Imagine a scenario where 200 underwater drones as a part of a swarm launched from a warship are lurking in the depths of oceans, biding their time to assess maritime threats and take out an enemy vessel when needed. The US Navy is co-opting the defense industry to work on underwater autonomous swarming drones that will offset the numerical advantage that the Chinese Navy has in the Indo-Pacific.
The US Navy has reached out to the defense industry to work underwater autonomous swarming drones that can traverse hundreds of miles through contested water space, then loitering around at the designated place to look out for maritime threats and then taking out a hostile maritime vessel if required.
The call has been made keeping in mind the increasing aggression shown by China against Taiwan. The US Navy has been experimenting in the Pacific with a lethal drone concept called “hellscape.” Under the concept, the US would seek to disrupt China’s amphibious invasion of Taiwan with a combination of loitering munitions and attack drones.
Naval observers have been predicting that the swarms of cheap drones underwater could pose the biggest threat to submarines. Swarming drones will be small, lightweight, and cheap. Networked together, they will cooperate like bees from the same hive.
Submarines, large drone motherships, or warships could release hundreds of such expendable drones. Teeming the ocean, these swarming systems can provide long-endurance surveillance capability and move according to operational requirements.
In the statement released by the Defense Initiative Unit (DIU), the US Navy is looking for “small Unmanned Surface Vehicle (sUSV) interceptors capable of autonomously transiting hundreds of miles through contested water space, loitering in an assigned operating area while monitoring for maritime surface threats, and then sprinting to interdict a non-cooperative, maneuvering vessel.”
The low-cost platforms sought by the DIU could go into production next year. The aim is to build 10 or more systems per month, which would have an annual production rate of 120 or more such drones. Interceptors will need to operate in cohesive groups and execute complex autonomous behaviors that adapt to the dynamic, evasive movements of the pursued vessel.
These ocean-going vehicles will work to ensure freedom of navigation, not only for the United States but also for its allies and partners across the globe.
Loitering munitions, otherwise known as kamikaze drones, differ from other weapons in being relatively slow but able to patrol an area for a prolonged period, looking for targets before identifying, selecting, and attacking them.
A swarm of dozens comprising hundreds or even thousands of small drones can overwhelm a target. While they might not be able to sink a warship, they could easily subdue the radar and defensive systems, leaving it open to be targeted by other weapons.
The autonomous vehicle will be required to have a range of 500-1000 nautical miles and to be able to transport a payload of 1000 lbs while running on diesel. The submerged drones would have the capability to loiter for several days and would be able to traverse at a speed of 35 knots or faster.
With their ability to operate autonomously and sense and avoid the capability to avoid maritime hazards and collisions with vessels, the underwater swarm drones can work during low visibility conditions or where global navigation network signals cannot reach. This would help the drones to carry out their mission even if the communication link with the command center is lost.
Equipped with third-party software, the drones should be able to demonstrate collaborative intercept capability while autonomously navigating to user-defined waypoints. The requirement is that the vehicles can carry out search missions and report back about the vessels of interest with high accuracy.
To avoid detection, underwater drones will be required to adjust emissions control automatically (EMCON) posture when in the vicinity of specific vessels and aircraft or specific geographic areas.
As submarine-hunting drones mature, they could theoretically acquire offensive kamikaze capabilities similar to existing Switchblade ground-attack mini-drones.
An expert speaking to the EurAsian Times said that the biggest challenge for underwater swarm drones is maintaining underwater communication links through the dense water medium. Autonomous drones can bypass this problem, but the need for a surveillance system to transmit back useful data persists.
Another challenge small drones face is that they can’t carry much fuel or weaponry. Their range and speed are limited, meaning they will likely require some sort of long-endurance mothership (or “motherplane”) to deploy from.
The US Navy is pursuing a couple of anti-submarine drone projects. It has been testing aerial swarming LOCUST drones (standing for Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology) equipped with Magnetic Anomaly Detectors (MAD) to skim low over the ocean hunting submarines. These could be deployed from patrol aircraft. A canon-like surface launch system can also catapult multiple LOCUST drones into the sky.
From Locating Underwater Mines To Hunting Submarines
The present swarming UUV designs focus primarily on locating mines and submerged objects. A private firm, Sagar Defense Engineering, has developed Autonomous Swarm technology that can help locate underwater mines.
The swarm comprises agile drones working together to efficiently locate, identify, and neutralize underwater mines. Sagar Defense confirmed to the EurAsian Times that the system is operational and ready to be deployed.
The Russia-Ukraine war has shown how small drones, including commercial quadcopters, can inflict large damage by carrying out reconnaissance, guided artillery fire, and annihilating tanks.
The major limitation of these drones is that each requires its own operator. Contrary to this, a swarm includes hundreds or thousands of drones controlled as a single unit.
The Indian Army inducted Swarm Drones in 2022 while tensions with China were peaking. Supplied by an Indian startup – Bengaluru-based New Space Research & Technologies – the swarm of 100 drones can hit targets at least 50 km away into enemy territory.
It utilizes algorithms to enable them to distribute tasks automatically. The Indian Air Force (IAF) announced in 2023 that it will work towards aerial swarm drones.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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