Ghost shark

May 23, 2024
High altitude view of the Earth in space. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

The Ghost Shark, a new underwater drone being developed for the Australian Navy, could kill off the deeply flawed plan to acquire eight nuclear submarines for a projected cost as much as $360 billion.

Australia’s defence department says the new undersea drone would provide the navy with “a stealthy, long-range autonomous undersea warfare capability which can conduct persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike”. If the inherent problems with autonomous operation of the drones can be overcome, that would seem to render Australia’s nuclear submarines redundant before they are anywhere near delivery.

The defence industry minister Pat Conroy said in April, “Ghost Shark is an exemplar of how Defence and Australian industry can move at speed to develop sovereign new sovereign capabilities to respond to challenges before us”. The main local partner is Anduril Australia. “Speed” is hardly the word to describe the lack of progress on the nuclear submarines – which is good because it won’t be hugely expensive to scrap the misconceived project from the Morrison era before any more money is wasted.

Defence and Anduril Australia’s American parent, an AI and robotics developer, have invested $140 million to ensure three Ghost Shark “Extra Large” autonomous undersea vehicles are built within three years. More are expected to follow.

The Ghost Shark, and its US counterpart Manta Ray, are widely seen as being at the forefront of modular undersea autonomous vehicles. Prototypes of each were recently unveiled amid much optimism. However, one report in News Ltd outlets says Dr James Patton Rogers, a drone warfare expert at the Cornell Brooks School Tech Policy Institute in New York, is concerned about a particular aspect of these drones. He says, “One of the most worrying characteristics of both drones is that they are far more autonomous than the underwater systems of the past. With increased levels of autonomy, comes less human control, a factor that may lead to machine errors or riskier deployments that could escalate existing tensions.” At a minimum, a decision to fire a weapon such as a torpedo should be first approved by a human in the loop. Similar considerations apply to China’s active program of developing underwater drones.

In the US, the Manta Ray is praised for its ability to be packed up and moved anywhere around the globe. The same could apply with the Ghost Shark, meaning it doesn’t have to get to its ultimate destination solely under water, unlike a 10,000 tonne nuclear submarine.

On May 21, News Ltd papers reported, “For Australia specifically, Ghost Shark is expected to be used to “counter China’s encroachment into international waters” and patrol waters along our vast coastline”.

Apparently, it’s fine for Australia to claim it’s operating in international waters, as recently happened when it deployed a navy helicopter designed for anti-submarine warfare in the Yellow Sea close to China and over 7000 km from the Australian coastline. But China is allegedly “encroaching” into international waters in some cases if it goes beyond its sovereign territorial waters of 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) from its coastline.

China is a major power, as well as Australia’s largest trading partner. It has every right to go where it wants in international waters, provided it stays within the Law of the Sea. The Philippines claims China has not done this in disputed waters between the two countries. But Australia went a step further than China in 2021 when it withdrew from Law of the Sea disputes resolution bodies to stop Timor Leste taking legal actions over disputed petroleum boundaries.

Unlike China, the US has not ratified the UN law of the Sea Convention. In 1984, it clandestinely placed mines in Nicaragua ports damaging eight vessels. The US subsequently lost a case in the International Court of Justice for violating Nicaragua’s sovereignty. Nicaragua was awarded reparations, but the US ignored the court’s findings.

There is another impediment to acquiring nuclear submarines. The Defence Minister Richard Marles has said the Government would not accept nuclear waste from other nations. But the AUKUS legislation does not rule this out in future. It says Australia can manage, store or dispose of “radioactive waste from an AUKUS submarine” which it defines as “an Australian or a UK/U.S. submarine”. Neither the US nor the UK properly store the waste from their reactors’ highly enriched, weapons grade, uranium. Safe storage requires this waste to be specially treated, then stored in steel drums 400 metres underground in a solid rock formation and guarded for many centuries. The US leaves the redundant reactors on surface land. The UK is even more irresponsible, leaving their reactors in retired nuclear submarines tied up at a Plymouth wharf. Marles is almost as bad. He has said that Australia will leave high-level waste on Defence land in central Australia.

Once this major impediment is understood, getting support for operating nuclear submarines could start to fade, particularly when there are better alternatives such as much less costly, modern battery- operated conventional submarines, or a safe version of the Ghost Shark.

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