October 17, 2017 · Micronaval Affairs Analysis

Analysis: Autonomous Undersea Conflict

As the unmanned era continues to unfold, the nature of undersea warfare is changing rapidly. Not only will autonomous undersea vehicles be utilized for missions deemed too dangerous, tedious, or resource intensive for manned platforms, they will also engage in a brand of conflict all their own.

Since the early days of the Cold War, the United States and its adversaries have engaged in a high-stakes undersea game of cat and mouse, a game which, while fraught with danger, preserves a fragile peace in a world seemingly bent on its own destruction. While the barriers to gameplay are great - financial, material, manpower - so too is the responsibility to safeguard the lives of those charged with playing this dangerous game, and to guard against the hostile acts that could lead to war.

But that is about to change.

Whereas in peacetime there is every reason to avoid combat between manned platforms - not the least of which being the preservation of human life - such reasoning does not seem to apply in the case of unmanned systems. Unencumbered by this imperative, and with the cover of the opaque undersea environment, fleets of unmanned vehicles will be largely free to disrupt, degrade, and destroy one another at will as they seek to carry out their orders and complete their mission.

There are four principles underpinning the rise of autonomous undersea conflict (AUC):

By deploying AUVs that are expendable, navies can absorb losses without impairing readiness or mission success. Moreover, there are truly "acceptable" losses in the case of unmanned systems, losses which are unlikely to ignite the political backlash or public outcry that accompanies human casualties.

While mission requirements and technological constraints will likely demand a contingent of large and medium diameter AUVs, a core fleet of nimble, micro AUVs built on modular, flexible, and highly adaptive systems would enable dynamic, on-the-fly role modifications, further ensuring mission success.

Unlike their UAV cousins, whose operations in hostile airspace are vulnerable to detection via advanced radar, satellites, and even the naked eye, AUVs will be at an advantage given the opaque nature of the undersea battlespace, as well as their quiet operation and small size, enabling them to operate unmolested in contested or denied areas.

With the capability to operate unmanned vehicles unmolested in denied areas (territorial waters, EEZs, harbors, inland waterways), nation-states and nonstate actors are afforded the potential for a kind of anonymity not provided by manned undersea platforms. In this way, unmanned undersea combat is analogous to cyber warfare, wherein nonhuman combatants (viruses, worms, Trojan horses) are deployed to disrupt or destroy targeted systems with minimal risk of attribution. (This is not to be confused with actual cyberattacks on AUV-related computers and information systems underpinning the operations of the vehicles themselves.) Unmanned combat, like cyber warfare, provides the actors with a veil of anonymity and the luxury of deniability as shelter from political, economic, or military reprisal.

In future installments we will explore the strategic, operational, and tactical implications of AUC, how it will resemble modern fighter combat, and how future micro AUV design will need to consider speed, maneuverability, and survivability.

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