Why navies are using more drones, Japan’s controversial border force and Australia’s anti-ship missiles.
The advent of drone technology continues to pose profound existential questions for air forces. Drones are cheaper than fighter jets, in many respects more versatile and do not necessitate dangerous rescue missions if shot down over hostile territory. The same creeping dread of redundancy might be about to descend upon navies – or at least their human components.
The mightiest navy of all, that of the US, has asked for $21.5m (€19.8m) in funding to expand its studies into what its fleet might look like circa 2045. The fiscal request emphasised the desire to “decouple mission capability from manned force structure” – to put to sea, that is, an increasingly remote-controlled or autonomous navy. We have already seen a preview: the US Navy’s Sea Hunter, a 40 metre-long trimaran, has sailed from Pearl Harbor to San Diego without anyone aboard.
The goal is also to save lives: conventional warships are increasingly vulnerable to a new generation of ballistic missiles, such as China’s DF-21D, which restrict the operation of vessels with human crews. There’s also the consideration that the US Navy is struggling to fill its ships: it is currently 9,000 sailors short of a full complement. “The basic trend is a shift from few and expensive vessels to craft that are cheap and come in large numbers,” says Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow in sea power at Rusi. “This is about distributing vulnerability across a network, rather than having a single point of failure.”
Who’s developing naval drones:
South Korea: Reportedly developing an array of remote-controlled and/or autonomous seagoing platforms, including a minehunter capable of operating at depths of up to 200 metres.
The US: In February the US Navy tested an unmanned patrol craft near the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia. The 12 metre-long vessel is armed with a 0.50 calibre machine gun.
China: Launched the Jari drone boat last year. The 15 metre-long craft has a range of 1,000km and is capable of launching missiles and torpedoes.
Israel: Seagull is a 12 metre-long vessel advertised as possessing minesweeping and submarine-hunting capability.
Goats, seabirds and other wildlife are the only inhabitants of Japan’s Senkaku Islands but the chain of five islets and three rocks in the East China Sea will soon have its own police force. This month, Japan’s National Police Agency is forming a new unit whose job will be maintaining security on the Senkakus and other remote islands. Based in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, the heavily armed 159-person squad will specialise in thwarting illegal landings and arresting intruders.
Japan controls the Senkaku Islands but China and Taiwan, which call the islands Diaoyu, also claim ownership. The territorial dispute has long inflamed tensions between the region’s economic giants and is not just a tug of war over land: the surrounding seabed is thought to be rich in oil and natural gas. In recent years Japan’s coastguard has stepped up its patrols to prevent Chinese naval and municipal vessels from entering waters around the Senkakus – Tokyo reports dozens of incursions every year – but the new police unit signals Japan’s more forceful approach.
Who’s buying and who’s selling? We keep you abreast of significant defence deals.
In the basket: 200 Lockheed Martin long-range anti-ship missiles (LRASMs)
Who’s buying: Australia
Who’s selling: The US
Price: $990m (€914m)
Delivery date: tbc, pending Congressional approval
Australia has a vast coastline and a relatively modest navy. These missiles, which would be fitted to the F/A-18 jets of the Royal Australian Air Force, would make Australia’s waters easier to protect. Known as “ship killers”, the new LRASMs carry a 450kg blast-fragmentation warhead and have a range of 320km. The acquisition of the LRASMs would allow Australia to better compete with the latest generation of Chinese anti-ship missiles.