Friday, 16 February 2018

The importance of underwater robotics for undersea warfare in Australia

By Andrew McConnell

Undersea robots are growing in importance for modern navies and the advances in autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are moving forward at a rapid rate. Whether any nation has a dominant advantage in this area is less clear for many reasons. What is the state of integration of UUVs into undersea warfare and how can Australian industry be developed to support it?

Initial online searches reveal many high-level articles discussing broad UUV concepts, but published technical papers are less common. This is unsurprising, as most companies and governments working in this field are playing their cards very close to their chests. Undersea warfare is, by its nature, stealth warfare and it is difficult and protracted in execution. Maintaining appropriate levels of discretion and secrecy is standard operational procedure. Likewise, speculation on external competitors’ progress is also standard practice.

The US Navy has been following a roadmap for UUVs which extends through to 2020 and UUVs are a significant component of naval defence plans for the next 20-30 years. Recently, the US Navy has undergone a re-organisation to mainstream the complementary warfighting effects of unmanned warfare systems. The silo Unmanned Warfare Systems directorate has been merged with the office of the Director of Warfare Integration to oversee unmanned integration and accelerated prototype acquisition where possible.

As observed in “Achieving Secrecy and Surprise in a Ubiquitous ISR Environment – Analysis” (Eurasia Review 2018-02-04), development of undersea warfare capability is undertaken in stealth mode. This restricts information leaks to opponents, but with rapid advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, the advantage margin is shrinking and broader cooperation is becoming encouraged with allies.

The advantage of autonomous systems in undersea warfare is that they allow a very asymmetrical conflict. Conventional submarines are all of a similar size due to the requirements of having human crew members, who require air, food, heating and sanitation. All that air-filled human workspace means buoyancy, which leads to the major problem for submarines – getting them to sink. Further, all sensor data must be presented to human eyes and ears through screens, lights, speakers and buzzers, which consume further power and space onboard.

Now consider the unmanned vehicle which has none of the support infrastructure. It can be smaller, denser and it consumes less power. It can loiter in freezing cold deep water or drift into position on a slow current. It can remain silent and listen, without breathing or heartbeats.

Smaller vehicles mean more of them can be deployed, allowing swarm multipoint illumination. Recent research investigates swarming behaviours of robot UUVs and improvements in tracking and chasing mobile targets. This research is being undertaken and authored not only by large defence industry companies and established research centres, but by smaller third-world or non-state researchers using very low-cost equipment.

Other advantages of smaller UUVs over manned vessels are:
  • Potential for aerial deployment;
  • Specialisation with type-specific sensors, rather than requiring a generalist platform to justify investment;
  • Low-cost deterrent with stable ongoing costs (no pay rises!);
  • They are less obvious and hard to detect (this makes them a long-term threat that could never be confidently eliminated);
  • Unmanned vehicles can assume a greater variety of shapes - round, flat, atoll-shaped (easier to camouflage with natural organisms);
  • Solid neutral weight advantage reduces buoyancy problems; and
  • Smaller UUVs are able to navigate smaller waterways.
This last point opens up some interesting opportunities for Australian industry because manufacture and launch of small vessels does not require ocean frontage and expensive shipyards. In fact, launches can be conducted from facilities adjacent to rivers, channels, dams or inland creeks. Vessels can be deployed from smaller inland bases on small rivers. This means a lower start-up cost to industry and the potential for widely distributed low-cost support facilities for defence.

Australia has considerable experience in the fundamental art of submarine vehicles of all sizes. This field will now subsume deep learning, autonomous operations, crewless hull design, new materials, new sensors and new power sources. Small companies should be able to find a “fit” with UUV projects of smaller size.

Unmanned vehicles have broader design parameters in size, speed, longevity, stealth and specialisation, which could lead to a varied eco-system of solutions. Each solution must be addressed by a countermeasure.

Is it also prudent to anticipate unknown UUV capabilities? No, but it is prudent to have rapid research and development infrastructure to develop countermeasures.

Besides the large manned submarines and smaller UUVs, there exists potential for young Australian industries to cut their teeth on cheap autonomous decoys and disguised commercial-off-the-shelf products. This would encourage the industry ability to exercise rapid assessment and trial of new technologies.

In November 2018 in the Jervis Bay area of New South Wales, the Department of Defence is planning the Autonomous Warrior exercise to showcase a range of new products. Perhaps the exercise could also incorporate an industry technical countermeasure exercise, with the aim of rapidly prototyping countermeasures for each new product.

No comments:

Post a Comment