DARPA and US Navy unveil autonomous Sea Hunter warship

DARPA and the US Navy have unveiled a new autonomous and unarmed warship during a recent christening ceremony in Portland, Oregon.

The ship, aptly named Sea Hunter, can operate for months at a time without a crew or human control, and is set to be a game changer for the future of US naval operations.

Sea Hunter uses radar and an international ship-tracking program called the Automatic Identification System (AIS) to find its sea bearings and avoid colliding with other vessels without the assistance of a manned crew – any manoeuvres it makes to avoid collisions have to be detectable by a crew on other boats.

The 132 foot-long prototype diesel powered ship was developed by the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and built through the agency’s Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) programme.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and US Navy unveiled its new self-driving ship Sea Hunter during a christening ceremony for the vessel last week - image courtesy of DARPA
Sea Hunter cost around $20m to build and will operate at a fraction of the cost of a normal manned vessel.

The unarmed ship could be the first of a future fleet of autonomous warships designed to find enemy submarines and counteract their activities.

The US military anticipates the increased use of autonomous vessels such as the Sea Hunter in various parts of the world’s oceans within the next 5 years.

Before it can become active in its proposed patrolling duties, the Sea Hunter will undergo two years of testing to verify that it can safely follow international regulations and procedures for operating at sea.

US Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said the development of the Sea Hunter was a turning point for the country’s naval operations.

“This is an inflection point, this is the first time we’ve ever had a totally robotic, trans-oceanic-capable ship,” he said.

“I would like to see unmanned flotillas operating in the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf within five years.”

No need to fear a captain-less ship says Secretary of Defense

At the vessel’s recent christening ceremony, Work raised the possibility of arming autonomous vessels such as the Sea Hunter in the future, but that if it happened there would be no reason to fear such a ship as any decision to use lethal force in offence would be made my humans.

The Sea Hunter is an important development for the Pentagon as it fits into the US Government’s strategy of incorporating unmanned vehicles and drones into conventional use for its army, navy and air force, helping to maintain the US military’s autonomous prowess across land, sea and sky.

The Sea Hunter was developed at a relatively inexpensive estimated cost of around $20m, with the operating costs expected to average somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 per day.

The autonomous ship is powered by two diesel engines and can reach speeds of 27 knots.

Security expert at the New America Foundation, Peter Singer, told Reuters that the US Government had developed the Sea Hunter not as a display of future technology, but out of a strategic necessity.

“We’re not working on anti-submarine technology just because we think it’s cool,” he said.

“We’re working on it because we’re deeply concerned about the advancements that China and Russia are making in this space.”

These advancements by China have seen it challenge the US’s military superiority in the Western Pacific as China expands its submarine fleet.

The development of the Sea Hunter can be viewed as a direct response to China’s naval emergence, and comes at a time when the Pentagon is concerned about the vulnerability of its aircraft carriers and submarines stationed in the Western Pacific.

The autonomous prototype vessel was christened the “Sea Hunter” due to the moniker describing the technology demonstrator’s envisioned capabilities and due to the name harking back to DARPA and Navy ship-development programs of years past, such as the Sea Shadow prototype vessel developed in the 1980s.