Q. Are unmanned maritime systems likely to be game changers?
As the analysis of proliferation suggests, as long as unmanned technologies can circumvent the limitations and risks faced by humans, they will be attractive to states. This includes aerial systems but also underwater or surface systems. Some of the security consequences are therefore analogous across the different types of drones. To the extent that using drones reduces the costs of incursion, states will be tempted and even emboldened to use force across boundaries. Reports of Russian submarines entering Sweden's waters have already emerged, including a newly released report in 2015.43 To the extent that the costs of these incursions drop when the technology is unmanned, we might expect more such incursions. If the rules of engagement are unclear when the vehicle is manned, they are even murkier with unmanned systems. Can countries send USVs across boundaries without paying any consequences or will the other side consider this an incursion that requires a response? These questions have gone unanswered but the indeterminate rules of engagement raise the prospect of miscalculation.
Aerial drones launched from aircraft carriers have the potential to be game changers in ways similar to those launched from land. In some ways, however, that effect would be influenced by the enormous array of ships. To be sure, they cannot reach far-flung destinations as quickly as aircraft, but they could essentially provide a forward operating base from which combat operations could be launched, for example with the UCLASS. If other countries came to possess similar technologies, they too could deploy combat drones from a ship. One scenario could include Russia or China deploying a naval ship to the Western Hemisphere and putting a new type of aircraft in range of the United States, which could seem attractive to states that do not have forward operating bases in the hemisphere.
One of the most significant game changers is the development of autonomy in naval drone technology. In this context, autonomy would relate to the ability to set a destination and for the underwater drone to reach the destination without human operation, which can mean guiding its course based on attributes along the sea floor, through bridges, or other features of the underwater environment. Autonomy is important for maritime environments since they can free underwater vehicles from the umbilical cable. Otherwise, this cable is required for power and data from the mother vessel, which then needs to be in the vicinity. Autonomous unmanned alternatives allow for a greater range and maneuverability.
In terms of positive developments, unmanned technologies offer a world of lower-risk options for a range of activities, from antipiracy to exploration of areas that would otherwise be off limits because of ice or cold, such as Antarctica. For now, however, the technology continues to evolve, which is made more difficult by ongoing debates about requirements and budgetary constraints, and also technological impediments presented by the difficulty of navigating the complex maritime environment, including everything from boat traffic, to unpredictable currents, to debris on the ocean floor.