Unmanned technology viewed as key tool in deterring submarine threat

Unmanned technology viewed as key tool in deterring submarine threat

Unmanned vessel and vehicle technology took center stage at the Maritime/Air Systems and Technology (MAST) Asia 2019 trade show and conference in Tokyo when speakers discussed the emerging submarine threat in the region.

Presenters from Australia, Europe, Japan and the United States in June 2019 discussed the importance of unmanned technology in countering submarines, along with the promise of such related technology as wireless and renewable charging, underwater communications, command and control systems, and unmanned monitoring of maritime infrastructure.

“The next 10 to 15 years will see a surge in the number of next-generation conventional submarines appearing in our region,” Tim Cain, technical director underwater systems for Thales Australia, told conference attendees in his presentation on the role of unmanned surface vessels (USVs) in anti-submarine warfare (ASW). “The Indian and Pacific oceans will see expanded operations of these quiet submarines as they seek to operate beyond their coastlines and project a strategic interest within the region.”

Emerging technologies enable the stealth submarines to stay below the surface for longer periods on more extended deployments, he said. USVs will be key to detecting them and countering the threat they present.

“To deliver the necessary ASW effect at theater level,” Cain said, “it may well be that a combined fleet of these differing USV types will be required.”

(Pictured: Attendees confer at MAST Asia 2019 in Tokyo.)

Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), meanwhile, are also expected to serve as ASW assets “to collect the information under the sea in the threatened area,” explained Tatsuya Kumazawa and Kouki Okabe with the Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA) of Japan’s Ministry of Defense. Japan is constructing a new test facility for onshore tests and evaluations of UUVs in the city of Iwakuni, they added.

ATLA has been working with the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group of Australia’s Department of Defence since 2015 on research related to UUV hydrodynamics, said David Pook, research fellow at Australia’s RMIT University, to enhance and optimize UUV capabilities.

Building a vast underwater digital communication network using acoustic signal to share information between submarines, destroyers, submerged UUVs and other underwater assets is another ATLA project, explained the agency’s Takahiro Kudo, a defense technical official.

“Unmanned and autonomous vehicles are one of the most attractive and important technologies for many kinds of applications,” said Masatsugu Ogawa, principal researcher of Japan’s NEC Corp.

By extending operations into areas where human operations are difficult or dangerous, they have the potential to reduce human risk, he added. These could include operating at great underwater depths on offshore oil rigs or pipelines or with submerged explosives.

NEC has developed an adaptive and autonomous control algorithm to enhance UUV abilities to handle complex tasks involving multiple targets, he said. In addition, the firm has developed an underwater antenna to charge the batteries of UUVs. Such charging could come from renewable wave power, said Takao Suzuki, manager at Mitsui E&S Shipbuilding Co. Mitsui demonstrated this potential by testing a “wave power buoy” near Japan’s Kozu Island in 2017, he added.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.