Australia faces a growing threat from drone submarines, also known as uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs), as they become cheaper, more common, and more sophisticated. With its extensive coastline and reliance on sea trade and fuel imports, the country is vulnerable to potential blockages, accidents, or explosions caused by these UUVs. To address this threat, Australia needs to incorporate maritime security technologies into its planning.
Australia is not alone in its concerns about submarine security. France and NATO have also taken steps to address autonomous underwater threats. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the effectiveness of small aerial and underwater drones in asymmetric attacks. Current UUVs have various applications, including intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, mine countermeasures, and special operations.
The capabilities of UUVs are expected to expand further. China has achieved record depths and endurance with its underwater gliders. Russia claims to have a prototype nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed undersea drone. Nations are also developing broader programs to control underwater sea domains, such as the United States’ proposed Advanced Undersea Warfare System and China’s “Underwater Great Wall” in the South China Sea.
Some analysts believe that these developments signify a new age of naval warfare. As UUVs become cheaper and more effective, they may become preferred over crewed vehicles for national defense. This shift may also encourage the growth of hybrid or “grey zone” approaches to conflict, where uncrewed marine vessels offer deniability for aggressive actions without crossing the threshold of war.
Drone submarines can be used to create apparent accidents or actions that cannot be easily attributed to their instigators. This raises concerns about the potential impact on Australia’s trade and critical undersea infrastructure. While Australia has taken steps to address the threat through initiatives like the AUKUS security pact and exercises like Autonomous Warrior, there is a need to focus on future threats to maritime trade posed by underwater drones.
One emerging challenge identified in research workshops is the use of mines by UUVs. These mines, equipped with explosives, could disrupt commercial ports, naval assets, and maritime shipping routes, causing delays, revenue loss, and increased insurance premiums. Mines are cost-effective weapons with significant impact and are difficult to detect and neutralize.
Currently, Australia is protected from the threat of underwater drones due to distance and operational difficulties in its maritime environments. However, as technology advances rapidly, the time available for the Australian Department of Defence to address this threat is shrinking. It is crucial for Australia to prioritize the development of strategies and technologies to counter the potential risks posed by UUVs.
(Note: This article is based on research funded by the Australian Department of Defence, and the views expressed are those of the authors.)