WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
- We are entering the age of fully autonomous warfare and inevitably, one day, humans will not be in the loop
The US military have launched their first experimental, fully autonomous self-driving warship, dubbed Sea Hunter, and representing a major advance in robotic warfare, which is increasingly forming the core of America’s strategy to counter the Chinese and Russians, it’s designed to hunt enemy submarines.
The 132ft unarmed ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) prototype is the naval equivalent of Google’s self-driving car. Designed to cruise on the ocean’s surface for two or three months at a time and with a range of over 10,000 miles it has neither a crew nor anyone controlling it remotely. And that kind of endurance and autonomy could make it a highly efficient submarine stalker at a fraction of the cost of the Navy’s manned vessels.
“This is an inflection point,” Deputy US Defense Secretary Robert Work said in an interview, adding he hoped such ships might find a place in the western Pacific in as little as five years. “This is the first time we’ve ever had a totally robotic, trans-oceanic-capable ship.”
For Pentagon planners such as Work, the Sea Hunter fits into a strategy to incorporate unmanned drones – with increasing autonomy – into the conventional military in the air, on land and at sea.
It also comes as China’s naval investments, including in its expanding submarine fleet, stoke concern in Washington about the vulnerability of the aircraft carrier battle groups and submarines that remain critical to America’s military superiority in the western Pacific.
“We’re not working on anti-submarine technology just because we think it’s cool. We’re working on it because we’re deeply concerned about the advancements that China and Russia are making in this space,” said author Peter Singer, an expert on robotic warfare at the New America Foundation think tank.
Work said he hoped the ship, once it is proven safe, could head to the US Navy’s Japan based 7th Fleet to continue testing and his goal is to have ships like the Sea Hunter operating on a range of missions, possibly even including counter-mine warfare operations, all with limited human supervision.
“I would like to see unmanned flotillas operating in the western Pacific and the Persian Gulf within five years,” he said, comparing the prototype ship to early drone aircraft.
The ship’s projected $20 million price tag and its $15,000 to $20,000 daily operating cost make it relatively inexpensive for the US military.
“You now have an asset at a fraction of the cost of a manned platform,” said Rear Admiral Robert Girrier, the Navy’s director of unmanned warfare systems.
A new era
Developed by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the ship is about to undergo two years of testing, including to verify that it can safely follow international norms for operating at sea.
First and foremost is ensuring that it can use radar and cameras to avoid other vessels. Powered by two diesel engines, the ship can reach speeds of 27 knots.
The advent of increasingly autonomous drones, ships and aircraft is stoking concern among some experts and activists about armed robotic systems that could identify people as threats and kill them. During the christening ceremony in Portland, Girrier raised the possibility of someday positioning weapons on the Sea Hunter. But he stressed that even if the United States ever decides to arm robotic naval systems such as Sea Hunter, any decision to use offensive lethal force would be made by humans.
“There’s no reason to be afraid of a ship like this,” Work told reporters at the ceremony.
Sure, whatever you say Rear Admiral…