WEAPONISATION OF UNMANNED MARITIME VEHICLES
By Antoine Martin, Principal UVS Consulting
When Maritime Robots Fight
The Unmanned Maritime Vehicles (USV: water surface, UUV: underwater) market is now growing at a faster rate than the more mature aerial drones market is. As UAVs increasingly carry weapons (such as AAI’s Shadow) or are smart flying weapons (such as Aerovironment’s Switchblade), so will UMVs. This topic does not get a lot of publicity for obvious reasons, from avoiding ethical debates to quietly building a superior force, but this development should nonetheless interest weapons manufacturers, unmanned systems integrators and homeland security and defense strategists, as well as naval professionals, because there is more going on than you think.
Unmanned Surface Vehicles Weaponization
Israeli USV manufacturers were the first to publicly show stabilized machine guns on the Rafael Protector, the only armed USV that has been sold globally. Protector USVs are used for patrolling safety perimeters around large vessels, ports and harbors, and near-shore oil & gas exploitations. Surging piracy attacks have prompted consideration of the use of non-lethal weapons, such as the deafening LRAD or the blinding Dazzler light, that USV manufacturers such as Harbor Wing Technologies can now offer as an option on the X-3 tri-hull USV. Other weapons such as small lasers can vary their intensity from non-lethal to lethal; Thales offers such an option for USVs. Navy programs have performed tests to launch torpedoes and rockets from USVs, attaining both underwater, sea surface, and land targets. Although USVs do not usually have the capability to carry the destructive force of a larger military surface vessel, their speed, agility, and swarm operation can arguably defeat billion dollars destroyers.
Unmanned Underwater Vehicles Weaponization
UUVs are traditionally used by the military to locate underwater mines. They are also used to neutralize mines, by exploding an internal bomb next to a mine or by dropping an explosive charge. Mine Disposal Vehicles (MDV) are often tethered so precise positioning of the explosive can be achieved. But nothing prevents one from detonating a MDV next to a vessel or underneath an oil rig, turning the countermeasure to an offensive measure. UUVs can also be used in covert mine-laying operations. The Large Displacement UUV program (LDUUV) initiated by the US Navy definitely intends on using large UUVs to launch small torpedoes. Although UUVs operate at much slower speeds than torpedoes, their intelligence to navigate to a specific point after hours of autonomous navigation and ability to react to their environment can make them the ultimate smart torpedo. Small UUVs can also benefit from innovative underwater weapons, such as the supercavitation rifle ammunition made by Defense & Security Group. UUVs are low profile due to their small size and quiet electric motor, making them hard to be detected, in addition to being able to infiltrate ports, estuaries, rivers, and lakes, where no one would suspect a naval offense.
Currently unmanned vehicles offer great defensive capabilities, such as inspecting ship’s hulls and listening for submarines. At the same time, those great counter-attack tools are being worked on for offensive purposes and for terrain preparation. A new analysis and market report on Unmanned Maritime Vehicles, researched and written by the author, covers USV & UUV technology for the Defense & Security markets over the period 2012-2020. Antoine Martin is an ocean engineer and business consultant who can be reached at to answer your questions about this emerging market.