January 8, 2015

The US Navy may be putting its money into undersea automation.


The Chinese threat, Assistant Navy Secretary Sean Stackley told our audience at the Council yesterday, is “not countable”. Their land-based anti-ship missiles are legion, and they’re building submarines faster than he can buy his own Virginia-class boats, even at the congratulatory rate of two per year. The Navy would like to cope, but can only keep so many ships in the Western Pacific to backstop the Japanese and the South Koreans. Innovation is in vogue, but affordability is key. So what else is Stackley working on? Undersea robotics may be a big part of the answer.

Automation, after all, is one of the four major areas of technological endeavor identified in the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Initiative. It’s a major part of what would allow the Navy to decrease its footprint, but increase its presence, extending the reach of each of those multi-billion-dollar, heavily-manned submarines. There’s likely a lot of money going into this technology. Consider that the Navy’s black budget for fiscal year 2015 is $6.3 billion. Perhaps that pales before the Air Force's $27 billion, but it still funds a lot of stuff must stay hidden. It’s mostly the USAF that's hiding the stuff that gets hidden in space. We can figure that the Navy hides much of its hide-worthy stuff undersea.
As I wrote the other day, “improvements in autonomous weaponry might also make possible mobile mines smart enough to phone home when they think they’ve found a target.” Ariel Harkham recently speculated about "a matrixed drone network [to] provide a defensive edge that overwhelms the offensive strategy” of enemies a tous azimuts (see "Upgrading Israel’s Iron Dome with Swarmware,” Jerusalem Post, 3 January 2015). However that might work over Israel, it’s worth thinking about how it could work under the East China Sea. As I admitted latterly, this is a challenging problem, but some contractors are indeed thinking about it. As (the temporarily challenged) Defense Industry Daily related last April, "Ultra Electronics and Liquid Robotics are developing a persistent Sentinel robot" that combines the former’s sonobuoy technologies with the latter's wave-powered, long-endurance surf-drones. Add a shaped charge and a floodable buoyancy tank to the sonar, and you’ve got a weaponized Wave Glider, playing Damocles’ depth charge over unsuspecting submarine skippers.
“In theory,” Robert Lee Hotz wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, "there is no limit on the size, scale, and complexity of a robot swarm" (see “Tiny Robot Swarm Works on its Own,” 15 August 2014, p. A3). In practice, we’ll learn where those limits lie, as navies get enough operational practice with robotics at sea in the coming years. There’s a lot of work to be done, but wherever those limits lie, this is rather what George W. Bush meant in 1999 when he talked at the Citadel about skipping a generation of weapons. It’s a better way to match Chinese numbers than ton-for-ton of welded steel. Notably for contractors, there’s blood in the water. For to find a technology meriting investment, figure out what navies are going to need for the next thirty years, and start working on that today.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.