US Navy Goes Unmanned

  • Thursday, July 12, 2012
  • Archimedes
  • Recently there's been some ripples in the waves caused by some new toys that the US Navy is playing with. In response to Iran's threat of closing a narrow shipping strait crucial to the world oil trade and the stalling of diplomatic talks over the Iranian nuclear program, the USN has deployed two carriers, a squadron of F-22s and at least a carrier air wing of older carrier aircraft, several mine clearing frigates in addition to the normal carrier battlegroups, and two Army brigades are standing by to Kuwait. The forces mentioned above are very obvious to anyone aware of the situation in Iran, and have been acknowledged by the pentagon, but what has not yet been commented on or even mentioned are a fleet of tiny unmanned submarines deployed by the Navy.

    While various newspapers and other information sources refer to these vehicles as unmanned "drone" submarines, they are really just specialized torpedoes, weighing in at around 100 pounds and small enough to be deployed by helicopters and motorboats. Equipped with a camera and a "high-caliber shaped charge" and guided by optical fiber, these torpedoes are sent on search and destroy suicide missions aimed mostly against naval mines...

    This is the part where several narrow/nearsighted critics started bemoaning the taxpayers money, for the thought of using a 100,000 dollar advanced torpedo to take out a mine which cost at most a few thousand dollars to make and deploy does sound a bit tactless. One outspoken critic describes the idea as a over-sophisticated way to accomplish something that can be done by sticking a bomb on a stick and poking a mine. While I certainly admire the critic's bravado, I am not so confident that this multi-million stunt was really undertaken just to give defense contractors their profits (furthermore I am certainly not volunteering to be engaged in any activity which involves a stick, a shaped charge, a naval mine, and frankly, an idiot.)

    Think back to the days where the skies were dominated by flashy planes and the F-117 was the way to get a missile somewhere without being noticed. Nowadays if we wanted a hellfire missile in someones window all we need is a predator drone. The move to unman certain undemanding tasks such as shooting a missile at the ground from an aircraft was the ultimate end result of a slow chain of events. Unmanned aircrafts started out as a sheer redundancy, the first unmanned drones were meant for use as artillery spotters and were literally RC planes with webcams attached. When the first drones took to the skies guided missiles had already dominated the world of indirect fire support, and even if you had to use tube artillery, all one needed was some skill in mathematics and a radar. The thought of using a shiny camera in the sky to correct fire must have seemed as ludicrous as using a 100,000 dollar submarine to take out naval mines.

    Now you see where I'm going with this?

    In the world of submarines, there are many tasks that make shooting missiles at rocks seem like the pinnacle of human entertainment. Take for example the ominous tasks of ballistic missile submarines, whose job is to safeguard a small forest of nuclear missiles in case the order ever came to demolish the face of the planet. With the world as (relatively) peaceful as it is now, I'm certainly not going to hold my breath waiting for that order to be sent, and really, should the submarine ever receive that order, its just a matter of uploading a few coordinates and pushing the big red button. The theoretical endurance of the reactor of a Ohio-Class ballistic missile sub is about a decade, while the endurance of the crew's rations is only about half a year, and the endurance of the sanity of the crew locked inside an undersea coffin for months at a time is still unknown. On-board a submarine whose job is to hide and make as little noise as possible and remain hidden for as long as possible all in order to perform a relatively simple task should the need arise, the benefits getting rid of some noisy, needy, fragile, and unpredictable humans are quite apparent.

    Of course people are going to have a few scary thoughts about placing the firepower to decimate the planet within an automated platform which can play hide-and-seek indefinitely for as long as it wants (sounds like a bad movie), but boomer (ballistic missile) subs are not the only ones that can be automated. (and really, if you are going to have nightmares about unmanned nuclear submarines blowing up your house, just put an independent targeting system on the missile, the subs job is just to fire the damned things, you can have the honor of telling them where to go and when to blow up, or just give the unmanned guy conventional missiles) Passive sonar detectors, mobile off vector torpedo launchers (shooting at you from one direction while I [the real sub] is in another direction), decoy subs (which are already in use), mine-layer subs, the possibilities are nearly endless. 


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