Unmanned maritime systems (UMS) are having a significant impact on the nature of warfare globally. With an increased availability of, and price decrease in, components and technologies that can be used in military systems more and more state and non-state actors are gaining access to the world’s seas. Recent years have seen a proliferation of UMS in the maritime domain and so it is imperative that programmes and projects be pursued that ensure navies possess the requisite technologies and capabilities to guarantee the safe and free navigation of the seas.

The impact of fully autonomous systems is considered to be so extensive that any area of defence that misses out on this particular technological leap will also miss out on the technological evolutions of the future. Unmanned and autonomous systems can be used in the military domain to execute complex and exacting missions, especially in environments that are hostile and unpredictable, and the maritime domain perfectly illustrates this. The maritime world is challenging, often unmapped and difficult to navigate and these systems can be used to negate some of these challenges. They have the ability to complete a task without direct human intervention, using behaviours resulting from the interaction of computer programming with the external environment.

It can be argued that the applicability of UMS to naval operations surpasses its usage in any other military domain due to the hostility, unpredictability and size of the maritime environment. This complexity has ensured that every significant form of progress in the conquest of the seas has required a strong will and the mastery of the most sophisticated scientific and technological applications. This has always been the key to success.

UMS are becoming a more common feature of navies and they are being primarily utilised in a non-lethal capacity such as mine countermeasures, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and intelligence gathering in the maritime environment. Furthermore, it is in the underwater domain that UMS have the greatest potential for adoption and utilisation. The undersea domain is becoming more fiercely contested, with increased competition for maritime resources and the continuing need to preserve sea lines of communication.

Many opportunities, but also challenges

The underlying technologies that support autonomous systems, including robotics, artificial intelligence, software and wireless networks all continue to develop rapidly. These advances offer additional opportunities to make a wider variety of autonomous systems that are smaller, cheaper and able to operate in swarms to overwhelm adversary defences. This ability to function autonomously would therefore allow systems to reach their goals, even in unpredictable and unstructured environments such as undersea landscapes, with a wide range of benefits such as the faster execution of tasks, higher level of readiness, increased coordination and synchronisation with other platforms and increased redundancy, range and persistence.

There is a perception that the principle benefit of UMS is the removal of personnel from the battlefield and the introduction of a direct machine replacement. In consideration of unmanned systems and developments in autonomy these systems should be viewed as complementary to personnel, where the benefits of autonomy are used to augment existing human capabilities for the success of the mission. “It is not a question of putting humans versus machines, but rather to take advantage of the benefits machines can bring to make personnel more effective”, explains Paul O’Brian, the European Defence Agency’s (EDA’s) Project Officer for Naval Systems Technology.


Embracing new technologies

There still exists a challenge relating to the adoption and integration of UMS into the naval defence framework. The success of this is not only dependent on the development or acquisition of technology but also on organisational structures, the prevailing culture and the operational paradigms and tactics that need to be modernised. Referring back to the undersea environment, commanders are accustomed, more than their colleagues in other domains, to delegating tasks to assets that need neither constant monitoring nor control, as this could be detrimental to success rather than beneficial. The subsea culture would thus appear to be the most receptive to autonomous unmanned vehicles. 

The applicability of UMS to naval operations surpasses its usage in any other military domain due to the hostility, unpredictability and size of the maritime environment

EU Capability Development Priority

Underwater control, comprised of Mine Warfare, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Harbour Protection, has been identified as one of the eleven 2018 EU Capability Development Priorities which were developed through EDA and approved by Member States in June 2018. Collaborative efforts to date have largely focussed on the development of technologies for Mine Counter Measures activities, as evidenced by EDA’s UMS programme. ASW remains complex due to the nature of the platforms operating under the surface, and developments have been less visible in this area of warfare. However, UMS offer significant force multiplication options for ASW operations. This is particularly pertinent given the increasing proliferation of submarines and smaller submarines that can operate more easily in littoral zones. UMS can serve as offboard sensors, extending the range of detection without the corresponding increase in risk. Additionally, and as discussed previously, the capability to launch multiple vehicles provides a coordinated swarm effect and facilitates the coordination of patrols composed of different self-adaptive systems.



OCEAN2020 (Open Cooperation for European mAritime awareNess), funded by the European Commission’s Preparatory Action on Defence Research and implemented by EDA, represents the ambition and vision of a European maritime initiative to respond to the above-mentioned challenges. The project has the principle objective of demonstrating enhanced situational awareness in a maritime environment through the integration of legacy and new technologies for UMS, ISTAR payloads and effectors, by pulling together the technical specialists in the maritime domain covering the ‘observing, orienting, deciding and acting’ operational tasks.

OCEAN2020 will pursue improvements in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) engaged in the project with the objective of achieving higher autonomy, launch and recovery capabilities, integration in existing ships Combat Management Systems (CMS) and in open architectures and sensor improvements. The project will culminate in two demonstrations, in the Mediterranean and Baltic seas. These events will show how innovative solutions for fusion of multiple data sources can be integrated with CMS into a secure network to create a recognised maritime scenario. It will also show how collaborative autonomy between multi-domain unmanned vehicles can provide a force multiplier.

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