Ghost Shark and Manta Ray: Australia and the US introduce underwater drones

Ghost Shark and Manta Ray: Australia and the US introduce underwater drones

Ghost Shark and Manta Ray protect the underwater world. It sounds like the plot of a future Marvel movie, but in fact, that’s the future of Pacific sea defense.

Ghost Shark and Manta Ray are the names of prototype unmanned underwater vehicles – UUVs or drones – recently introduced by Australia and the United States.

Experts say submarines could represent the future of undersea warfare, demonstrating the ability to exert power while minimizing danger to human life.

The use of drones in aerial warfare has become commonplace. The US used them extensively during conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan beginning in the 1990s, and the newer, cheaper drones have become key military hardware for both sides in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Kyiv has also built sea surface drones, which have inflicted heavy losses on Russia’s much larger and more expensive Black Sea Fleet ships.

Air and surface sea drones can be controlled using satellites and light and radio waves. But they don’t work the same way at depth.

A 2023 study published in the Swiss journal Sensors showed that communication in water required more energy but still saw significant data loss to variables including water temperature, salinity and depth.

The makers of the new generation of military UUVs are not saying how they will overcome the communication problem.

But when Australia launched the Ghost Shark last month, it called the prototype “the world’s most advanced underwater autonomous vehicle.”

“Ghost Shark will provide the Navy with a stealthy long-range autonomous undersea warfare capability that can conduct intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and sustained strikes,” said a statement from Australia’s Ministry of Defense, adding that it expected the first production model to delivered at the end of next year.

Australian officials and those from Australian manufacturer Anduril said they could not share any specifications on the Ghost Shark as it is still classified.

But they touted the speed with which the submarine went from idea to test, with the program having started just two years ago.

“Ahead of schedule, on budget, it’s pretty unheard of,” Shane Arnott, Anduril’s senior vice president of engineering, told reporters.

“Delivering the first Ghost Shark prototype ahead of schedule sets a new standard for capability development at the speed required,” Australia’s chief defense scientist, Tanya Monro, said in a statement.

Emma Salisbury, a fellow at the British Geostrategy Council, said the Ghost Shark looked like the larger Orca UUV being developed in the US.
“I assume that they are all intended for a very similar set of missions – continuous intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike capabilities, particularly in the anti-submarine domain,” Salisbury said.

The US Navy called the Boeing-built Orca UUV an “advanced, autonomous, unmanned diesel-electric submarine with a modular payload to perform multiple missions” in a December news release about the delivery of the first Orca test platform, an early prototype.

Having a modular payload means the Orca could in theory carry different types of weapons depending on the task or be equipped with specialized equipment for reconnaissance or perhaps intelligence gathering.

The release said the Pentagon would acquire five more UUVs, without giving a timetable. But the US Orca has been in the works for more than a decade, the Navy statement said, in contrast to the speed with which Australia developed the Ghost Shark.

Chris Brose, Anduril’s chief strategy officer, said the company and Australia were in the “process of proving” that “this kind of capability can be built faster, cheaper, smarter.”

Australia’s Anduril said the fully domestically developed Ghost Shark will be available for export after it joins Australia’s marine fleet.

Manta Ray Trials
Meanwhile, back across the Pacific, Orca is not the only UUV developed in the US.

America’s latest UUV entry is Northrop Grumman’s Manta Ray, a prototype of which was tested in Southern California in February and March.

The Defense Advanced Research Products Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon branch responsible for developing new technology, said the Manta Ray’s strength is in its modularity, the ability to change payloads depending on the mission.

It can be broken down and loaded into five standard shipping containers, moved to where it will be used, and reassembled in the field, according to Northrop Grumman.

The prototype was built in Maryland and then reassembled on the California coast.

“The combination of modular cross-country transport, in-field assembly, and subsequent deployment demonstrates a first-of-its-kind capability for larger UUVs,” said Kyle Woerner, who leads the Manta Ray program at DARPA, in a new agency release.

He also noted the modular transportation method means the Manta Ray can conserve internal energy for its missions, rather than using it to get to deployment sites.

Like the Orca, the Manta Ray does not gather as quickly as the Ghost Shark. The program begins in 2020 and DARPA has not given a goal for the Manta Ray – or some variant of it – to join the US fleet.

“DARPA is engaging with the U.S. Navy on the next steps for testing and transitioning this technology,” the agency’s release said.

Meanwhile, China, which the US military has named an “immediate threat” in the Pacific, is also making progress on UUVs, Salisbury said.

“Although the details are limited, like most Chinese capabilities, they have been developing it for at least 15 years and may now have something similar to the Orca (but with torpedoes) in the testing phase,” he said.

Submarine expert H I Sutton said on his Covert Shores website that, according to open-source intelligence analysis, Beijing is believed to have at least six larger UUVs under development.

Besides Australia, the US and China, other countries working on UUVs include Canada, France, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Norway, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, according to Sutton.

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