Emerging role of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) in modern naval warfare

The Russian navy’s superior sea supremacy has been primarily due to lack of any recognizable Ukrainian naval deterrence and Russia’s handling of political issues related toTürkiye’s Bosporus Strait chokepoint.

Unmanned Underwater Vehicles
A helicopter takes off from China's Shandong aircraft carrier, over Pacific Ocean waters, south of Okinawa prefecture, Japan. (Representational image: Reuters)

By Milind Kulshreshtha

The Ukraine conflict has primarily been a campaign waged over land and in the air and has established weaponized drones and hypersonic missiles as a routine term in modern warfare. In the Naval domain, the Black Sea has been strategically important and Russia has dominated the contest of control to launch multiple sea to land attacks, despite a loss of the main battleship Moskva. The Russian navy’s superior sea supremacy has been primarily due to lack of any recognizable Ukrainian naval deterrence and Russia’s handling of political issues related toTürkiye’s Bosporus Strait chokepoint. Another ‘yet to be fully exploited’ arsenal in the conflict zone Russian submarines lurking in the depths of the Black Sea. These underwater weapons for overt and covert roles are considered to hold a critical role against Ukraine and NATO forces.

Sea Characterisation for Underwater Operations

The undetected operations being conducted by Russia’ssilent killers in the Black Sea is a testimony to the fact that the submarine crew has a complete knowledge and mastery over the Black Seaunderwater environment.A Naval expert always considers submarine warfare to be the most complex science and here, the awareness regarding the enemy waters for its environmental characteristics like temperature, depth and salinity is considered most basic albeit crucial detail to successfully operate the submarines, while achieving an undetected navigational course, sea-manoeuvres, spot an enemy at farther ranges  or hide within a ‘shadow-zone’ (physics phenomenon related to underwater ray propagation) to ultimately launch a surprise lethal attack. Much of the complex underwater physics is built into submarine instrumentation and every submarine Captain is a master of this knowledge and stealthily enters a conflict zone after ascertaining the real-time water characteristics.Even minor peculiarities like sea roughness on the surface (measured as a sea-state), waves splashing, rain drops etc. are taken into consideration to chart out the submarine’s safe but covert navigational path. Keeping in mind such essential parameters, every submarine is forever on a look out to obtain in advance the sea environment knowledge of its adversary surrounding sea waters for a successful launch of lethal submarine operations. Here, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) are emerging as ideal equipment to covertly obtain underwater profiling of the sea environment. These sea traversing machines are autonomous, self-propelled using variable-buoyancy propulsion and difficult to detect. UUVs are unmanned sea gliders capable of remaining in water for months, while periodically sharing the recorded data to a satellite uplink. Such buoyancy propelled gliders have a saw-tooth pattern across the ocean surface while stealthily moving across the oceans, with a very low self-noise and a small acoustic cross section. These gliders can cover up to a kilometre in a day, thus also giving a high spatial resolution of ocean information.

China’s SeaDominance

According to Chinese experts, deep-sea mining has become a new frontier of international competition on technology and resources. The undersea polymetallic nodules found on the ocean floors contain rich concentrations of nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt, thereby reducing dependency of China’s mammoth manufacturing Industry upon external suppliers.  To achieve its commercial and military objectives, China has been in pursuit of achieving sea dominance in the Indo-Pacific and has launched numerous scientific research vessels, including in the gray-zone of South China Sea.  As a show of soft power, in April2023 the PLA Navy named  five seabed places in the international waters of the Indian Ocean, effectively now naming nine seabed regions in the international waters of the Indian Ocean.

Further, China has invested large resources in construction and deployment of a multitude of unmanned autonomous vehicles to support domination of People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to enhance its sea dominance objectives. In 2019 itself, China had publicly showcased its Large Displacement Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) HSU-001.As per Chinese government claims, the Sea Wing UUVs were launched in the Indian Ocean from end-2019 to Feb 2020for recording more than 3,400 observations. At the very beginning of this year itself, China deployed Zhu Hai Yun, the first seaborne drone carrier ship capable of unmanned scientific research using autonomous navigation and remote-control functionality. This unmanned vessel itself is capable of launching UUVs and Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs).

China is effectively increasing the exploitation of Unmanned vessels like UUVs in the Anti-access Area Denial (A2AD) role to support China’s unlawful political dominance in its surrounding seas, including its self-proclaimed EEZ and around disputed islands in the South China Sea. With the advent of sophisticated UUVs technology, every Navy’s objective today is likely to shift from mere Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) to Underwater Domain Dominance capability enhancement. It’s a well-established fact that the covert underwater measurements and analysis carried out by an adversary during peacetime is a potential sign of future battle preparedness in progress. The development of an accurate Artificial Intelligence (AI) warfare model for employing warfare techniques based on  Machine Learning and Deep Learning now within the core of modern war-fighting machines requires a huge amount of Oceanographic data to optimally compute the Fire Control Solution for torpedoes or launching undersea missiles. Such datasets are being efficiently collated by an adversary utilising UUVscurrentlyalready lurking around in the Indo-Pacific.

India too has been reporting multiple sightings of such underwater unmanned machines in the IOR. The Indian Navy has been working relentlessly to put a robust countermeasureagainst UUVs in place. Even while some of these unmanned vessels are caught, with a lack of ‘country of origin’ markings on them, tracing back the perpetrator can be difficult. Also, implementation of anti-UUV solutions in a vast expanse ofIOR can be a challenge in terms of deployment or creating an ocean-wide networked technology. Meanwhile, it is reported that India too is developing its own home-grown version of Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (XLUUV) for ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) support, Anti-submarine warfare, Anti-surface warfare and mine warfare. Indian Navy is also looking at the development of autonomous and AI capable underwater swarm of drones primarily focussed towards detecting the naval mines and neutralising them.


Sighting of UUVs in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) may apparently look as an inconsequential activity at first, but to naval experts it is a sign of impending future threat evolving around us. India is gearing up against such challenges of covert and coercive tools like UUVs, however, underwater threats are emerging rapidly in the IOR with the changing Indo-Pacific geo-political scenario. Focus on anti-underwater drone capability is a seriously desired technology to detect rogue underwater unmanned vehicles. India’s networked underwater detection system with integrated links to Ocean satellites, Ocean observation stations and Naval assets at sea and shore shall form a part of an integrated solution. Even though China’s Defence budget of about USD 225 billion reflects its global superpower status with a primary aim to counter USA’s much larger Defence spending, India’s double digit billion dollar Defence budget holds a relevance of its own. The government’s effort to encourage niche homegrown technology innovations shall always remain as the best way forward here, with India possessing ample talent to win this contest in the due course.To achieve the objective, the private R&D and Academia interface needs to synergize their efforts, while the Indian Navy has already has an established mechanism to support Startups and MSMEs and have shouldered this additional responsibility beyond operational commitments to safeguard vast Indian coastline.

The author is a Strategic Analyst with an expertise  in technologies related to C4I solutions and Multiplatform Multi-sensor Data Fusion (MPMSDF).

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First published on: 26-05-2023 at 14:31 IST