The recent COVID-19 outbreak highlights the growing importance of food and fuel security to the Australian national interest. With much of the world's sea transport passing through strategically important bottlenecks, the next-generation Thales/L3Harris counter-mine USV shows how unmanned technology is providing answers to difficult questions.
Roughly 90 per cent of the world's trade is delivered by sea, including oil, food and medical supplies. Australia plays a crucial role in upholding maritime security interests in the Straits of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden; closer to home, vital sea transport links to our largest trading partners cut directly through the South China Sea. For an isolated island nation, an awareness of maritime security threats and capability to effectively counter them are of paramount importance. Much has previously been made of the prevalence and relative cheapness of sea mines – for example when former Defence official Elizabeth White said in ASPI's The Strategist:
"A sea mine is cheap, easy to use, and highly effective at blockading chokepoints. The simplest types of sea mines – variations on the classic spiky ball bobbing in the water – cost only a few thousand dollars but can stop shipping in its tracks.
"Close one or two of those [shipping lanes] down for any length of time, and we’ve got a serious problem on our hands. This fact is not lost on most major players – hence the military patrols, diplomatic negotiations and international conventions in place to try to mitigate risks to these vulnerable spots."
The issue, as Defence Connect explained in detail, is essentially one of dollars and manpower. Even outside of the aircraft carrier space, surface and underwater manned vessels are one of the biggest investments a defence force makes financially, and they are subsequently stacked full of trained personnel on deployment. They are simply too big to lose, and counter measures have long been a thorn in the backside of military planners.
“Australian operations to support mine clearance in Kuwait after the first Gulf War in 1991, for example, stretched for almost five months, searched two square kilometres and dealt with 60 mines," said White.
Reason to despair? Maybe not. Existential problems often serve as a catalyst for innovation. Though perhaps the most clichéd example, the Cold War set humankind off on a nuclear arms race, which then in the late 1960s saw American astronauts landing on the moon. Automation is being touted, by pop-culture icons like Elon Musk and Andrew Yang, to be the watershed technological breakthrough of our generation. It will almost certainly give rise to cheaper, more effective means of overcoming strategic challenges; and in a defence context, is already allowing coalition members to intervene in situations in the Middle East without having to risk putting boots on the ground.
“Soldiers are safer because they can send a UAS down a street, into an intersection or over a hill to have the first look, instead of a soldier – soldiers are safer today because of our UAS projects. Army is more effective because the images and data allow better, quicker decisions to be made by our mission commanders,” Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce told Australian Aviation.
However, in a maritime security capacity, the benefits of unmanned capabilities are increased tenfold, given immense distances covered by RAN operations and associated difficulties in terms of maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). It is for precisely this reason that the ADF has shown so much interest in supplementing the manned Boeing P-8A Poseidons with Northrup Grumman's MQ-4C Triton. So much so, that we could even end up acquiring the UAVs sooner than expected under Project AIR 7000 Phase 1B, in response to a pause in US production.
So what of sea mines, then? Defence Connect recently reported that Thales and L3Harris have joined forces to deliver a new class of unmanned surface vessel (USV) aimed specifically at countering mines, in a world-first move. If all goes to plan, the first two of these USVs will enter service in 2020 with the French Marine Nationale and the British Royal Navy. When mines are located, the USV deploys a smaller, remotely operated vehicle, which can extinguish the threat without risking the more costly controlling vessel.
Compared with traditional methods of MCM, including the deployment of clearance divers, the cost-benefit ratio skews heavily in favour of the unmanned approach. This is, of course, not to mention the human risks involved. Though the ramifications are obvious for the future MCM, some will agree that this is but one example of how unmanned technology is overcoming barriers that were previously insurmountable. Some years or even months from now, acronyms like USV, UAS and UAV will dominate the strategic conversation.
Interestingly enough, Thales pulled no punches in the media briefing released concurrently with the announcement. The company suggested that there is "no reason why the technology can't migrate into new markets and we're open to approaches from interested parties". If White's words are anything to go by, we should be first in that queue.
In terms of the technology's potential to 'migrate', however, it's time to reflect seriously on the role unmanned tech will play in the RAN of the 2020s. If MCM imperatives have triggered the development of unmanned and/or partially automated systems, how long will it be before this technology is co-opted for anti-submarine warfare? If the RAN and RAAF acquire Northrop's Triton drones on (or ahead of) schedule, what's to stop this external ISR capability from expanding into other domains, like coastal or domestic surveillance?
Likewise, reliance on these technologies poses an entirely different set of questions for policymakers. In a geopolitical theatre driven by (largely) Sino-American tensions, can Australia really afford to rely on unmanned technologies that are produced by these countries? Can we afford to develop an addiction to the Triton drone, for example, down the line?
The 2016 Defence White Paper highlighted the Tritons as a capability priority. Hundreds of millions were then sunk into the necessary infrastructure to accommodate the drones, hundreds of millions more into the co-operative development program with the US, and only in the last few weeks is it clear that we will see much for the money – after the US DoD budget for FY2021 announced a two-year 'production pause'.
While it seems no one can answer these questions conclusively, it's time to start paying them some serious thought.