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Episode 101. UUVs: Underwater Drones and Seabed Warfare

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UUVs or Unmanned Underwater Vehicles, are set to make the same kind of impact that UAVs previously made on the modern battlefield. With their vast operational capacities and affordable price tags, we are not only seeing major players like the US, Russia, and China engaged in a dire dash for future ocean supremacy, but also several smaller players who previously were locked out of the subsurface battlespace due to the high costs of conventional submarines.

Will these new weapons serve merely as long-range recon vehicles for the major powers, or will UUVs be at the forefront of seabed warfare and underwater infrastructure sabotage? We ask our panel of experts.


Episode Overview:

Part 1: A Sinking Suspicion (4:06)

  • H.I Sutton kicks off our episode by noting that UUVs have the potential to changing the balance of power in modern naval warfare, putting large existing navies at risk.

  • We discuss the current state of the Russian navy, where their nuclear submarines remain elite and a significant threat to NATO states, but have fallen behind in the UUV development race.

  • We discuss the variety of UUVs and their potential strategic and tactical potential uses, including high risk situations where a manned underwater vehicle would be too risky with a more expensive or a crewed vessel. This extends to mapping the sea floor for intelligence gathering and reconnaissance operations, as well as mining sea routes.

  • The potential of armed UUV raises several ethical considerations around autonomous weapons systems, given the nature of these vehicles and the long periods out of communication with an operator. We also break down the challenges UUVs face with communications in general.

  • We discuss the potential tactical attack of undersea internet cables in an active conflict and the potential for tapping communications between nations.

Part 2: The Blue Water Bayraktar? (31:13)

  • Samuel Bendett points out the numerous advantages unmanned underwater vehicles offers compared to manned naval vessels, especially given the significant cost difference, allowing for a rapid scaling up for nations without conventional navies/

  • We discuss which nations are leading in the UUV development race, with the US, China and Russia all vying for supremacy.

  • We then pivot to how that may flow down to naval purchases now and in the near future, with more countries likely to enter the market. This will likely be a spectrum of both lower cost, more basic devices and higher cost UUVs closer to submarine level stealth parameters.

  • We discuss the question facing navies around the world, whether to commit to the long and expensive process of developing and building new submarines or to wait and allocate more funding to emerging UUVs.

Part 3: High Pressure Hostiles (47:51)

  • Bruce Jones points out that the Indo-Pacific will likely be the location of the next great power struggle and the ability to map, transverse, and fight in this space will be critical for the US and China.

  • We hypothesise how major naval powers will integrate UUVs into their naval doctrines and how that may play out in a future conflict, including China's experiments to date with deep sea operations for mining of strategic resources and tracking other vessels.

  • We discuss how the targeting of undersea internet cables might play out in a conflict, noting the Russian targeting of cables near Svalbard in 2022.

  • We discuss the potential for 'swarm' tactics being used in the future against larger, expensive naval assets.

  • We pinpoint the integration of manned and unmanned vehicles as a potential gamechanger for future naval warfare, akin to developments in aeronautics.


Episode Guests:

H.I. Sutton

  • Independent Defence and OSINT Analyst, specialising in naval warfare

  • Creator of Covert Shores website and social media channels

  • He also contributes to various defence and naval publications, including US Naval Institute News and

Samuel Bendett

  • Research Analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses' International Affairs Group, where he is a member of the Russia Studies Program

  • His work involves Russian defence and security technology and developments, Russian geopolitical influence in the former Soviet states, as well as Russian unmanned systems development, Russian naval capabilities, and Russian decision-making calculus during military crises

  • Prior to joining CNA, Bendett worked at the National Defense University and for US Congress

Bruce Jones

  • Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at the Brookings Institution

  • Consulting Professor at the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University

  • Author of several books, including To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers


The Red Line's UUV Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of UUVs.


Understanding Naval Warfare Ian Speller

Killchain: The Rise of High-Tech Assassins

Andrew Cockburn

US Naval Power in the 21st Century

Brent Droste Sadler


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to our Patreon member David Schroeder, Robert Stewart, KBH, Matt Brannon, Nicole Elizalde, Stuart Shroff, Dave Compton, Jordan, Ragnar Ragnars, Max Trevena, Jonathon Steffanoni, and Frida Anderson.


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