AI & WARTaking Robots and AI to War at Sea

By Malcolm Davis

Published 25 January 2024

Emphasizing that combination of AI and autonomous systems working in concert with crewed platforms—and with critical human oversight ‘on the loop’—is the logical path to meet a potential challenge of a much more capable and assertive adversary with ambitious plans across the Indo-pacific, and with a potential ability to interfere with Australia’s critical maritime trade.

The December AUKUS Defense Ministers meeting in San Francisco has reinforced the importance of advanced undersea warfare capabilities as a key element of the agreement’s Pillar 2. A particular focus was the role of autonomous systems at sea—on and under the waves—together with AI in responding to future undersea threats.

joint statement emphasized maritime autonomy and experimentation through a series of exercises to ‘…enhance capability development, interoperability, and [increase] the sophistication and scale of autonomous systems in the maritime domain.’ These exercises would ‘refine the ability to jointly operate uncrewed maritime systems, share and process maritime data from all three nations, and provide real-time maritime domain awareness to support decision-making.’ It also talked about demonstrating and deploying ‘…common advanced AI algorithms on multiple systems, including P-8A maritime patrol aircraft , to process data…and allow for timely high-volume data analysis.’

There was mention of UUV undersea launch and recovery, and quantum technologies to complement space-based positioning, navigation and timing services at sea. The role of AI in particular was prominent with a focus on ‘enhancing forcing protection, precision targeting, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance’ across land and sea.

If these steps are pursued in full they could dramatically change how Australia approaches undersea warfare, centered on its planned nuclear-powered but conventionally armed submarines (SSNs). It’s important to emphasize that.

The Navy will acquire three to five US Virginia class SSNs from 2033 onwards and more of the SSN AUKUS in the 2040s. They will not by themselves be sufficient for Australia’s undersea warfare, or to deliver the ‘impactful projection’ Defence Minister Richard Marles wants. Only eight SSNs are to be in service. The ‘three to one’ rule allows for two to three boats being available for operations at any time. It would be a mistake for Australia to base a notion of ‘impactful projection’ on just one platform, the SSN, or to reorganize its entire navy around an assumption that the SSNs will be the ‘war winning’ capability that can enable an effective ‘deterrence by denial’ strategy alone. The future navy needs greater combat mass and firepower if it is to contribute effectively to such a strategy.