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Indo-Pacific countries turn to unmanned vessels to patrol region’s waters

Tom Abke

Unmanned maritime vessels soon will patrol Indo-Pacific waters, hunting for underwater ordnance, illegal fishing boats, people who traffic in humans and contraband, oil pollution and other security threats, according to defense planners in Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

Singapore has been testing unmanned surface vessels (USVs) for more than a year and plans to deploy at least three models for its Navy and Coast Guard. South Korea and Japan have both developed USVs suitable for surveillance. Tokyo has also called for development of an unmanned underwater vessel (UUV) for mine detection.

The Republic of Singapore Navy, in collaboration with the island nation’s Defence Science and Technology Agency, is developing a trio of USVs, according to a 2018 fact sheet issued by Singapore’s Ministry of Defence.

The ministry said one USV will be for coastal patrols, a second for underwater scans of the seabed and to detect mines, and a third will be for mine disposal.

Singapore’s Police Coast Guard (PCG) reported that it has been testing 9-meter and 16-meter USVs since 2017. The PCG intends to use the unarmed robotic craft to patrol nearby waters to detect and warn intruders and issue alerts back to shore. (Pictured: An unmanned surface vessel is put to the test during trials in Singapore.)

“The USVs are designed for high speed and maneuverability for its operations,” added the fact sheet. “The USV’s hull also enables good sea-keeping, allowing the USVs to operate in the Singapore Strait even during monsoon seasons.”

Israel’s Elbit Systems, a leading manufacturer of USV patrol vessels, recently announced a U.S. $173 million contract to supply USVs to the navy and coast guard of an unspecified Indo-Pacific country.

Aragon, which is Korean for sea dragon, is the name ascribed to a pair of USVs developed by South Korea’s Korea Research Institute of Ships and Ocean Engineering. The latest model, Aragon II, is a 3-ton USV with a top speed of 43 knots designed for such deployments as fishing surveillance, oceanographic observation/survey, oil pollution monitoring, search and rescue, and other operations unsuitable for human intervention.

The Aquarius is a solar-electric hybrid USV being developed in Japan, according to its maker, Fukuoka-based Eco Marine Power Co. Ltd. (EMP). Fitted with compact low-power marine computer systems, the 5-meter Aquarius has sensors to collect data from above and below the surface that can either be stored onboard or transmitted back to a ship or shore.

“Typical missions for the Aquarius USV,” reported an EMP press release, “could include monitoring harbor pollution, oceanographic surveys, maritime park surveillance, port security, coastal border patrols, marine data collection and anti-submarine warfare.”

A large unmanned underwater vessel is also in the works for Japan, reported Tokyo-based Kyodo News on November 5, 2018. The country’s latest National Defense Program Guidelines call for the development of a 10-meter UUV capable of surveillance. Kyodo tied the call for the UUV to Tokyo’s plan to beef up defense of its Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, unlawfully claimed by China.

This Japanese UUV could be used for detecting underwater mines, The Washington Postnewspaper reported in June 2018. Mine detection could be critical in a mission to retake an island, the Post added, because the presence of mines would hinder the approach of a destroyer or other surface vessels.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.

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