The MQ-9B Sea Guardian and the revolution in anti-submarine warfare

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The MQ-9B Sea Guardian and the revolution in anti-submarine warfare

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Amidst the advancements in artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles, quantum computing, cyberattacks, and lethal autonomous weapons, there is one aspect that has been overlooked in the current discourse on the revolution in military affairs (RMA) – the new revolution in anti-submarine warfare (ASW).  Using uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the MQ-9B Sea Guardian, in anti-submarine roles will significantly alter how ASW is conducted.  The shift will be significant, as submarines have been notoriously difficult to find and target.

The recent introduction of General Atomic’s MQ-9B Sea Guardian UAV is a clear sign that a revolution in ASW is on the horizon – bringing about what Colin Grey termed ‘a radical change in the character or conduct of war’ – in this case, the war at sea.1 The change will make submarines, a platform known for their second-strike capability, far more vulnerable.  This will usher in a shift in Strategic Stability that will have an impact on the future conduct and character of war at sea.

MQ-9B Sea Guardian heralds a revolution in anti-submarine warfare
General Atomic’s MQ-9B Sea Guardian (GA-ASI picture).

The rise of the submarine – from Turtle to Nautilus

Submarines brought their own revolution to maritime warfare when they became part of active naval operations.  The first mission was conducted during the American Revolutionary War in 1776 when a US submersible craft named Turtle attempted to sink the Royal Naval Ship HMS Eagle at anchor in New York’s port.  Since then, submarines have evolved; World War I and World War II made them a force to be reckoned with.  However, the Cold War witnessed the true revolution when, in 1954, the USS Nautilus, a nuclear-powered submarine, was launched.  Diesel had given way to nuclear.  The new technology transformed the submarine from a fast-surface vessel with limited underwater capabilities to a fully submerged vessel capable of prolonged movement and combat without the need to resurface for extended periods.

The propulsion revolution did not stop there.  Air-independent propulsion (AIP) technology allowed conventionally powered diesel-electric (SSK) submarines to remain underwater for longer durations than usual.  AIP reduced the SSK’s need for frequent access to atmospheric oxygen required by the diesel-electric engines.  Masking techniques such as the use of rubber tiles also reduced the noise made by a submarine’s propulsion systems; the main factor that makes a submarine vulnerable to enemy sonar detection.

Entry of the Sea Guardian

Now, let’s come to the primary question of how the MQ-9B Sea Guardian will bring about a new revolution in ASW.  Historically, surface ships, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, and helicopters have been used to find and neutralise submarines.  Fixed wing platforms remain the primary choice; their characteristics of speed, reach and height range allow them to search vast swathes of ocean in a relatively short period of time.  However, they have their limitations: limited time on-station due to fuel constraints and human fatigue factors means they cannot provide a persistent surveillance capability.  The MQ-9B addresses all these constraints; empowering navies and air forces to conduct their ASW missions effectively and efficiently without any of the limitations of crewed platforms.

The MQ-9B is designed in a specific configuration to target enemy submarines in support of ASW operations.  It can carry 80 G or 40 A size sonobuoys on one sortie; a capability previously limited to crewed airborne systems.  A sonobuoy is a device used to detect and identify objects moving in the water.  Sonobuoys find submarines by either detecting the sounds produced by their propellers and machinery (passive detection) or by bouncing a sonar ping off the surface of the submarine (active detection).  In addition to carrying and deploying them, the MQ-9B can simultaneously process incoming data from 32 sonobuoys.

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