Naval warfare relies on a combination of vehicles working together. Submarines hunt under the sea, fast ships screen for incoming threats, and aircraft fly overhead, seeking danger beyond the line of sight. In August, as part of a naval technology exercise, an unmanned ship sent a signal to an unmanned submarine, which then launched a drone from a canister on its back. Welcome to the future of naval war, where robots command robots.
For now, robots controlling and informing other robots about what’s happening doesn’t necessarily lead to action, but in the future it won’t be hard to imagine an entirely unmanned vanguard scouting for a fleet or patrolling a slice of ocean and reporting back only the most relevant information to the humans in charge.
None of the robots in this exercise were armed, their payloads instead contained sensors and cameras. And for the most part, we can expect unmanned vehicles at sea to primarily be scouts, much like how the vast majority of military drones flown over land are unarmed. Even ACTUV, the Navy’s large experimental submarine hunting autonomous ship, is designed to find enemies, not destroy them. A team of smaller robots, operating on the edge of a fleet, could find foes while the armed and human-carrying vehicles are further out of range, almost forming a robotic vanguard between danger and people.
That’s for tomorrow’s naval tacticians to sort out. In the meantime, the technology is already there for a robotic boat to tell a robotic submarine to launch a robotic airplane. The future of naval war is rapidly becoming its present.