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US plans crewless automated ghost-frigates

Mary Celeste class robot X-ships to prowl seas

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But who would give the cocktail parties?

Normally, lurking right on top of a hostile sub making lots of noise would be seen as quite a dangerous plan for a frigate captain. Should an actual war break out, the sub might well be able to torpedo the ship before it could itself be destroyed. But this wouldn't be such a disastrous result in the case of an ACTUV. As DARPA puts it: "A low cost, unmanned platform creates a disruptive change in ASW operational risk calculus."

Or in other words it doesn't matter too much if you lose the odd robo-frigate. Particularly as the enemy sub would then have to make a top-speed submerged dash away from the burning wreck of its ACTUV shadower, in order to avoid getting picked up again and promptly sunk by responding ships or aircraft.

Unfortunately for diesel-electric submarine captains, the sub's batteries are only good for one such sprint before running almost flat: which would leave it out of juice not far from the scene of its crime, unable to get further except maybe at a crawl. In theory it might put up a snorkel mast to run its diesels and recharge its batteries - or flee on the surface - but this would be very dangerous with hostile ships and aircraft about, as radar reaches much further and more reliably than sonar does.

All in all, quite a cunning idea then. Rule-of-the-road navigation should be easy enough to automate (for all that boneheaded officer trainees sometimes struggle to master it) and sonar tracking shouldn't be too hard when you can go as close in and make as much noise as you like. And an unmanned ship should not only be cheaper to run, it might be possible to make it much cheaper to build - and yet offer better performance:

Conventional naval architecture should be examined in this unmanned system context, which in addition to recouping first order crew support overhead, may offer second order benefits such as relaxed reserve buoyancy margins, dynamic stability limits, and even new platform orientation assumptions. The objective is to demonstrate disproportionate platform capabilities in terms of speed, endurance, sea keeping, and maneuverability.

The program will also maintain a strong focus on exploiting novel system architectures and internal arrangements enabled by being unmanned to explore new construction methods and maintenance approaches to achieve disproportionately low system procurement cost and efficient inter-deployment maintenance.

It certainly tends to bear out the view of those naval personnel who aren't frigate sailors by trade: that the only thing frigates really do which couldn't be done better by a robot is give show-the-flag cocktail parties in foreign ports.

No doubt that's an overly harsh assessment. Even so, with the coming crunch on government spending and aspirations to buy new carriers and jets to fly from them - not to mention the fact that crewed frigates are scarcely a very effective means of dealing with common-or-garden thugs with guns either - perhaps the Royal Navy too should be thinking along these lines.

Needless to say, it isn't.

Meanwhile, it seems to us that there's only one possible name for the first ghostly, crewless X-ship of the class. ®

Lewis Page spent 11 years in the Royal Navy, largely managing to stay out of frigates but not altogether. Most of the time he was a mine-clearance diver - another field in which humans' jobs are under threat from robots.

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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