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Future of marine defense: Australia and US reveal new underwater drones

Ghost Shark and Manta Ray, Ghost Shark and Manta Ray in free translation, protect the underwater kingdom.

It sounds like the plot of a future Marvel movie, but it's actually what the future of Pacific naval defenses could be.

Ghost Shark and Manta Ray are the names of prototype unmanned underwater vehicles – UUVs or drones – recently introduced by Australia and the United States, respectively.

Experts say submersibles could represent the future of undersea warfare, showing the ability to wield power while minimizing danger to human life.

The use of drones in aerial warfare has become common. The US used them extensively during conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan starting in the 1990s, and the newer, cheaper drones became key pieces of military hardware for both sides in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Kiev has also built surface naval drones, which have caused heavy losses to the much larger and more expensive ships of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

Surface aerial and maritime drones can be controlled using satellites and light and radio waves. But these don't work the same way at depth.

A 2023 study published in the Swiss journal Sensors highlights that underwater communications require more energy but still suffer significant data loss due to variables such as water temperature, salinity and depth.

Manufacturers of the new generation of military drones are not saying how they would overcome the communications problems.

But when Australia unveiled the Ghost Shark last month, it called the prototypes “the world’s most advanced underwater autonomous vehicles.”

“Ghost Shark will provide the Navy with a capability to turn stealth in long-range autonomous undersea warfare, which can conduct persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and attack,” said a statement from the Australian Ministry of Defense, adding that it expects that the first production models will be delivered by the end of next year.

Australian officials and manufacturer Anduril Australia said they could not share any of the Ghost Shark's specifications as they remain confidential.

They also highlighted the speed with which the prototype went from an idea to the start of testing, in a period of just two years.

“Being ahead of schedule, on budget, is unheard of,” Shane Arnott, Anduril’s senior vice president of engineering, told reporters.

“Delivering the first Ghost Shark prototype ahead of schedule sets a new standard for developing capabilities at the speed of need,” Australia’s chief defense scientist Tanya Monro said in a statement.

Emma Salisbury, a fellow at the British Geostrategy Council, said the Ghost Shark looks a lot like the Orca, an extra-large drone currently being developed in the US.

“I assume they are all intended for roughly similar mission sets – persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike capability, particularly in the anti-submarine domain,” Salisbury said.

The U.S. Navy called the Boeing-built Orca drone “an autonomous, unmanned diesel-powered submarine with a modular payload section to perform a variety of missions,” in a December statement about the delivery of a first drone platform. Orca test, an early prototype.

Having a modular payload means that, theoretically, the Orca could carry different varieties of weapons depending on the task, or be equipped with specialized equipment for reconnaissance or possibly intelligence gathering.

The statement said the Pentagon would acquire five more drones, without saying when. But the U.S. Orca has been in development for more than a decade, the Navy statement said, a sharp contrast to the speed with which Australia developed the Ghost Shark.

Chris Brose, chief strategy officer at Anduril, said the company and Australia are in the “process of proving” that “these types of capabilities can be built much faster, much less cost and in a smarter way.”

Anduril Australia said the fully domestically developed Ghost Shark would be made available for export once it joined the Australian naval fleet.

Manta Ray Tests

A Manta Ray vehicle rests on the water's surface between test dives off the coast of Southern California

Meanwhile, back in the Pacific, the Orca isn't the only drone being developed in the US.

The most recent U.S. production drone is Northrop Grumman's Manta Ray, a prototype it tested in Southern California in February and March.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the branch of the Pentagon responsible for developing new technologies, says the Manta Ray's strength lies in its modularity, in the ability to swap payloads depending on the mission.

It can be disassembled and placed into five standard shipping containers, taken to where it will be deployed, and reassembled in the field, according to Northrop Grumman.

The prototype was built in Maryland and then reassembled off the coast of California.

“The combination of intercontinental modular transport, field assembly and subsequent deployment demonstrates a unique capability for an extra-large droen,” said Kyle Woerner, who leads the Manta Ray program at DARPA, in an agency press release.

He also noted that the modular transportation method means the Manta Ray can save internal power for its mission rather than using it to get to the deployment site.

Like Orca, Manta Ray didn't come to fruition as quickly as Ghost Shark. Its program began in 2020 and DARPA has not set a goal for the Manta Ray – or some variant of it – to join the US fleet.

“DARPA is collaborating with the U.S. Navy on next steps to test and transition this technology,” the agency’s statement said.

Meanwhile, China, named by the U.S. military as a “pacing threat” to the United States in the Pacific, is also making advances in drones, Salisbury said.

“While details are sparse, as with most Chinese capabilities, they have been developing them for at least 15 years and probably now have something similar to the Orca (but with torpedoes) in the testing phase,” he said.

Submarine expert HI Sutton says on his Covert Shores website that, according to an open-source intelligence analysis, Beijing is believed to have at least six extra-large drones in development.

In addition to Australia, the US and China, other countries working on drones include Canada, France, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Norway, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, according to Sutton.

Source: CNN Brasil

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