Scott Morrison and Christopher Pyne alongside French Defence Minister Florence Parly (AAP/Lukas Coch)

During a state address in March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled the world’s first nuclear-armed unmanned submarine — essentially a nuclear torpedo — known as the Poseidon. Now, more recently, Russia has announced that the first submarine capable of carrying the drone will launch in 2019.

While some experts have questioned Russia’s claims about the Poseidon’s ability to inflict damage, its development has long concerned military experts in the west.

But it’s not just Russia that’s working to harness rapidly developing underwater drone technology. On February 14, the United States Navy awarded a $43 million contract to Boeing to build four so-called Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles code-named “Orca”.

The Orca is intended to prowl the world’s oceans under the control of its own artificial intelligence for months at a time. The US Navy says it wants to use it to locate hidden mines, track submarines and surface ships, engage in electronic surveillance  and conduct strike missions.

Australia plays catch-up

This flurry of activity on underwater drones by the world’s two biggest military powers highlights Australia’s recent decision to ink a $50 billion contract for 12 submarines with French state-owned company Naval Group.

The time frame for the delivery of these traditionally manned submarines has already been stretched out to 2034, making their manufacture and their deployment lifespan an extremely long-term project. Already, the possibility has surfaced that at least some of Australia’s existing Collins-class submarines may need to be refurbished to plug the gap until the new submarines arrive.

Military experts who spoke to Crikey have noted how significantly the strategic outlook has changed in Asia Pacific in recent years, yet Australia’s submarine strategy is making a gamble that the submarines will still be a valid asset in 30 or more years. An increasing number of experts both inside and outside the Australian Defence Force have questioned this strategy and whether the Royal Australian Navy should be placing more focus on newer technologies that are driving underwater drone development.

What are underwater drones?

Submarines remain a valuable strategic asset. They can take out shipping, remain undetected while gathering intelligence, carry huge payloads — both nuclear and traditional — and strike relatively quickly. 

Broadly speaking, there are two classes of unmanned submarines, or unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs): remotely operated underwater vehicles, controlled by a remote human operator in the same way as aerial drones; and autonomous underwater vehicles, which operate independently of direct human control using sophisticated sensor technology.

UUV’s are not solely for defence — ocean and climate researchers are also pinning their hopes on this new class of submersibles considerably adding to research capabilities. There’s also a growing sector of detection technologies, nanotechnology and magnetics involved in their rise. 

What is the navy doing about underwater drones?

The Royal Australian Navy is paying a small amount of attention to UUVs. Last year it put on an open day at HMAS Cresswell in Jervis Bay to showcase autonomous technology. But it has not been part of the public conversations involved with the navy’s $90 billion Naval Shipbuilding Plan, of which the submarine contract is the biggest single component.

Critics say that this is because there is no political mileage in underwater drones. But, as one navy insider put it, the dilemma is what happens if we do nothing.

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