Last February, NEWSREP reported on the U.S. Navy taking delivery on its latest piece of futuristic sub-hunting technology, a DARPA-developed 132-foot, 140-ton drone warship, purpose-built to hunt down encroaching enemy submarines. Now, almost a year later, the status of the Sea Hunter Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV, has just been listed as “classified.”
Technically classified as a “medium displacement unmanned surface vehicle,” the ACTUV (or Sea Hunter, as many have taken to calling it) is the first ship of its sort: a full-sized warship purpose-built to hunt submarines with no crew on-board. It was first tested outside of Pearl Harbor while still under the administrative auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, but for the most part, the U.S. Navy has remained tight-lipped about the unusual vessel’s combat capabilities.
In fact, little in the way of information pertaining to the Sea Hunter has made it out of the Department of the Navy since last year’s announcement that the program had traded hands from DARPA to the Office of Naval Research for further development. Recently, defense publication National Defense reached out to the Navy’s research arm to ask questions about the program, only to have its efforts curtailed by the news that the program had recently been given a classified designation, barring anyone involved with the program from discussing it with the public.
The Sea Hunter program is a part of the Navy’s broader efforts to field autonomous fighting vessels for naval wars of the future. The USS Gerald R. Ford, while a fully manned aircraft carrier, leans heavily on automation to reduce its crew requirements, and vessels like the Sea Hunter are likely a glimpse into the future of passing off monotonous naval operations to unmanned vessels incapable of boredom or complacency, leaving more complex combat and security operations for more traditional manned vessels.
This effort is of particular import in the realm of submarine detection, as U.S. intelligence reports have indicated a sharp increase in Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic in recent months. Russia’s decision to reduce funding allocated toward its surface fleet while maintaining a significant financial emphasis on submarine production also suggests that America’s regional opponents are leaning toward a more submarine-centric naval strategy — further emphasizing the need for a means to detect encroaching subs.
Early last year, Russia announced it they had successfully sent nuclear attack submarines to within miles of multiple U.S. Naval ports along the East Coast as a part of a training exercise. The United States did not formally respond to these claims, but the U.S. Navy re-established the once-defunct 2nd Fleet almost immediately thereafter: an entire command element dedicated specifically to Atlantic defense.
It seems likely that ships like the Sea Hunter would actually be used in small, networked fleets, crisscrossing areas of the ocean that might see submarine activity. In theory, these ships could notify manned command vessels nearby when they spot what seems to be an enemy submarine, and potentially engage the sub without having to put human sailors at risk.