Mean Machines

India is now focusing on manufacturing underwater unmanned vehicles

Rohan Ramesh

It is no secret that future wars will be fought by machines controlled by men. Technology is likely to take out humans from battlefields and dangerous operations. In fact, we could be seeing machines under control by humans doing the bulk of the fighting. That, of course, is still some time away, but we are already seeing some glimpses of the future in the present.

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The rather attractive advantage of using machines to fight our wars is right now uppermost in the minds of military planners, generals, and captains of arms industry. The benefits, at least on paper, are immense. Some of these include lack of need to expose soldiers to direct conflict and potentially dangerous situations, the lack of the need to provide creature comforts in war machines for human crews, and of course, low cost.

Already, armed US unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones in common parlance, commanded by controllers sitting hundreds and even thousands of miles away, are taking part in war theatres in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Dozens of Taliban warlords have been taken out by Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) such as MQ1 Predator and MQ9 Reapers. In fact, air forces the world over are rejoicing over the possibility of acquiring such drones because they obviate the risks associated with using advanced fighter planes flown by pilots – such as pilot loss or capture and loss of extremely expensive hardware that the fighters are. Also, UCAVs present a lesser radar signature, unlike the fighters or bombers. UCAVs are the new sunrise military industry with virtually every country with a military production system worth the name jumping into the fray - Russians with their Okhotnik and the Israelis with their Elbit Hermes 450 following closely in the footsteps of the US. In fact, now the Chinese, whose CAIG Wing Loong is a popular buy, are being viewed as leaders in the field.

As for combat on land, defence contractors are already working the future machines that can become the edge-of-the-attack in whose shadow the infantry follows a role played so far by lumbering, cumbersome tanks that are as much sitting ducks for bombers, as they are a mortally scary prospect for the opposing infantry. The Americans are already off the block here as usual, and they are testing Unmanned Ground Vehicles that will take away high-risk duties from tanks and mine-layers, removing soldiers from direct conflict.

So, what about the seas? Will we see hulking warships, behemoth aircraft carriers, and submarines lurking in the dark depths of oceans make way for flotillas of unmanned craft bristling with cutting-edge technology and weapons? Not in the near future, not in entirety, but somewhat. Navies across the world, stunned by the lethality of drones in air, have now begun to contemplate the enormous benefits of having unmanned underwater vehicles. Imagine an underwater unmanned combat vehicle in which you don’t have to provide for air, water and food, and which is as lethal as any submarine! Basically, a underwater unmanned vehicle (UUV) is a submarine with a brain of its own.

The Indian Navy, too, is interested in acquiring High Endurance Unmanned Underwater vehicles mainly for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Mine-Counter Measures (MCM) duties.

A report on the website states that “Leading navies today use high-tech submersibles for Mine Counter Measure (MCM) operations, naval ISR roles, and ASW missions. Even though UUV technology is still somewhat in infancy, the use of UUVs is growing rapidly, notably in places like the Strait of Hormuz and the South China Sea, changing the way maritime forces perceive littoral operations. The UUVs in contemporary use can be classified into two broad types: autonomous undersea vehicles (AUVs) and remotely operated undersea vehicles (ROVs). Although rapid advances in technology have blurred many distinctions between the two platforms, an AUV differentiates itself from an ROV by maintaining a degree of autonomy from human control. The AUV’s chief attribute is that it can undertake ASW tasks typically carried out by nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), freeing the latter to perform more critical functions. For this, these platforms are equipped with a passive sonar device to enable a constant tracking of submarines.”

India, too, has been pursuing the dream of developing a home-grown UUV. Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed a flat-fish shaped unmanned underwater vehicle. Capable of travelling at seven kilometres per hour, the submersible is controlled by an on-board computer. Designed to operate at depths of over 300 metres, the UUV is completely pre-programmed with algorithms and mission requirements. The Indian Navy is looking at buying 10 of these vessels. The vehicle is capable of extended operations from shore/ship.

The Naval Science and Technology Laboratory (NSTL) based in Vishakhapatnam is also actively trying to build what it calls an indigenously developed AUV. The report on the website further states that “The Indian ASV will be a ‘submadrones’ – a submarine launched swimming spy plane, contained within an underwater drone with folded wings housed in a torpedo canister. The drone is designed to be launched from submarine tubes and deployed in reconnaissance mode for a fixed time period. On completion of the task, it is programmed to drop into the water, to be then recovered by a small autonomous vehicle and returned to the submarine. For deep-sea exploration, India has the ‘Samudra’, a ‘low cost’ AUV that operates underwater with pre-programmed inputs. Fitted with an on-board image processing unit, it can undertake ‘path detection, obstacle avoidance and target identification’ under the sea.”

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