Underwater drones may make hiding a nuclear missile sub harder David Hambling
Will a rise in anti-submarine drones mean it's game over for Earth’s best hiding place
for a nuclear deterrent as critics claim, wonders David Hambling
AS THE UK debates spending billions to update its nuclear missile submarines, critics
claim that underwater drones will soon blow their cover, making the project pointless.
Are they right?
In recent years, marine research has been transformed by a new type of uncrewed
submarine known as a glider. Typically looking like torpedoes with wings, they don’t
have a propeller, instead altering buoyancy in order to glide. This slow, frugal propulsion
allows them to go for months on a single battery charge.
Gliders have been used for extended tracking of oil spills, pollution and fish. And they
are near-silent, making them ideal for anti-submarine missions.
This would explain the proliferation of US navy glider projects, including the Persistent
Littoral Undersea Surveillance system, the Littoral Battlespace Sensing-Glider and
stealth-bomber shaped Liberdade Series gliders.
The Chinese are also interested. Their first glider was launched in 2011 and there are
now dozens of projects, with a focus on speed, endurance and getting multiple gliders
to work together. Chinese state media reports its Haiyan glider has an anti-submarine role.
Anti-submarine drones will benefit from rapid gains in computing power, since the search
is all about signal processing. Whichever detection method the drone uses, the challenge
is telling signal from noise. Drones have the advantage: they now pack more processing
power than submarines of a few decades ago, thanks to Moore’s law. New sensor types,
including lasers that can pierce seawater, are making them more capable.
In addition, much US research focuses on multiple sensors networked in sparse arrays
. Small, cheap drones could be deployed to form arrays covering a wide area. That’s
great for whales, as low-power sensors are less damaging than high-powered sonar, but
bad for submarines trying to hide.
Aerial drones have spread rapidly in military and civilian life. When the successor to the
UK’s Trident nuclear submarine fleet is launched in 15 years or so, it would be surprising
if the seas were not full of robots waiting to follow its every move.
This article appeared in print under the headline “That sinking feeling”
David Hambling is a science writer. His latest book is Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world