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Amidst the advancements in artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles, quantum computing, cyberattacks, and lethal autonomous weapons, there is one aspect that has been overlooked in the current discourse on the revolution in military affairs (RMA) – the new revolution in anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Using uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the MQ-9B Sea Guardian, in anti-submarine roles will significantly alter how ASW is conducted. The shift will be significant, as submarines have been notoriously difficult to find and target.
The recent introduction of General Atomic’s MQ-9B Sea Guardian UAV is a clear sign that a revolution in ASW is on the horizon – bringing about what Colin Grey termed ‘a radical change in the character or conduct of war’ – in this case, the war at sea.1 The change will make submarines, a platform known for their second-strike capability, far more vulnerable. This will usher in a shift in Strategic Stability that will have an impact on the future conduct and character of war at sea.
The rise of the submarine – from Turtle to Nautilus
Submarines brought their own revolution to maritime warfare when they became part of active naval operations. The first mission was conducted during the American Revolutionary War in 1776 when a US submersible craft named Turtle attempted to sink the Royal Naval Ship HMS Eagle at anchor in New York’s port. Since then, submarines have evolved; World War I and World War II made them a force to be reckoned with. However, the Cold War witnessed the true revolution when, in 1954, the USS Nautilus, a nuclear-powered submarine, was launched. Diesel had given way to nuclear. The new technology transformed the submarine from a fast-surface vessel with limited underwater capabilities to a fully submerged vessel capable of prolonged movement and combat without the need to resurface for extended periods.
The propulsion revolution did not stop there. Air-independent propulsion (AIP) technology allowed conventionally powered diesel-electric (SSK) submarines to remain underwater for longer durations than usual. AIP reduced the SSK’s need for frequent access to atmospheric oxygen required by the diesel-electric engines. Masking techniques such as the use of rubber tiles also reduced the noise made by a submarine’s propulsion systems; the main factor that makes a submarine vulnerable to enemy sonar detection.
Entry of the Sea Guardian
Now, let’s come to the primary question of how the MQ-9B Sea Guardian will bring about a new revolution in ASW. Historically, surface ships, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, and helicopters have been used to find and neutralise submarines. Fixed wing platforms remain the primary choice; their characteristics of speed, reach and height range allow them to search vast swathes of ocean in a relatively short period of time. However, they have their limitations: limited time on-station due to fuel constraints and human fatigue factors means they cannot provide a persistent surveillance capability. The MQ-9B addresses all these constraints; empowering navies and air forces to conduct their ASW missions effectively and efficiently without any of the limitations of crewed platforms.
The MQ-9B is designed in a specific configuration to target enemy submarines in support of ASW operations. It can carry 80 G or 40 A size sonobuoys on one sortie; a capability previously limited to crewed airborne systems. A sonobuoy is a device used to detect and identify objects moving in the water. Sonobuoys find submarines by either detecting the sounds produced by their propellers and machinery (passive detection) or by bouncing a sonar ping off the surface of the submarine (active detection). In addition to carrying and deploying them, the MQ-9B can simultaneously process incoming data from 32 sonobuoys.
The value of persistence and data links
The MQ-9B also has a longer endurance than crewed aircraft. Depending upon the mission requirements, it can stay airborne for more than thirty hours under any weather conditions. It has a mission radius of 1200 nautical miles and can constantly monitor the ocean for hostile objects. Its onboard tactical data-link16 allows it to share the required information with other platforms such as the P-8 Poseidon, MH-60 Sea Hawk in real time. These capabilities allow the MQ-9B to loiter and search for submarines over long periods of time and to pass on the information to crewed platforms, surface ships or other UAV’s within the network to come and engage the target.
The capabilities of the MQ-9B herald the arrival of a new revolution in anti-submarine warfare. For much of recent naval history, submarines were the only platforms that could remain hidden and avoid detection. However, this is about to change. The MQ-9B will fill existing gaps and deficiencies in current airborne submarine hunters; its persistence in particular will make it far harder for submarines to remain undetected for longer periods.
The MQ-9B will impact future strategic stability by making submarines, once considered a reliable and hard to detect second strike platform, far more vulnerable. This will radically change the strategies and military doctrines of militaries, ultimately affecting the conduct/character of war, thus ushering in a new RMA.
Once fully operational, the MQ-9B will end the submarine’s dominance in naval warfare. This is just the beginning, and soon, the MQ-9B will be further upgraded, and the new models will likely be able to simultaneously carry the sonobuoys and depth charges/torpedoes under their wing pylons. The MQ-9B and platforms like it will join the air and naval services of different nations. The proliferation of this technology will not be restricted to any one country.
A revolution in anti-submarine warfare is on the horizon and requires the immediate attention of military strategists and policymakers. The revolution, led by the MQ-9B, will alter the dynamics of naval warfare for generations to come.
Usman Haider is a research assistant at the Strategic Vision Institute, a think tank based in Islamabad, Pakistan. He is also pursuing an MPhil in strategic studies from the National Defence University, Islamabad.