New Frontier in Naval Warfare

Unmanned surface vessels can work with remotely operated underwater vehicles

Atul Chandra

Unmanned Surface Vessels (USV) are now rapidly gaining in capability and expected to be in widespread use before the end of this decade. The emergence of USVs as a new frontier in military capability will dramatically change naval warfare in the coming decades. The UK, US and Israel are the early pioneers in the realm of USVs and India should make use of her strong ties with these nations to rapidly establish USV capability.

The medium-displacement unmanned surfacevessel Sea Hunter
The medium-displacement unmanned surface vessel Sea Hunter

India has an unmatched opportunity to work with the navies of these countries and quickly begin the process of inducting USVs, which in future will liberate manned warships and patrol vessels for more important tasks. As an example, moving towards autonomous mine-hunting capability will enable the Indian Navy to defend against the rapidly evolving threat of modern sea mines while reducing the risk to its own sailors.


US Innovation

In May 2022, the US Navy announced that it would increase its unmanned capabilities with newly established Unmanned Surface Division One (USVDIV One). To encourage innovation, experimentation and combat readiness of USVs, the US Pacific Fleet had established the Surface Development Squadron ONE in May 2019. Vice Adm Roy Kitchener, Commander, Naval Surface Force, US Pacific Fleet, said: “USVDIV One will be a catalyst for innovation as we employ unmanned surface capabilities in the Pacific Fleet. The implementation of unmanned systems will increase decision speed and lethality to enhance our warfighting advantage.”

USVDIV One will oversee medium and large USVs with the US Navy including the Sea Hunter and its sister vessel, the Sea Hawk. “To meet the challenges of the 21st Century, we must continue to innovate the surface force,” said Cmdr Jeremiah Daley, Commander USVDIV One. “USVDIV One will accelerate the delivery of credible and reliable unmanned systems in conjunction with increasingly capable manned platforms into the fleet.” USVDIV One will focus on USV experimentation and fleet advocacy for the US Navy surface force and will be a cornerstone in building the foundational knowledge required for sailors to operate and maintain a USV fleet. It will also spearhead the development of the processes required for USV operations and sustainment.

The US Fifth Fleet also undertook Digital Horizon, a three-week unmanned and artificial intelligence event in Bahrain that involved 17 industry partners in December 2022. The event demonstrated how the US Navy could use USVs, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to gain critical information from seabed to space. Out of the 15 advanced systems used in Digital Horizon, 10 were operated in the Middle East for the first time.  “The pace of innovation throughout Digital Horizon was unbelievable,” said Capt Michael Brasseur, Commander of Task Force 59. “We pushed beyond technological boundaries and discovered new capabilities for maritime domain awareness to enhance our ability to see above, on and below the water.”

Task Force 59 leveraged artificial intelligence over the course of the event to create an interface on one screen, also called a “single pane of glass.” The screen displayed relevant data from multiple unmanned systems in Task Force 59’s Robotics Operations Center. During 2022, Task Force 59 operated USVs in regional waters for more than 25,000 hours, or 12 years of nine-to-five testing five days a week.


UK’s plans

In February, the UK Royal Navy operated an autonomous minehunter to try out uncrewed operations in the Gulf. The deployment of the uncrewed boat was an important step towards autonomous mine-hunting operations and a demonstration of the UK’s continued commitment to the Middle East, according to the Royal Navy. “This is the future of Royal Navy MCM and we are proud to be at the leading edge of its delivery. The deployment of this cutting edge technology to the Gulf signals the UK’s commitment to the region and to freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce,” said Lt Commander Mark Shaw, commanding officer of Mission System Team One in the Mine Threat Exploitation Group.

The Royal Navy Motor Boat Harrier used in the trials can search and detect underwater threats and is part of a 10-year programme for replacing the Navy’s current fleet of Mine Counter Measure Vessels (MCMV). Commodore Steve Prest, Director Navy Acquisition, said: “It is thrilling to see the first unit of mine hunting capability (MHC) equipment deployed in operations to undertake its operational evaluation phase.” This activity marks the start of a period of new learning and discovery for the Royal Navy’s MHC programme, Commodore Prest said, adding that it would bring to reality a transformational approach to mine warfare in the Royal Navy.

The Harrier USV is capable of operating both autonomously (pre-programmed to conduct a mission) or remotely from a ship or shore-based remote control centre. A side-scan sonar is towed behind Harrier, which allows it to look for mines on the seabed, alerting units ashore or at sea of their whereabouts. In the future, uncrewed vessel will also work with remotely operated underwater vehicles and a mine sweeping system. The Mine Hunting Capability programme will transition the Royal Navy from a ship-based mine counter measures (MCM) capability to maritime autonomous off-board systems.

Lt Commander Shaw said the Navy’s task was to prove this first iteration of the capability in an operational environment. “This is a step change in the way the Royal Navy conducts MCM and we are not just proving the equipment and operating procedures but setting the template on how we operate and integrate within the wider force,” he added. During her deployment in the Gulf, the 11-metre boat worked with host ship RFA Cardigan Bay and undertook a series of demonstrations and trials to prove her ability to operate in the harsh and demanding weather conditions of the Gulf. The tests were key for the Royal Navy to observe as to how the Atlas remote-controlled mine sweeper boat dealt with hot climates, with water temperatures of more than 30 degrees Centigrade in the summer.


Elbit Seagull USV

Another participant in the US Navy’s Digital Horizon even was Elbit America with its Seagull USV. The fully autonomous Seagull USV can operate at cruising speed for more than four days at sea and provides naval forces with significant tactical advantages in underwater and surface warfare, according to company officials. In September 2022, the UK’s Ministry of Defence invited Elbit Systems UK to demonstrate its autonomous mine hunting technology for the WILTON Industry Show and Experiment (WISEX) event.

The Seagull USV can carry Mine Counter Measures (MCM), Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Maritime Security (MS) and Electronic Warfare (EW) payloads and can be deployed for multiple manned and unmanned missions. The Seagull USV’s MCM capabilities include detection, classification, localisation, identification of bottom, moored and drifting sea mines and navigation out of the minefield.

In November 2022, Seatronics, a brand in Acteon’s Data and Robotics Division, announced that it had started the final installation and commissioning phase in the first sale of two Mine Identification and Detonation Solutions (MIDS) to Elbit Systems. The MIDS is a multi-shot, configurable mine disposal solution that can detonate multiple charges acoustically, using state-of-the-art technology, without having to sacrifice itself. The MIDS ROV can be deployed from the Seagull in fully autonomous, semi-autonomous or supervised autonomy operational mode, or operated via satellite link from the mother ship or any other remote location.

The Seagull USV enables performing of ASW, MCM, EW, MS, hydrography and other operations from a single mission control system. Elbit offers the Seagull USV with leading sonar technologies, including towed sonar systems such as KATFISH with Synthetic Aperture Sonar (SAS), GTI Towed Reelable Active-Passive Sonar (TRAPS), long-range dipping sonar and forward looking sonar. It can be armed with a 12.7mm remote controlled weapon system, torpedo launching system and a nonlethal weapon system. It can also carry expendable mine disposal vehicles and diver’s neutralisation system.

The Seagull features an advanced Mission Control System (MCS) which can be located on a mother ship, headquarters or land vehicle. With its integrated C4I capabilities, the MCS can control two vessels simultaneously. The Seagull USV can be operated in manned and unmanned modes using line-of-sight and SATCOM data links and an integrated navigation, sailing and safety suite. The 12m vessel is manufactured using composite and aluminium materials and can be easily deployed from port or a mother ship and can be transported in a 40 ft. container.



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