Imagine this scenario: as tensions between Taiwan and China spike, U.S. intelligence reports that PLA Navy warships will soon sortie from various Chinese ports. In response, U.S. submarines discreetly place a set of large unmanned undersea vehicles — one per port — on the seabed floor of the Taiwan Strait. Once settled, each UUV waits for the order to release a half-dozen smaller craft, each armed with explosives and non-kinetic effectors. 

The order comes and the small craft deploy, maintaining connections to a command module via acoustic and satellite links. These tactical craft loiter just outside the ports, until one by one, they detect the unique acoustic signature of their assigned Chinese warship and break off to intercept it. Once in position, three feet under a Chinese keel, each tactical UUV signals its status back to a command center and awaits the order to immobilize its target.

So far, this remains fiction. Though autonomous systems promise to bring to the undersea domain the kind of new capabilities and offensive punch that the aerial drone has brought to land warfare, the Navy has yet to fully tap their potential. Today’s UUVs are generally used for mine counter-measure operations, ISR operations, and for conducting oceanographic surveys. Naval mines, meanwhile, have progressed little since the 1970s introduced the Mk 60 encapsulated torpedo and the Mk 67 Submarine Launched Mobile Mine, although recent years have brought efforts to more accurately employ immobile mines, develop sensor packages to better discriminate targets, and even develop “smart mines” such as the Hammerhead.

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