AUKUS: Australia to make its minehunter boats crewless

The move is expected to augment its use of nuclear submarines as part of the AUKUS alliance.
Ameya Paleja
Stock image of a US-nuclear-powered submarine heading out into the ocean
Stock image of a US-nuclear-powered submarine heading out into the ocean

shaunl/iStock 

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is turning its focus to using uncrewed vessels as it looks to strengthen its presence in the strategically important region of the Pacific Ocean, Popular Science reported. As part of this initiative, RAN will look to eventually replace its crewed minehunter vessels with uncrewed ones.

In recent years, the Pacific Ocean, which extends from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Southern Ocean in the south, has emerged as an area of strategic importance after China began to flex its naval muscle in this zone. The vastness of the ocean is bounded by the continents of Asia in the west and the Americas in the east, with Australia the lone island continent in between.

Australia has traditionally allied with the US and the UK, who both have interests in the Pacific. In response to escalating tensions in the region, the three countries set up a new alliance called AUKUS, under which Australia is set to receive nuclear-powered submarines to patrol the Pacific.

Nuclear powered submarines

The AUKUS deal, completed earlier in March, makes for an interesting turn of events for Australia, which has vowed never to develop nuclear weapons. Owning a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines has, therefore, been akin to walking a tightrope for the country.

None of the submarines that Australia will operate will have nuclear weapons onboard, nor will they process nuclear fuel on Australian soil.

Interesting Engineering has previously covered how Australia plans to circle around the difficulties presented by this strategic agreement. However, as the deal progresses, Australia is learning that nuclear-powered submarines do not work in isolation and is now looking to acquire uncrewed patrol boats to augment its new naval assets.

Uncrewed boats

As Australian submarines will now navigate deeper into the Pacific waters, it is also looking to upgrade its fleet of mine-hunting vessels. These vessels do the unglamorous work of scanning the ocean floor using sonar and then sending a tethered robot or human divers to defuse the mines. Two of its minehunter ships have already retired and now the country is looking to replace the remaining four in its fleet.

AUKUS: Australia to make its minehunter boats crewless
Stock image of a minehunter ship from Norway

Thales Australia recently confirmed that its facility at Carrington near Newcastle, Australia, will be used to develop mine countermeasures and military survey capabilities. The facilities have previously been used to develop Australian Huon-class minehunters and will now prepare to equip the RAN with new-age technology, Australian Defence Magazine reported.

As Australian nuclear-powered submarines stealthily wade through the Pacific, RAN is looking for safer means to keep them out of harm's way. Mine defusing is a high-risk job and better suited to robots. But there is also more to the technology than meets the eye.

The technology used to hunt for mines can also help spot other submarines that might be carrying nuclear weapons onboard. Additionally, being uncrewed, these vessels can patrol the waters for longer periods of time than if they had a human crew.