The Ministry of Defence is seeking to develop a new generation of unmanned maritime “drones” that would be used for anti-submarine warfare and possible missile attacks on enemy ships, the Guardian has learned.
A fleet of Royal Navy unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) is already being used in the Gulf to help prevent Iran laying mines in important sea lanes, and ministers are now considering whether similar devices could be used to tackle pirates off the coast of Somalia.
Documents show that the MoD is hoping to hugely improve drone capabilities, having seen how effective they have been for Nato against the Taliban. Whitehall sources confirm the British military wants to integrate drones across the three armed services as a cheaper way of waging war, providing round-the-clock surveillance and gathering intelligence. “The possibilities of these new drone technologies is endless,” a senior defence official told the Guardian.
Plans for the military’s maritime drones are set out in documents published by the MoD’s defence, science and technology laboratory. It has told defence manufacturers it wants their help to develop drones “to provide greater support to maritime operations such as mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare and missile defence”.
“Innovation in maritime technology, including unmanned systems, will make it possible for UK armed forces to continue to use the sea with security and persistence,” the report says. “Unmanned systems are being considered as a potential option to aid in the delivery of a range of different maritime tasks given the range of potential threats and increasing demands on the smaller number of highly capable manned platforms in which much of the UK capability is currently focused.”
The tasks set out are anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures, anti-ship missile defence, counter-piracy operations and support to future submarine operations. The document makes clear the drones could be used to attack potential enemies.
“A range of unmanned systems including UUVs, unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), and unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) may be used to support these maritime tasks,” it continues. “And could be expected to perform a number of roles, including, but not limited to, remote sensing, communications relay, delivery of effects such as the deployment of weapons or countermeasures.”
It says military expectations “are placing increased demands on unmanned systems”. These underwater and surface vessels need to have “increased endurance …to support covert operations”.
The documents include explanations from Lieutenant Commander Kevin Giles about why the navy wants such vessels – for “dirty, dangerous and repetitive” tasks, and to keep costs down. Anti-submarine warfare, Giles explains, is about “finding and sinking” submarines using manned and unmanned systems.