MILAN — European states are looking to autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs, to safeguard critical infrastructure.
The vulnerability of telecommunications and energy networks and other submersed systems has long been recognized. For almost a decade, concerns have been raised by experts and officials regarding the Russian Navy’s growing interests and activities in proximity to NATO cable routes. However, it was not until February that the alliance created the Underwater Infrastructure Coordination Cell dedicated task force, based at the Brussels’ headquarters.
Last month, the European Commission updated the European Maritime Security Strategy, which called for regular live maritime exercises involving civilian and military actors, better monitoring and protection of critical maritime infrastructure and ships from physical and cyber threats and the removal of unexploded ordnance and mines at sea. As part of this effort, the European Defense Fund 2023 Call for Proposals allocated 90 million euros ($98 million) for underwater warfare, including for the development of unmanned anti-submarine and seabed warfare as well as mine countermeasures capabilities.
The Nord Stream pipeline rupture in September 2022 and security crises resulting from the war in Ukraine “have acted as a catalyst for many entities – commercial and government – to start taking a harder look at how best to protect these infrastructure,” said Nick Stoner, director of business development for Anduril Maritime, a supplier of autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs.
In terms of the EU infrastructure, about 250 communications systems connect the trading bloc to the global internet, of which two-thirds are submarine cables laid in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, North Sea and the Baltic Sea.
A 2022 analysis carried out by the European Parliament on the security threats found that while a complete EU-wide blackout is “highly unlikely” from an attack on the networks, given the sheer number of cables and contingency available, it could be plausible in an armed conflict.
“A coordinated or simultaneous attack on several cables and the repair infrastructure could cause significant disruption,” it said. “This is particularly the case for [more] vulnerable EU member states to cable-related internet outages, such as islands and oversea territories, some of which rely on very limited cable connections or lack access to dense land-based networks.”
The Nord Stream rupture shows that attacks on infrastructure can be low-cost operations achieved through non-sophisticated and available means, the experts said. Hence, it is advantage to counter them using affordable defensive systems such as AUVs.
“The trend towards using AUVs has actually been a longstanding one in the commercial sector,” said Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow focused on sea power at the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute. ”Energy companies have long used their monitoring capabilities to survey undersea infrastructure and for tasks like the support of maintenance functions.”
Michael Bohnert, an engineer focused on emerging technologies at the RAND Corporation, said the primary value of AUVs is in providing persistent monitoring of infrastructure for days or weeks at a time, though challenges remain.
“Ocean currents, vehicle presence [and collisions], difficulty sensing and ground topology are more challenging for unmanned systems than airborne missions,” he said.
Countries in Europe are moving to acquire AUV systems that can be used to protect submerged infrastructure.
In February, the Italian Ministry of Defense unveiled its latest requirement for seabed operations to integrate AUVs and remote operated vehicles with its U-212A submarine and future U212 Near Future Submarine. The goal is to award a contract for the study of the most effective platforms available on the market to combine onboard these manned systems.
In December, Teledyne Marine confirmed that the Polish Ministry of Defense bought three more Gavia AUVs to equip Kormoran II-Class Mine Countermeasure vessels it ordered last June. The Polish Navy operates a fleet of the AUVs, which it has been relying on since 2015 as a mine countermeasure.
That same month, Exail won a contract from France’s defense procurement agency for the rental of an AUV, the A18D, for use by the country’s Navy to conduct testing and define its future requirements as part of the country’s Seabed Warfare Strategy.
The Danish Ministry of Defense Acquisition and Logistics Organization agreed in 2021 to buy six Light AUVs from the Portugal’s Oceanscan-MST. Five were reported to have side-scan sonar modules to locate mines, and the other was fitted with an ID functionality to capture high resolution pictures and laser-scan the seabed. The drones became operational last summer.
The U.K. recently awarded contracts to procure AUVs including two Gavia Offshore Surveyors and three Iver 4 580s. The former can be configured to carry out a multitude of missions including multi-domain intelligence and reconnaissance missions, anti-submarine warfare and seabed warfare.
Anduril’s Stoner said his company has responded to requests for information and delivered proposals to “numerous” European and international partners regarding its Dive-LD, a customizable, commercial low-cost AUV.
“What the Nord Stream attacks showed is that even a relatively shallow pipeline in a constricted, highly trafficked area is vulnerable to sabotage, he said in an interview.” No region of the world is immune and the potential for state-sponsored nefarious action increases both the vulnerability and likelihood of this.”
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.