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U.S. Navy’s robot submarines could carry out autonomous attacks

The U.S. Navy is in the process of developing armed robot submarines, which could theoretically be used to kill without direct human oversight.

The project is being developed by the Office of Naval Research under the name CLAWS, although it has not been made clear exactly what the acronym stands for. In budget documents, the autonomous underwater weapons system is described as being useful for increasing “mission areas into kinetic effects.” New Scientist, which was first to publish details of these documents, describes this as “military-speak for destroying things.”

CLAWS would not be a standalone vehicle. Instead, it would equip robot submarines with the necessary algorithms and smart sensors to be able to autonomously complete missions. This might include finding targets or evading attacks resulting from anti-submarine systems.

The project has been known about since 2018. That year, the U.S. Navy made requests for funding to help “improve the autonomy and survivability of large and extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles.” However, it is only recently that additional information about the project has suggested that it will involve weapons, rather than simply being an exploratory technology for gathering undersea data.

Orca sub

New Scientist believes that CLAWS could be deployed on the Navy’s Orca submarines, long-range robot subs developed by Boeing. Images of the Orca subs depict them as around 25 meters in length, and kitted out with 12 torpedo tubes. Although there has been no confirmation that this is the case, it is possible that these could be under the control of CLAWS, allowing the subs to “find and sink” targets autonomously during their 90-day maximum missions.

The recently published Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 Budget Estimates makes multiple mentions of autonomous undersea vehicles and autonomous warfare, suggesting that this is one focus of the Department of Defense going forward. CLAWS has been allocated $26 million in this year’s U.S. Navy budget. Another $23 million will follow next year. If a working prototype is developed, it could be deployed as soon as June 2022.

This isn’t the first potentially autonomous weapons system Digital Trends has covered. In August 2019, we wrote about plans by the U.S. Army to develop artificial intelligence-guided missiles that use A.I. to pursue their targets. At the time, we noted that several contractors were competing to win the Cannon-Delivered Area Effects Munition (C-DAEM) bid. Prototype demonstrations of the missile are set to be shown off in 2021.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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