The United States Navy has already begun to assemble its fleet of underwater robots, with an order from Boeing for four unmanned submarines known as "Orca"
I promised in the previous post that we would focus on military uses of robots, and today I want to expand a bit on marine and underwater robots. These have long since ceased to be the domain of science fiction. The United States Navy has already begun to assemble its fleet of underwater robots, with an order from Boeing for four unmanned submarines known as "Orca": Monsters almost twenty meters long, that will do everything that normal submarines do. But it is very difficult to control submarines effectively using radio transmissions that have to pass a hundred meters of sea water. This means that the orcas will also be autonomous, in practice. They may receive the command to attack from a distant human, but they will already do the dirty work themselves.
Orcas will not be alone in the US robotic fleet. Already today, the Navy is building robotic ships of the Sea Hunter type. The ship is remotely controlled and is capable of exploring the sea alone for three months before needing refueling and repairs. The operating cost of such a ship sounds expensive at first - about 15,000 dollars per day - but this is pennies compared to the operating cost of a normal ship of the same size, which is 700,000 dollars per day. In difficult times, it is clear which option the Navy will choose.
If all this is not enough, the RobotShop website reports that there are plans to establish factories that will assemble entire fleets of unmanned vessels, which will be used for reconnaissance and combat purposes. In short, going to be happy in the naval arena in the coming decades.
But what is the long-term plan?
The new fleet
According to a report produced for members of the US Congress in 2019, the strategic planners behind the US Navy want to decentralize and expand the fleet. Today, the navy has two large ships (cruisers and destroyers) for every small ship (frigates and littoral combat ships). The admirals plan to turn this picture upside down, reducing the number of large ships and increasing the number of small ships. But more than that, they want to establish two new categories: large unmanned ships and small unmanned ships. These will be added to the fleet en masse, and their number will far exceed the large and small manned ships combined.
The Navy's strategists demonstrate that they fully understand the advantages of autonomous and unmanned vessels. Since these ships are much cheaper to build and operate, there is no reason not to flood the oceans with them.
From the point of view of the admirals, it is actually about reducing the active forces. And as written in a press release at the beginning of 2019 -
"The Navy plans to spend this year taking the first steps into a very different future, which - if realized - will completely change the way the Navy has fought since the Cold War. And all of this starts with something that may seem counterintuitive: the Navy wants to undergo miniaturization.”
It is really about reducing the number of manned ships, but dramatically expanding the number of robotic ships and their capabilities. The robots will be able to make it difficult for enemies to focus precisely on the more important manned targets (according to the current concept), will be able to man areas that would be too dangerous during wartime, and will allow the fleet to re-adapt itself to missions by changing the equipment they carry.
By the way, if you don't understand how the fleet managers actually announced that they were interested in reducing their manpower, and if this seems to you to be really contrary to all the rules of thumb of organizational conduct, you are absolutely right. At the beginning of 2020, someone in the admiralty fell for the token, then they quickly changed direction and announced that they actually needed an even greater number of manned ships... and many more unmanned ships alongside them, along with the admission that basically no one knows what the right force mix should be in 2030. But that doesn't stop them from demanding an increase in the budget.
Are we blind to the future of naval warfare?
So far we have only talked about robotic ships and submarines. It can be said that we are trying to project onto the future our vision from the present regarding naval warfare. The ships and submarines are so large, among other things, because they must carry a lot of equipment, people, powerful weapons (mainly to damage other ships and pierce their armor) and of course - their own armor.
How can naval warfare look like in an era in which robotics develops even more and in which we begin to free ourselves from the concepts that have bound us so far?
We can - perhaps - find the answer from two events from recent years that put ship crews on high alert.
In the first case, sailors on a Chinese ship docked at a port in Africa spotted divers (reportedly Japanese, but it's hard to understand why they were so sure of the divers' nationality) approaching the ship. The captain decided that this was a dangerous step on the part of Japan, and determined that the ship could react accordingly in order to defend itself. Huge spotlights were pointed at the water in that area, and the divers understood the hint and left the place without doing anything.
In the second case, sailors at a naval base in Virginia reported the presence of a diver in a classified area. The report was enough to trigger a feverish demon dance, and helicopters and ships were called in to sweep the area with tweezers. In the end, not a single diver was discovered on the spot.
Why did these two cases arouse such great concern? The answer is that sailors know very well how vulnerable and sensitive the machines that carry them in the water are. One diver with explosives can sink an entire ship - as indeed happened in 1964, when two Vietnamese divers sank an aircraft carrier of the US Navy. The Al-Qaeda terrorist organization also tried to carry out a similar plan to sink American ships, but without success .
Now imagine the robots of the future designed for naval warfare. They don't have to be as big as submarines or ships. In fact, their size can vary according to requirements. They could be as big as a white shark (approximately four meters long), as a human diver, or even come in the form of a small fish - but they would be together in groups numbering hundreds or thousands of units. They will be able to swim for days with zero expenditure of energy, while being carried by the currents of the oceans, harvesting energy from the movement of the water around them, and waiting for the fitness hour. Then, when the enemy ship arrives, they will go into action. The limited energy they possess will allow them to 'suicide': stick to the side of the ship and explode, release chemical substances that will damage the ship's cladding, or even drill holes in it. In some cases they can simply mass together to clog certain drains and interfere with the ship's operation.
There is evidence for the feasibility of such a scenario. In times of war, divers can leave behind underwater anti-ship mines. Once these are activated, they can be attracted to ships and explode. But these mines are not yet able to move on their own. Sophisticated robots will be able to do this - and actually patrol all over the oceans, while getting rid of the enemies of the country that dispersed them.
Such long-lived robots do not yet exist, but they will most likely be ready for action by the next war. Already today you can find developments in laboratories of 'soft' robots that are able to swim like real fish . Other robots are able to harvest energy from the temperature differences in seawater . Combine the two together with basic autonomous capabilities, and you get the scenario I described.
The strange thing is that so far the US military has tried to use robots for defense purposes anyway: biological robots like dolphins and sea lions. These were used to remove or detonate underwater mines, but their cost was too high for the army, so the navy began to replace them with much smaller and cheaper robots. Once the robots reach the level I described, you can be sure they will be used in similar ways.
Of course, there will be solutions against such ship-killing robots. Military ships will surround themselves with their own little robots that can deal with the attackers effectively. But the important point is that once robotics reaches a sufficiently advanced stage, it will be impossible to continue planning naval warfare without also taking underwater robots into account.
In the coming days I will also write about the ground robots and what is happening in this arena in the military field.
More of the topic in Hayadan:
- The autonomous ship has set off
- The robot that (didn't) think it could: on autonomous robots and unexpected successes
- Intel and Rolls-Royce will develop autonomous cargo ships