Naval War College professor of strategy James Holmes explains here the exciting promise of unmanned, underwater vehicles.
Geography, then, stands aback of the mania for new undersea capabilities. But it’s not just the sheer volume of water to be overseen, is it? It’s also about working within the fixed setting imposed by nautical terrain. Where can mariners find enemies plying the waves, or otherwise monitor and regulate the flow of shipping? No navy, no matter how well equipped with gee-whiz hardware, is all-seeing. Now as throughout history, the best places to find a ship are at its port of origin, at its destination, if known, or at focal points such as straits where shipping must converge to pass from point A to point B.
In Northeast Asia, for instance, passages piercing the Ryukyus island chain funnel east-west passage between the East China Sea and Western Pacific into narrow pathways. Such pathways are easily monitored—and perhaps interdicted—relative to seeking out adversaries on the open ocean. The Malay Peninsula and Indonesian archipelago, similarly, corral shipping transiting between the South China Sea and the vast Indian Ocean into cramped shipping lanes.
Stationing UUVs at such geographic nodes would amplify the American presence, improving watchfulness for a fleet too small to be everywhere all the time. Such sentinels—especially if technology permits arming them for distant operations—will bolster the prospects for success in such missions as fleet actions, sea denial, blockades, and otherwise controlling major sea routes. A century ago historian Sir Julian S. Corbett catalogued the basic functions navies perform. For Corbett a navy exists to dispute a stronger opponent’s command of the sea, wrest away command for itself, and exploit command once it’s in hand. That’s not a bad way to project the contributions UUVs could make, and to measure success as they join the fleet.
For instance, submarines remain the sea-denial platform par excellence. They can penetrate and wreak havoc in enemy-dominated waters while the U.S. and allied surface fleets try to assemble combat power sufficient to win command. UUVs can act as the eyes of the undersea fleet and, over time, could extend attack boats’ combat reach beyond the very modest range of their torpedoes. When battle looms, UUVs could push the fleet’s defensive frontier outward, holding surface and subsurface threats at bay while working with other sensors to apprise commanders of what’s transpiring in their environs. Acting as a fleet skirmisher, safeguarding the underwater flank, and helping complete the operational picture is no small accomplishment.