Sea Hunter
© REUTERS / Steve Dipaola
The autonomous ship "Sea Hunter".
The US Navy is eyeing a large-scale introduction of robotic surface ships of various sizes as a counter to China's boosted capabilities. The vision, however, relies on not-yet-proven technologies and may even be a bluff.

The world's largest navy feels threatened by Beijing, whose advancements in anti-ship missile technologies and large investments in its own naval assets over the past years mean that a conflict near China's shores may not end in US favor. Among the Pentagon's plans to deal with the problem is to switch away from larger ships in favor of smaller ones and make scores of them robotic.

A drone ship would be cheaper to build and operate since it doesn't need all the facilities for the meatbags and the drones may be spread over wider areas.

The US admirals seem confident enough in this vision to request $629 million in 2020 for research and development and want to spend a total of $4.5 billion on the efforts though 2024, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.


Comment: So, in short, the US navy wants billions from the tax payer for a project which, ultimately, won't benefit the public at all.


Automatization and introduction of drones in combat is a process that happens in many nations, but it's evolutionary, so it remains in question whether the US Navy can do it quickly, drone expert Denis Fedutinov told RT.

"Obviously, first you build relatively small boats to develop the technologies and then gradually switch to larger crewless ships that can conduct a wider range of missions," he said.

The US Navy may have been emboldened by the trials of the Sea Hunter, the 135-ton autonomous trimaran ship developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as an anti-submarine sensor platform. The robotic ship (accompanied by a manned convoy which checked on her systems from time to time) managed to travel from San Diego to Hawaii and back all on her own earlier this year.

Boeing's experimental large unmanned submarine Orca won a contract from the Navy this year, with four ships in the pipeline now - another testament for the progress of the robotic technologies at sea.


Comment: If they're anything like Boeing's aircraft, it's a good job there's no intention of having any crew members on board.


But even if the technology for remotely-controlled or partially autonomous vessels will be there within years, there will be other considerations, pointed out Michael Maloof, a former senior security policy analyst at the Pentagon. Even the vast budgets that the DoD gets these days are still limited. And drones come with their unique vulnerabilities.

"Before you deploy, you've got to have a system in place that can counter any means to knock out [the drones] especially given how expensive they are going to be," he told RT.

One widely publicized example was Iran tricking a US RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone to land on its territory by spoofing GPS data, Maloof said. One can imagine a similar scenario could allow somebody to hijack one of the US Navy's robotic crafts and get access to all the technology on it.


"They could take this robotic ship and turn it against us. Let's say it's armed with ballistic missiles, and those get into the wrong hands. There are a lot of consequences here, that have not been addressed," he said.

On the other hand, he added, the entire buzz about the robotic fleet and how China's naval build-up would be nullified by it may be the modern incarnation of the Strategic Defense Initiative. The Reagan-era program made the Soviet Union believe that its nuclear deterrence could be countered by the US anti-ballistic missile systems and invest a lot of resources into preventing this outcome. But in reality the SDI was to a large degree fiction.

"It was a big bluff. We still don't have the technologies for that," Maloof said.