U.S., NATO team up to field unmanned sub-hunting platforms with eye on Russia

The United States and NATO are joining forces to beef up cooperation in developing and deploying unmanned maritime systems, according to an agreement signed by defense chiefs of 13 member nations.

The agreement, which was signed in July, calls for joint development of technologies designed to improve anti-mine and anti-submarine capabilities, an October news release announcing the agreement said.

“The use of unmanned systems is a potentially game changing leap forward in maritime technology,” the release said, as cited by Defense News. “Working alongside traditional naval assets, these unmanned systems will increase both our situational awareness and our control of the seas.”

There were not many additional details in the release, but it appears as though the agreement’s signatories are committed to developing a common, interoperable capability that can be deployed throughout the alliance, and more efficiently.

“Through this initiative, Allies will also be able to exploit economies of scale to reduce costs, allowing increasing defense budgets to go even further,” the release said.

Signatories are Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Analysis: Without question, this effort is aimed at checking the renewed threat posed to the alliance by Russia, especially in the North Atlantic, but also in waters along NATO’s periphery. 

“NATO members are alarmed by the growing threat from Russian submarines and are investing more resources to deal with it,” Jorge Benitez, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously served as the lead on NATO issues for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “Under [President Vladimir] Putin, Russia has deployed new, stealthier submarines in the North Atlantic that are much harder for NATO navies to track.

“This new multinational cooperation in undersea drones is the most recent example that NATO is taking the Russian threat in the North Atlantic much more seriously than it has in the past quarter-century.”

But why unmanned systems (drones)? Because for one thing, they’re very likely going to be much cheaper to build than attack submarines.

Speaking of attack boats, U.S. and NATO sub numbers have fallen from Cold War highs and though many countries including the United States are working and deploying new sub designs, the numbers of them will continue to decline.

For the U.S. Navy, the number of attack and ballistic missile submarines currently operating has fallen to 56, and that figure is expected to decline to 42 by 2028. The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan calls for keeping sub numbers below 48 through 2032. 

As such, developing unmanned drones that can perform some undersea functions will free up actual submarines for tougher, more important duty.

But it’s not just Russian submarines that need to be kept in check. The U.S. and NATO also have undersea infrastructure to protect such as data cables that are vital to the global economy. Also, Russia in recent years has fortified areas in the Black and Barents seas with anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons including pop-up mines that require monitoring, in order to give NATO military planners as much information as possible about vital areas and chokepoints.

The problem right now is that NATO lacks robust undersea systems that have range, endurance, and the ability to communicate underwater. The new agreement seeks to combine NATO resources to overcome these current shortfalls with new undersea capabilities and technologies.

“It’s an important statement that NATO allies and partners are thinking seriously about these emerging capabilities — and they need to think about them,” said Michael Horowitz, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research has centered on unmanned systems. “It’s a reflection of how they see these systems impacting the maritime domain.”



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