USV : Modern Naval Warfare
There is a big leap in the sphere of naval warfare pretty much like in the aerial scenario. Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs), also called autonomus surface vehicles (ASV) forms the tip of the spear in this modern naval warfare. Colloquially called as “drone ships”, USVs with AI have been in research phase for quite a decade. The boom of Machine Learning and AI in the past decade has witnessed many navies around the world research on USVs from AI systems engineering approach rather than the remote controlled editions post WW2. Let us go through how these USVs evolved over time and what the future holds.
After WW2, remote controlled USVs carried out minesweeping operations for a couple of decades. The advances made in control systems and navigation technologies facilitated remote operations from a nearby warship. Later on, autonomous systems were developed and right now, AI is becoming an important part of it.
US Navy DARPA Sea Hunter
Sea Hunter is an autonomous USV prototype launched in 2016. It was developed under the ACTUV program. Sea Hunter is a class 3 USV which is categorized as medium displacement. Sea Hunter features a trimaran design that offers great advantages when it comes to stability and operations in shallow waters. The right configuration of side hulls offer significant advantages from a resistance point of view for certain speed range.
- Length : 40 m
- Displacement : 145 tons (40 tons of fuel)
- Top Speed : 27 knots (but definitely would have been analyzed for much higher speeds)
- Propulsion : 2 x Diesel Engines
- Range : 19000 km @ 12 knots
- Endurance : 30 to 90 days
- Max. Operational Sea State : Sea State 5
- Survivable Sea State : Sea State 7
In June 2016, Sea Hunter had completed its initial performance trials. It surpassed all performance objectives for speed, maneuverability, stability, sea-keeping, acceleration/deceleration, fuel consumption and mechanical systems reliability in the open ocean trials. Later on it has also completed various tests with regard to sensors, autonomy suite etc.
The US Navy is currently exploring into various payload modules that can be put on. It also intends to lock on to submarines using this and trail it continuously. As of Sept 2020, US Navy is integrating the autonomous capabilitie on the program of record C4I systems. Also, the AEGIS combat system is being adapted to make it a part of the netted fleet. However firing decisions still will have a human control within the loop.
Chinese USV (copy of Sea Hunter)
The designation of this project is unknown. However imagery analysis done by well-known OSINT H I Sutton had speculated an exact copy of Sea Hunter by the Chinese Navy. A photo posted on Weibo confirmed this speculation. It showed such a USV on the Yangtze river, outside the Jiang Tongfang New Shipbuilding Co. Based on analyses, the Chinese vessel is slightly longer and wider. This probably means it has a higher displacement. However the side hulls / outriggers are closely spaced and overall beam is less compared to the Sea Hunter.
The vessel was launched before August 20, 2019 going by the historic satellite imagery. Length and Width were estimated as 43 m and 16 m.
Chinese USV (JARI-USV)
The PLAN navy unveiled the JARI-USV, a catamaran during the defense exhibition AAD in South Africa in September 2018.
It has a length of about only 15 m and a displacement of 20 tons. It is capable of conducting air defense, anti-ship and anti-submarine missions. This is because it houses a phased array radar system, 324 mm torpedoes and 4 cell VLS. It has a foredeck mounted 30 mm canon and laser guided rockets pod. It has electro-optical/infrared turret, navigation radar, searchlights and communication antennas.
JARI is remotely controlled but uses AI for autonomous navigation. Some experts say that this drone ship could work stealthily alone or form a swarm with others.
The Tianxing-1 is a 6.5 m long, carbon fiber hulled USV. It can operate autonomously or with a ground support. The Chinese launched a larger version of this which is 12.5 m long capable of attaining 50 knots. It is armed with a 12.7 mm machine gun.
In addition to these the Chinese also plans on developing a drone Mothership which is the D3000 stealthy robotic trimaran warship. It is a 30 m long vessel that will operate autonomously. It has a displacement estimated around 100-150 tons.
The D3000 would probably be equipped with anti-ship missile launchers built into the superstructure and launch tubes above the waterline. These launch tubes can launch torpedoes, lay mines, or deploy underwater unmanned vehicles.
PLAN is currently testing this Chinese HSIB. Speculations that it can achieve 80 knots do exist! Machine guns form a part of this USV. The arsenal might expand once it enters service.
Turkish USV ULAQ
Turkish AI enabled USV ‘ULAQ’ is the latest news. Its sea trials started this month, off the coast of Antalya. It is a collaboration between Turkish companies ARES shipyard and METEKSAN Defence.
ULAQ was first unveiled in October 2020. This USV has a range of 400 km, operating at speeds of 35 knots although top speed could be around 40 to 45 knots. It has day/night vision capabilities, encrypted communications infrastructure. This facilitates its operation from frigates or aircraft carriers. Its roles include surveillance, reconnaissance, surface warfare etc.
It has 4 cells of Cirit. Cirit is a 70 mm ‘laser-guided’ missile system. This USV has 2 L-UMTAS which is a long range air to surface anti-tank missile. The end of first quarter of 2021 will witness the firing tests of this USV. ULAQ has jamming and electronic warfare systems to correspond diverse operational needs.
Other Navies’ USV ambitions
The Russian Navy is probably testing the use of UUVs and USVs from its Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov class frigate, popularly known as the Diamond Warfare System. The navies of Singapore (MRCV) and Japan (30FFM) are also working on similar USV projects.
Where does India stand when it comes to USV?
During May 2018, the Indian Navy issued RFI for procurement of 12 USV and simulator. The requirements want Anti-submarine warfare (ASW), Mine Counter Measures (MCM), Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Force Protection Measures (FPM) Operations capabilities in these USVs.
The desired length is less than or equal to 12 m. The RFI expects information with regard to modular design, replaceable mission modules. It expects low radar, magnetic, acoustic, visual and IR signatures. It demands capability for autonomous operations in addition to the remote controlled operations.
During DefExpo 2018, GRSE and Elbit Systems, Israel showcased a model of Seagull USV. It can be operated from a mother ship or shore systems. It meets the above mentioned requirements. The C4I capability of the MCS enables the control of 2 USVs simultaneously.
With the current economic circumstances, and with plans for a 3rd aircraft carrier, submarine fleet expansion already accounting for the capital expenditure of Indian Navy, the funds for next gen projects seem to be inadequate. However the Navy can explore at repurposing an existing platform for such drone mother-ship and swarm USV concepts. These are more like a retrofit work rather than a development form scratch.
Want to read more about Catamarans? Read here https://alpha-defense.com/catamarans-what-why-and-how/
Interested about Light Carriers? Read here https://alphadefense.in/lpx-ii-of-south-korea/
Interested about Submarines or aircraft carriers? Read here https://alphadefense.in/submarine-versus-aircraft-carrier-why-not-both/