Monday, October 10, 2016

UAVs Over the Indian Ocean

The India and China at Sea: Competition and Coexistence in the Indo-Pacific Conference is underway at the ANU in Canberra. The topic of the role of aircraft carriers and submarines came up in the first session so I asked the panel if Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) would render large vessels obsolete, changing the balance of power in the Indian Ocean.

Within the next ten years, I suggest, countries in the region, including China, will be able to mass produce small, long range, low cost drones on the production lines set up for smart-phones and consumer appliances. India will be able to harness its skilled IT workforce to program their own drones manufactured in the new high hi-tech industrial corridors being built with Japanese funding.

These low cost robot aircraft and submarines will make make aircraft carriers and submarines as useful as the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, was for defending Singapore. This powerful ship was commissioned in January 1941, but sunk by aircraft in December 1941, two days after leaving Singapore.

One of the conference panel thought Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles more of a threat than drones. The other panelist pointed out that India is the major customer for Israeli UAVs. With the signing of arms limitations agreements, India will be able to acquire armed UAV technology from Israel.

I suggest UAV/AUV technology, unlike ballistic missiles, is not something easily regulated. At the annual Australian UAV Challenge, teams of hobbyists and students test their technology in the field. In last years challenge, teams had to scan for a survivor on the ground and drop supplies to them. In this years challenge, teams had to coordinate two aircraft, with one acting as an airborne communications relay for the other.

Much of the software developed for the UAV Challenge is open source. It is not difficult to imagine the same software being used for a flock of military UAVs to search the ocean for warships,  relaying the coordinates to a flotilla of armed AUVs. This is something a mid-level country, with IT and engineering graduates could implement.

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