Disruptive Technologies and Future Naval Warfare

Google’s decision to cancel Project Maven may be a disappointment for the US military who were hoping to use the company’s artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning (ML) techniques to analyse huge amounts of video footage captured by drones operating in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. The project had come under severe criticism from Google employees who had urged the leadership to stop pursuing and developing technologies that would augment a user’s war-making potential. Further, they wanted Google to “draft, publicise and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.” Under pressure, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has stated in a blog post that the company will withdraw from Project Maven and not develop in future “technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm,” those which “violate internationally accepted norms” and “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” The announcement indeed emphasises human ethics and international norms, and merits appreciation.

While that may be true, disruptive technologies such as AI and ML are fast making inroads into the military and many have already acquired these technologies to augment their surveillance and combat capability as also employ them for safety purposes. The use of disruptive technologies for counter terrorism is a burgeoning industry and algorithms are used by the US military’s Middle East and Africa commands to fight against the Islamic State (IS). The US Department of Defense (DoD) has said that the technology is “literally a work of magic.”

The use of AI in the maritime domain is well documented and has found reference in addressing criminal activities at sea such as piracy, illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and unlawful transfer of humans and materials. Its use for weather and sea condition monitoring and predictions, oil spill detection and tracking, etc are also well-known. In the naval domain, AI-enabled systems for data and logistics management, machinery operations, repair and maintenance, shipboard autonomous firefighting robots, etc are in operation. The use of AI and ML in warfare, particularly in the context of missiles, UAVs, UUVs, drones and submarines,merits attention.

The navies of US, Russia, China, Japan, and a few from the EU are in competition to develop AI weapons and sensors. In South Korea, Hanwha Systems, a South Korean defence business company in partnership with Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) plans to develop “an AI-based missile that can control its speed and altitude on its own and detect an enemy radar fence in real time while in flight. AI-equipped unmanned submarines and armed quadcopters would also be among autonomous arms.” The company also plans to develop AI-equipped submarines.

Perhaps the biggest naval challenge is likely to emerge from shipborne/ship-controlled and AI-enabled swarm drones that have caught the fancy of some navies. It is useful to recall that during World War II,between 1940 and 1943, German U-boats attacks against Allied convoys sailing across the Atlantic had potentially challenged the naval balance of power and had almost brought Britain closer to defeat. These Rudeltaktik, or wolfpack tactics and coordinated attacks are now being replicated by swarm platforms which can be launched in the air as also at sea.

There are several limitations to operating small boats in a swarm, such as limited range, stability on the high seas, and jamming through electronic warfare, they may not match and offer similar capability as the U-boats. However, AI enabled boats in swarm mode with autonomy can potentially cause significant challenges for the enemy and it may not be possible to shoot down each one of them. Likewise, drones offer an attractive option and have higher levels of automation and do not require advanced computers and sensors. These can be launched in large numbers and can conjure a lethal force at sea.

A recent video released online by China’s Yunzhou Tech Corporation showcases a 56-robot boat swarm conduct complex and coordinated maneouvre around a larger boat from where these are controlled. China is also developing swarm drones that can be deployed at sea for surveillance, and if strapped with explosives can carry out a ‘saturation attack’ on an enemy ship or even adopt kamikaze tactic to simultaneously dive in to attack from different directions and defeat ship based anti-aircraft and anti-missile defences.

Warfare at sea has witnessed several transformations in the past but the ongoing transformation led by AI, ML, big data, cloud commuting, and quantum communications will cause major disruptions in naval warfighting. In fact, the autonomous nature of UAVs, UUVs and drones and their ability to ‘self-organise in sub-swarms’ could be a game-changer in naval operations and could well be the new asymmetric approach in warfare. Further, it is fair to argue that smaller navies can be expected to equip themselves with advanced AI and ML-enabled platforms and sensors which can be acquired from the open market, and rely less on military hardware imports which always attract a number of restrictions imposed by the supplier.


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