Drone Warfare Moves Underwater

Newly released information about U.S., Chinese and now Indian unmanned undersea military craft says the world of automated undersea surveillance and AI-controlled weaponry is already upon us.

Conventional manned submarines like this will likely be replaced and augmented by sophisticated underwater unmanned drones in many countries.

In 2017, the United States quietly issued contracts for its first group of unmanned underwater deep sea drones. The stated purpose of these vessels is for anti-submarine surveillance, mine clearing, and potential combat capabilities. Sitting between the role of advanced torpedoes and full-size manned submarines, these vessels, these advanced computerized and artificial-intelligence (AI) guided marine drones provide the potential for a entirely new class of defense and offense in the sea. They have a much lower detection profile – think sonar – than conventional submarines and can therefore slip past newer detection systems to patrol close to as well as potentially within waters under another nation’s control. They also have the potential for adaptive reconnaissance, doing the equivalent of scanning the seas around them with multiple kinds of sensors, then using on-board processing to guide further analysis or potential deployment of other technology to scan the underwater horizons.

In the future and probably even now, such drones will carry attack and clearing weaponry of various types. They may also be used for everything from electronic and communications warfare to be a physical launchpad for other miniature weapons.

One example of this is Lockheed Martin’s classified Orca program. It is designed to be positioned remotely with no communication to a base for an extended period of time, operating and making decisions using its own defined mission objectives, onboard sensors, and AI computing apparatus. As the company said about the project in a statement announcing what they could about it, Lockheed Martin said that, “A critical benefit of Orca is that Navy personnel launch, recover, operate and communicate with the vehicle from a home base and are never placed in harm’s way.”

In July 2018, as China was expanding its navy to include its first aircraft carrier, news leaked of China’s plans to develop a sizeable low-cost fleet of its own underwater drones. Like the first fleet of U.S. underwater subs, these will feature sophisticated artificial intelligence and guidance systems. They too will be used for advanced surveillance and defensive operations. The vessels will also reportedly be used not just for mine clearing but mine placement as well, and will have the capability for unmanned ‘suicide’ missions to destroy specific enemy targets.

These kinds of vessels also have the advantage that they can be designed to learn from what is happening around them with other vessels in its ocean-borne ‘pod’ of other subs. If one is destroyed or runs into a problem, information about that damaged sub can help the others in the group to learn from the event, adjust instructions, and survive to fight another hour, day or more.

According to a recent interview with Lin Yang, marine technology equipment director at the Shenyang Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, confirmed the overall details of the program released this summer. He also said the Chinese government is even developing a set of extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles, known by the acronym XLUUVs. These will reportedly include cargo bays capable of deploying other devices and weaponry in the field.

Lin himself is deeply involved in the new ventures. Even now, his institute is one of several producers of underwater robots in use by the Chinese military. Lin was a senior leader on the program which created China’s first autonomous underwater vehicle capable of operating at depths beyond 6 kilometers. Lin is now reportedly acting in the role of chief scientist of the 912 project, a program to create the next generation of Chinese underwater military robots.

Another researcher connected with the Chinese program pointed out some of the critical advantage of such AI-powered unmanned submarines. He said that an AI sub “can be instructed to take down a nuclear-powered submarine or other high-value targets. It can even perform a kamikaze strike.”

The researcher went on to say about such missions that “The AI has no soul. It is perfect for this kind of job.”

China has already indicated its planned to build an “Underwater Great Wall” filled with seabed sensors to track the presence of any hostile intruder which might get to close to Chinese waterways. Long-endurance underwater drones of the kinds described above would likely be deployed along that “Great Wall” as reconnaissance systems to track and protect the mainland.

News about these programs came into focus recently when news broke just this week from India about its own drone plans. As it has watched the Chinese navy get more established both on the water and beneath it in both the South China Sea and, more recently, the Indian Ocean, India has grown more fearful of how to maintain its control and influence in the region.

As with the Chinese and American models for how these drones could be used, there is a vision of the unmanned deep sea underwater vessels being connected to a human-controlled mothership. That mothership would help bring the ‘pod’ of drones out to its target deployment area, release the drones, and communicate with them only as needed to manage their missions.

For India another important value for the country is that underwater drones will eventually be cheaper to deploy than manpowered submarines, especially as the cost of technology goes down. In a country with stretched resources in other ways, this could provide a way of more efficiently managing the country’s financial investments in defense.


While this is clearly a net positive, the lower cost of these solutions than manned submarines is also a serious negative for the world. Cheaper marine weaponry means it will get easier than ever for fringe elements and radical enemy groups to afford these. That, combined with what the researcher said above about “The AI has no soul”, could mean these sorts of drones could bring deadlier than ever forms of weaponry closer to home borders – within 5 years at most.