Unmanned systems could play a significant role in helping NATO nations counter Russia’s increasingly aggressive submarine operations, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The alliance’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities atrophied after the end of the Cold War. But Russia’s provocative undersea activities in the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic have stirred calls for reversing the ASW decline.

Simulation of the Leidos Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV). Image: Leidos.
Simulation of the Leidos Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV). Image: Leidos.

With their long loiter times and potentially large payloads, unmanned aerial systems could deploy a variety of undersea sensors on short notice, augmenting or replacing traditional manned ASW assets, the report says. Unmanned aircraft could relay data from those sensors to surface ships or other processing locations.

“UAS have the potential to reshape the aerial ASW mission by creating an inherently networked solution, as well as bring ASW abilities to a wider range of platforms,” the report asserts.

Unmanned surface vessels are another potential growth area because their lack of a crew allows them to have nontraditional designs, CSIS wrote. One such vehicle, the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), is under development by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to track quiet diesel electric submarines.

The ACTUV, a 132-foot-long trimaran also known as Sea Hunter, completed its initial at-sea tests off the coast of San Diego last month, according to Leidos [LDOS], the prime contractor. CSIS says that unmanned surface vessels developed for commercial use could also be adapted for ASW missions.

The report also recommends that NATO develop a ship- or submarine-launched unmanned underwater vehicle to provide an additional ASW sensor or monitor vital undersea infrastructure. Longer term, NATO is urged to look at how future large UUVs could expand ASW coverage at less cost than manned systems.