The Ministry of Defence is seeking to develop a new generation of unmanned maritime "drones" that would be used for anti-submarine warfare and possible missile attacks on enemy ships, the Guardian has learned.
A fleet of Royal Navy unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) is already being used in the Gulf to help prevent Iran laying mines in important sea lanes, and ministers are now considering whether similar devices could be used to tackle pirates off the coast of Somalia.
Documents show that the MoD is hoping to hugely improve drone capabilities, having seen how effective they have been for Nato against the Taliban. Whitehall sources confirm the British military wants to integrate drones across the three armed services as a cheaper way of waging war, providing round-the-clock surveillance and gathering intelligence. "The possibilities of these new drone technologies is endless," a senior defence official told the Guardian.
Plans for the military's maritime drones are set out in documents published by the MoD's defence, science and technology laboratory. It has told defence manufacturers it wants their help to develop drones "to provide greater support to maritime operations such as mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare and missile defence".
"Innovation in maritime technology, including unmanned systems, will make it possible for UK armed forces to continue to use the sea with security and persistence," the report says. "Unmanned systems are being considered as a potential option to aid in the delivery of a range of different maritime tasks given the range of potential threats and increasing demands on the smaller number of highly capable manned platforms in which much of the UK capability is currently focused."
The tasks set out are anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures, anti-ship missile defence, counter-piracy operations and support to future submarine operations. The document makes clear the drones could be used to attack potential enemies. "A range of unmanned systems including UUVs, unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), and unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) may be used to support these maritime tasks," it continues. "And could be expected to perform a number of roles, including, but not limited to, remote sensing, communications relay, delivery of effects such as the deployment of weapons or countermeasures." It says military expectations "are placing increased demands on unmanned systems". These underwater and surface vessels need to have "increased endurance …to support covert operations".
The documents include explanations from Lieutenant Commander Kevin Giles about why the navy wants such vessels – for "dirty, dangerous and repetitive" tasks, and to keep costs down. Anti-submarine warfare, Giles explains, is about "finding and sinking" submarines using manned and unmanned systems. "It is entirely possible that we will see drones off the coast of Somalia," said a defence official. "They could be used for tracking ships and providing intelligence to the other maritime forces. This is one of the potential uses of UUV technology."
With fewer frigates available because of defence cuts, the UK is currently unable to dedicate one of these ships solely to counter-piracy operations, and UUVs are regarded as one way of shoring up and extending diminishing capabilities.
Iain Shepherd, who served in the Royal Navy for 20 years and is a specialist in underwater warfare, said: "The MoD is aware of the potential for UUVs. They have been deploying them in the Gulf on mine-hunting exercises and there is a huge amount of interest in other areas. In submarine warfare, for instance, it would not be too difficult to develop, at a low cost, expendable devices that can be left in the sea to form barriers, and they wouldn't expend any power until they needed to." Shepherd said the capabilities of the UUVs used commercially for tasks such as oil exploration were "quite staggering" and that the MoD is examining how these could be modified for military purposes.
Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a former director general of the MoD's development, concepts and doctrine centre, added: "The whole area of UUVs is about to explode … it could be as big in the maritime sector as it is in airspace. They could be used for clearing mines for a nuclear submarine, or the covert mapping of important harbours. A UUV could find a submarine, attach itself to it and then explode … there is no limit to what could be done."
Parry said the use of UUVs could be provocative, and possibly illegal under international law. "You use UUVs for work that is dull, dangerous, dirty and dodgy. There may well be problems because you would want to penetrate territorial seas, I'd be amazed if you didn't. Some of these things could be used in six months. When there is an operational need for something, there is often a way of delivering it."
The former first sea lord and security minister Admiral Lord West was more cautious, and said the navy would be wrong to get "too sold on these things". "The areas where I see potential are in surveillance and reconnaissance, and for such things as mine-hunting and clearance of mines, without the enemy knowing what we are doing. "If you can find a way of driving a submarine without people on it, then that might have potential. But water is a funny thing. When you fire a missile, you can track it quite easily. When you throw an orange over the side of a ship, you lose sight of it very quickly."
West also questioned whether such systems could be made completely secure, saying the use of UAVs in Afghanistan was not a proper measure of their capabilities. "Using UAVs against a terrorist with no capability is one thing, but using them against a sophisticated enemy is something else. Communications can be intercepted or cut, or taken over. Controlling UAVs requires radio links, and these are unbelievably vulnerable."
An MoD spokesperson said: "Exploring innovation in maritime defence is part of the work we do to exploit the latest technology and ensure the Royal Navy is best equipped to meet future requirements. We are considering options for how we can use unmanned systems to support the vast range of future naval capabilities that include Type 45 destroyers, global combat ships, Astute class submarines and the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers that together with Lightning II jets will provide world-leading carrier strike from 2020."
The Royal Navy has 16 UUVs, based at Whale Island, off Portsmouth. The vessels are used for counter-marine operations, and have been used extensively in the Gulf in preparation for any potential conflict with Iran, which has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a strategically important naval pinch point.
The Royal Air Force is preparing for the delivery of five Reaper UAVs, which will be based at a new squadron headquarters inside RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.
The use of UAVs in Afghanistan, and American drones in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, has proved highly controversial, not least because of concerns about civilian casualties and the ethics behind using such tools.
An MoD document published last year, The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems, made clear the legal and ethical issues are not yet resolved. It asked: "Do military planners and politicians understand the full implications of the systems they are currently tasking and those they hope to procure?"