The US military has christened an experimental self-driving warship designed to hunt for enemy submarines, a major advance in robotic warfare at the core of America’s strategy to counter Chinese and Russian naval investments.
The 40m-long unarmed prototype, dubbed Sea Hunter, is the naval equivalent of Google’s self-driving car, designed to cruise on the ocean’s surface for two or three months at a time — without a crew or anyone controlling it remotely.
That kind of endurance and autonomy could make it highly efficient and cost effective.
Deputy US Defence Secretary Robert Work said he hoped such ships might find a place in the western Pacific in as few as five years: “This is the first time we’ve ever had a totally robotic, trans-oceanic-capable ship.”
The Sea Hunter fits into a strategy to incorporate unmanned drones — with increasing autonomy — into the conventional military in the air, on land and at sea.
It also comes as China’s naval investments stoke concern in Washington.
“We’re not working on anti-submarine [technology] just because we think it’s cool.
"We’re working on it because we’re deeply concerned about the advancements that China and Russia are making in this space,” said author Peter Singer, an expert on robotic warfare at the New America Foundation think tank.
The ship’s projected $20m price tag and $15,000 to $20,000 daily operating cost make it relatively inexpensive for the US military.
“You now have an asset at a fraction of the cost of a manned platform,” said Rear Admiral Robert Girrier, the Navy’s director of unmanned warfare systems.
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