threatens submarines of the future

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A new report from the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) has warned that the development of high-tech underwater drones and advances in sensor technology which will make the oceans “effectively transparent” could mean an end to the days when submarines can remain at sea undetected.

The new technologies could eventually mean that nuclear armed submarines, such as the 'Successor' Trident missile submarines that the UK government hopes to build, would no longer be invulnerable to discovery and attack, compromising their ability to launch a nuclear strike.

The report, written by military technology journalist David Hambling, examines the state of drone technology relating to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and concludes that in future the oceans are likely to be “increasingly crowded” with networked drones, acting as “a net of eyes and ears which no submarine can escape".  If nuclear armed submarines become easily detectable they will lose “all their advantages as strategic weapons platforms”.

Hambling points out that technology in the area is developing fast, with modular systems, relatively cheap and expendable platforms, and rapid expansion in computing power expected to allow “significant strides” further forward in the near future.

The BASIC report states that underwater drone technology is already being used in anti-submarine warfare by the US and Chinese navies.  The US Navy uses air-launched 'Coyote' drones, launched from aircraft and equipped with sensors to detect magnetic anomalies, to hunt for submarines and the report cites a 2010 US Department of Defence report which concludes that China is specifically targeting the development of underwater drone technology.

The US Navy has been working on the development of underwater drone 'swarms', with drones operating in co-ordination without individual control.  “Such swarms are capable of searching large areas autonomously, making them well suited for ASW operations,” the report concludes.

Unmanned underwater craft known as gliders have already been used to track the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and radiation levels around Fukushima in Japan.  Commercial gliders, which can be extremely quiet and carry highly sensitive acoustic sensors, are being used by oceanographers to track fish and collect data on water temperature and cloudiness, salinity, and ocean currents.

Military technology under development in the USA, Russia and China can be expected to be more advanced than the systems described in the report, which has been compiled from open source information.  The report argues that, given the exponential nature of technological change, underwater drones equipped with sophisticated sensors and able to operate in swarms are likely to be highly disruptive to naval operations in future decades, regardless of any parallel developments in submarine stealth technologies.

Last month the House of Commons Defence Committee wrote to submarine contractors BAE Systems and Babcock asking for an assessment of “whether new technologies, for example underwater drones, are being developed which could accurately detect and track submarines”.

Former Defence Secretary Lord Des Browne warned that the Successor Trident nuclear weapons submarines that the government is planning to build could become irrelevant before they are even launched, saying: “I believe that we ourselves and many other countries are developing systems which will potentially destroy in a relatively short period of time that aspect of not being able to hide boats in the sea.

“They will not then be as invulnerable as they were. I’m not saying they would not have use, but we will not have the security that we believed that we had in submarines in years to come.”

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