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Facing threats from a new wave of potentially hostile submarines, DARPA has launched a self-driving sub detector prototype named Sea Hunter. The 130-foot twin-screw trimaran was designed to be stable in all types of weather and can sail for thousands of miles and for months at a time. The unarmed prototype has a small cabin for a human to operate the vessel if needed, but the final version will not house any crew.
“This is an inflection point,” Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Work said in an interview, adding he hoped such ships might find a place in the western Pacific in as few as five years. “This is the first time we’ve ever had a totally robotic, trans-oceanic-capable ship.”
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…
“I would like to see unmanned flotillas operating in the western Pacific and the Persian Gulf within five years,” [Work] 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 U.S. military.
As the US military focused on counter-insurgency and extended deployments in the Middle East, it has let its essential anti-submarine warfare (ASW) skills and technology atrophy. China, Russia, and Iran continue to build up their undersea warfare capabilities, while the US Navy cut its submarine force by 30 percent.
China is deploying ultra-quiet diesel-powered subs which can gain disturbingly easy access to US carrier groups, and Iran has focused on small, shallow-water subs. These pose a far different threat from the USSR’s nuclear, blue-water leviathans that American ASW strategy was created to challenge.
Hopefully, the Sea Hunter is just the first adjustment in US naval strategy which will protect our interests well into the future.