Q. What is the state of proliferation in terms of unmanned technologies related to maritime environments?
The nonproliferation regime that deals with limiting the transfer of aerial vehicles would naturally include airborne systems such as the Navy's UCLASS, much as it includes a Predator or Reaper. They just happen to take off and land from an aircraft carrier, but the spirit of their use would fall under a similar heading of being able to serve as a nuclear delivery vehicle, much as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) had envisioned a cruise missile or drone to be capable of doing. These technologies could extend the range and lower the threshold for lethal force in ways discussed for drones in the sections above insofar as they would limit the risk to the actors using them compared to a manned equivalent, whose risk would give states pause before deploying them. There is no institutional nonproliferation equivalent for actual UUVs. Given that unmanned systems would confer a number of advantages, including sidestepping the human limits imposed by tasks that are dull, dirty, or dangerous, it is not surprising that other countries are trying to buy into the unmanned industry. The market for UUVs is expected to be $2 billion by 2020, far less than aerial vehicles, but many countries are joining the action.35
Similar to UGV proliferation, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel remain at the forefront of unmanned technologies related to maritime environments. Unlike UGV proliferation, however, the gap between the top three and the rest is not very large, as all states struggle to shift from relatively simple countermine/antisubmarine reconnaissance vessels to USVs/UUVs with enough firepower to defend fleets and launch offensive operations if needed.
As with unmanned aerial and ground vehicles, Israel has long been a leader in unmanned underwater and surface vehicles. As one observer has suggested, Israel has been "more agile in its thinking about how to deploy unmanned systems than were larger nations' militaries. Israel cannot support the cost of a large standing force, but its small military has major mission requirements and must maximize how it uses unmanned systems."36 Much as it was at the forefront of unmanned systems in the 1970s and 1980s, it was an early developer of many "Protector" vessels that are unmanned and can sail unthreatened by potential terrorist attacks. The Protector approaches suspicious vehicles as the initial contact rather than a ship that is manned. The Protector has a number of sensors and cameras to meet this objective and newer systems have sensors that can anticipate and reorient in response to the next wave. Other variants are involved in demining activities, providing intelligence, and even shooting at targets.
Israel is currently seeking to develop a submarine drone that can conduct minesweeping operations that does not create risks to human lives in the process. Israel's aeronautics director for the next generation of weaponry compared the task of demining to "looking for a needle in a haystack. These are sophisticated mines, which activate themselves and explode at the acoustic signal of the engines of a ship passing overhead, changes in water pressure when a ship passes overhead, or magnetic mines, which attach to any metal ship."37 Alternatively, mines might not be sophisticated but rather simply hard to see amidst all the debris in the ocean. Absent mine-clearing activities, ships are unable to pass through an area, effectively creating a blockade. Unmanned technologies are well-suited to identifying and clearing area—and at no risk to human lives—allowing ships to proceed safely. While Israel already uses unmanned submersibles, these vehicles are short-r ange and therefore limited. Automation of these systems would create the virtues of unmanned systems while offering longer-range prospects for minesweeping.
The British have long been using UUVs for demining. In particular, the Royal Navy has used these to prevent Iran from introducing mines in areas like the Strait of Hormuz, an important shipping lane, and has considered whether using these vessels for antipiracy missions off the Horn of Africa. The United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence has looked favorably upon these successes and has asked the defense industry to develop drones that can "provide greater support to maritime operations such as mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, and missile defence ... innovation in maritime technology, including unmanned systems, will make it possible for UK armed forces to continue to use the sea with security and persistence." These systems include the UUVs, USVs, and unmanned air vehicles launched from ships. The Ministry believes that these unmanned technologies can address the problems of what they refer to as "dirty, dangerous and repetitive" jobs in ways that protect human capital while keeping costs lower.38
Following suit, Russia has been seeking to develop an underwater reconnaissance drone, which it hopes to be in service by 2017. The system would be able to remain operational for up to 90 days, giving it the ability to do persistent surveillance for long periods of time while not expending the human capital that would otherwise be required. According to the Russian news service RT, the drone is meant to submerge to 984 ft. in order to keep track of the submarines that the drone is supposed to observe. The drone is also supposed to be operable in the Arctic, which requires a certain degree of hardiness because of the weather and ice in that region.39
Both China and India are developing USVs mostly for surveillance. As US Navy Captain Carl Schuster suggested, "the innovations promise to add new strategic dimensions to global maritime hot spots, including simmering tensions in the South China Sea."40 The United States has been developing a number of unmanned units that it would intend to use for demining, antisubmarine warfare, and antipiracy, so it is not surprising that China would be developing its own systems. China has two known USVs, the first a vessel used for meteorological survey that was also used to support the sailing race in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and another a prototype that can be controlled remotely or autonomously, mostly for surveillance.
India's interest in USVs is primarily for antipiracy, in particular being able to deploy an unmanned vehicle to conduct reconnaissance areas in potentially hostile waters. The hope is to develop unmanned ships that can loiter in "the exact area where pirates wait for an assault. This would add power to the first strike capability."41 The Indian Navy seeks to build on what they view as the success of US and Israeli navies when it comes to unmanned vehicles.42
In short, many of the same players in the development of aerial and ground unmanned vehicles are also interested in and developing maritime systems. Whereas the aerial drones have an international regime dedicated to stemming their proliferation, albeit one with limitations, unmanned systems in the maritime environment would face no such proliferation impediments, meaning that those countries seeking to acquire the technology likely can. Whether there are hazards to such proliferation, however, is another question.