In late November 2018, the Australian Defence Science and Technology (DST) and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) held a major exercise to examine the potential operational introduction of unmanned amphibious vehicles. Exercise Autonomous Warrior 2018 (AW18), which took place in Jervis Bay in Southeast Australia, drew many more participants, including the United States Navy (USN) and the British Royal Navy (RN).

Among the different projects that were showcased during the exercise, the defense giant Northrop Grumman revealed its newest autonomous seaborne system: The AQS-24B system is a Mine Hunting Unmanned Surface Vessel (MHU) that can be operated remotely and is capable of minesweeping and undersea surveillance operations.

According to a statement released by Northrop Grumman, the unmanned vehicle “includes the world’s first combined operational High-Speed Synthetic Aperture Sonar and an optical laser line scan sensor, which provides complete coverage out to maximum range on a single pass. The real-time analysis capability demonstrated how unmanned systems can augment manned mine warfare operations.”

The AQS-24B was specifically designed and developed to counter current challenges in the mine warfare field of naval combat. It has the ability to sweep, detect, and clear areas that might be mined at a much faster rate than conventional minesweepers. Moreover, it is a safer option since it is unmanned.

Alan Lytle, vice president for undersea systems at Northrop Grumman, said that “the demonstration highlighted Northrop Grumman’s leading role in proving the operational utility of unmanned maritime systems in the mine warfare domain. At operational speeds significantly higher than other mine hunting systems on the market, the USV/AQS-24B combination successfully completed a number of scenarios and challenges that were set by the Royal Australian Navy’s exercise command task group.”

Such systems could prove very useful in the Persian Gulf or the South China Sea. In the event of a conflict with Iran or China, nations which don’t possess the naval power to counter the USN and would most likely result in extensive mining of maritime approaches to deny landing grounds, the unmanned minesweepers could rapidly clear paths. Moreover, they could act as a forward detection system that would inform commanders of the approach of anti-ship missiles or fast-moving boats.

The exercise was organized under the auspices of The Technical Cooperation Program (TTCP), which is part of the Five-Eyes (FVEY) multinational agreement. FVEY is an intelligence alliance between Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and the U.S. The members, among other functions, share intelligence and technical programs.