We spent the day with the US Navy's submarine-hunting drone warship

The Pentagon is about to realise its dream of having a drone warship to hunt foreign stealth submarines.

Meet ACTUV (Antisubmarine warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel) — a crew-less, 140-ton, 132-foot long robotic ship unveiled in Portland’s Willamette River on Thursday.

“This is a big, big, deal,” Deputy Secretary of Defence Robert Work said.

“It looks like a Klingon bird of prey,” he added, admiring the vessel’s narrow bow.

“It’s extremely inexpensive compared to a manned system and it takes men and service women out of harms way. So why wouldn’t we want to do this?”

The ACTUV costs $15,000 to $20,000 a day to operate, according to the Department of Defence. It was conceived in 2010 by DARPA, the Pentagon’s developmental wing responsible for testing emerging military technologies.

And those expenses are chump change compared to the operating costs of an aircraft carrier or submarine.

For example, the USS George Washington, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, costs a cool $1.1 million a day to operate, the Navy told The Wall Street Journal.

Staffing the ACTUV costs an estimated $684,900 per day.

“You can afford to use it in ways or think about using it in ways that would be too dangerous for a manned vessel. Like taking it into a minefield or taking it within range of somebody else’s weapons,” Scott Littlefield, the ACTUV’s program manager, Scott Littlefield told Business Insider.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get away from sailors on big ships, but I could imagine a future in which we have a mixture of manned and unmanned systems working together,” he added.

In short, ACTUV advances America’s robotic-warfare abilities by supplementing the Navy’s manned fleet.

‘These will be everywhere’

ACTUV’s completion comes as Russia and China, near-peer adversaries to the US, expand and update their navies.

According to NATO Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone, there is now more reported activity from Russian submarines in the North Atlantic since the Cold War. Meanwhile, China claims the majority of land in one of the most disputed areas on the planet: the South China Sea, which is home to $5 trillion in annual global trade.

To that end, the tit for tat over crumbs of territory in the South China Sea isn’t for nothing.

“This will operate wherever the United States Navy operates. It can operate in the South China Sea. It can operate in the Baltic Sea. It can operate in the Persian Gulf. And it can operate in the middle of the Atlantic or the middle of the Pacific,” Work told Business Insider.

“These will be everywhere,” he said.

ACTUV’s sophisticated sonar system allows the unmanned vessel to hunt submarines, detect torpedoes, evaluate threats, and avoid small objects at sea — all while traversing the ocean at a top speed of 27 knots (31 mph).

This animation from DARPA depicts how ACTUV will hunt targets at sea:

While at sea, ACTUV will communicate information back to a military control center, as well as to nearby Navy vessels and aircraft.

“There is no reason to be afraid of a ship like this. This is a ship that’s going to do what we tell it and nothing more,” Work said.

“The US military doesn’t really have the luxury of picking where it has to go and the fact that the Navy has to be in all of those environments, that is what national security is all about, being able to do all of that,” Dr. Arati Prabhakar, the director of DARPA, told Business Insider.

Stand by for more testing

While ACTUV has already passed a few preliminary tests, the vessel must still undergo another two years of open-water trials with the Navy.

The Navy is slated to begin those tests in the summer of 2016, in waters off San Diego, California.

If all goes well, the Navy hopes the vessel enters service by 2018.

Watch ACTUV undergo speed and manoeuvrability tests: 

 

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