The international navies of Italy, Australia, and Canada are looking to surface and underwater unmanned systems that will leverage technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and could be used for missions like mine hunting and disposal as force and capability multipliers in future warfighting efforts, representatives from each country said during a panel at the virtual Surface Navy Association National Symposium on Jan. 11.

AI will be essential to the use and development of unmanned systems. However, it will force navies to reconsider traditional warfighting efforts. Commodore Matthew Hudson, Australian Defense Attaché to the U.S. Royal Australian Navy, said unmanned systems will shift navies paradigm on warfighting to include machines that not only carry sensors and effectors but seeing to network actually making decisions.

“As you’d imagine it would start off small with handing over certain decisions within fairly constrained boxed sets of circumstances…to slowly expand, shedding lower-level decisions to the machines…so that we can actually get down to the point where the force commanders, the fleet commanders, and the unit commanders can be focusing on more significant decisions that are being made,” Hudson said. “So, it’s a long term game, but it’s something that we’re starting to experiment with.”

Early systems will deal with lower-level decisions, but as the technology progresses navies will have to cross the threshold of weapons being used in these systems, Capt. William Quinn, Canadian Naval Attaché and Assistant Defense Attaché to the U.S. for the Canadian Armed Forces, said.

Each of these countries has a different strategy and goals for the integration of unmanned systems, although there is a broad consensus that unmanned systems will bring new capabilities and reduce the risk of these missions.

“Our vision is to acquire, integrate, and exploit unmanned systems to both enhance existing maritime capabilities and essentially provide new ones,” Quinn said. “Under that we have three objectives we’re following: we want to deliver effects in increasingly complex and demanding missions and environments; we want to broaden the number and variety of missions served by maritime unmanned systems, and we want to reduce the human burden and increase safety through greater use of autonomy.”

In Australia, the use of unmanned systems will allow the country to amass force when and where they need them while dealing with their challenges of size, distance, and diversity of environment, Hudson said.

“We seek the ability to generate mass on a scale we otherwise could not achieve with crude systems on their own,” Hudson said. “We’re particularly focused on any submarine warfare, any service warfare and long-range strike; the ability to minimize putting our sailors, soldiers, and airmen into harm’s way; the ability to operate seamlessly as one across our three-armed services need to become more interchangeable with our allies and partners; and finally, reimagining how we operate beyond the boundaries of the human being.”

Italy will use both unmanned surface and unmanned underwater systems that will work with manned ships, Capt. Gianfranco Vizzini, Italian Naval Attaché in the U.S., said. When developing these systems, they will take a modular approach.

“New challenges are defining requirements for the unmanned assets and considering them a force and capability multiplier. The Italian Navy has recently decided to find solutions based on modularity,” Vizzini said. “The modular solution has multiple advantages, such as less interface problems with the platform that are hosting them, operational flexibility, and sustainment and lifecycle support in modern warfare.”

The integration of unmanned systems would not only add capabilities and reduce crew sizes but increase survivability.

“Every navy in the world, I’m sure, is looking at exactly the same thing as we are, the ability of AI to take over those functions that you would have humans do is critical, especially when trying to support, you know, a small platform from a limited crew size and the more a craft can do on its own the more efficient it’s going to be, the more survivable it’s going to be,” Quinn said.

Navies will have to contend with protecting unmanned systems in particular from other unmanned ships. Hudson said this is important to preserve the navy’s capability to use the system, as well as preventing adversaries from gaining an advantage from knowing about it.

“But in truth, we are still babes in the woods when it comes to unmanned systems or uncrewed systems,” Hudson said. “We are not at the point where we have in our minds and we have in program yet significant assets which are larger, and therefore more economically costly should we lose them. And also, potentially because of the sensitivity of the systems that they might contain or that we might lose advantage should they be captured.”