This Is Australia’s Testbed For Its Upcoming ‘Ghost Shark’ Unmanned Combat Submarines
The Ghost Shark unmanned underwater vehicle will eventually be the size of a school bus and offer both surveillance and attack capabilities.
Anduril Australia, a wholly owned subsidiary of defense technology company Anduril Industries, is showing off the testbed it will use to develop the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) future extra-large drone submarine. The upcoming unmanned underwater vehicle, or UUV, which will succeed this testbed, was officially named Ghost Shark during a ceremony on Monday as a nod to the Royal Australian Air Force’s Ghost Bat drone designed by Boeing Australia, and the likelihood of arming Ghost Shark sometime down the line is already being discussed.
Ghost Shark will be developed under a partnership between Anduril Australia, the RAN, and the Defense Science and Technology Group (DSTG). Commercial negotiations for the co-funded design began in May of this year, and the group effort will support Australia’s overarching Extra Large Autonomous Undersea Vehicle (XL-AUV) program, which seeks to rapidly produce an affordable, autonomous, long-endurance drone that can be tailored for a variety of military and non-military missions.
The finalized deal is now valued at about $100 million, and three total XL-AUVs are currently under contract with the RAN to be delivered over the next three years. The customizable testbed displayed on Monday is dubbed ‘Dive-LD’, or Dive-Large Displacement, and was gained by Anduril when it acquired UUV manufacturer Dive Technologies this February. Anduril will leverage Dive-LD as a jumping-off point as it continues fleshing out the future Ghost Shark.
During the Monday ceremony, RAN Rear Adm. Peter Quinn explained that Dive-LD will be used for the experimentation, testing, and validation of potential capabilities to better define what will be Ghost Shark’s concepts of operations and mission set. Each of the three planned prototypes will be iterative, meaning that the systems will vary in respective capabilities and will evolve progressively.
Dive-LD, which utilizes a 3D-printed exterior, weighs 2.8 tons, has a length of 19 feet (5.6 meters), and will be able to conduct autonomous missions at staggering depths of 3.7 miles (6,000 meters) for up to 10 days. However, Quinn made it a point to note that the future Ghost Shark will ultimately shape up to be school bus-sized, which is likely to affect these performance specifications in some capacity.
Breaking Defense reported that during the invite-only ceremony Quinn especially highlighted how the XL-AUV team will leverage open architectures and modularity in the design of the prototypes and Ghost Shark itself to ease the integration of sensors and upgrades. In doing so, the team will be able to ensure that the drone submarine can perform a variety of missions ranging from surveillance and targeting operations to carrying munitions.
“Due to its modular and multi-role nature, our adversaries will need to assume that their every move in the maritime domain is subject to our surveillance and that every XL-AUV is capable of deploying a wide range of effects — including lethal ones,” Breaking Defense quoted Quinn as saying. “Once your potential adversaries understand what a Ghost Shark is — not that we’re going to give them any specifics at all — we expect they will generate doubt and uncertainty.”
Artificial intelligence (AI) will also play a significant role in realizing Ghost Shark’s mission under the XL-AUV program, primarily in regard to its autonomy. While details are still sparse, Quinn touted “software-driven autonomous systems” as being a “force multiplier” for the Australian Defence Force, and Ghost Shark will be no exception. These goals are further echoed under the RAN’s overarching Robotics, Autonomous Systems, and Artificial Intelligence (RAS-AI) strategy, which envisions the rapid proliferation of these technologies within the service between now and 2040.
“Ghost Shark will join Ghost Bat and other autonomous systems as our investment in smart AI-enabled technologies come to fruition,” Quinn said. “Our recently released RAS-AI Campaign Plan includes the rapid development of combat-ready prototypes to accelerate operational deployment of game-changing capabilities such as Ghost Shark."
Though, that isn’t to say humans won’t still be involved in Ghost Shark operations. Breaking Defense also spoke to RAN Commodore Darron Kavanagh, director general of warfare innovation for the service, who explained that AI’s involvement in any lethal actions that Ghost Shark may have to take will be limited for now.
“As you bring down the cost of these, and you get better at understanding how to safely use the artificial intelligence — because this is the key about how we ensure that what we do with actually the management of artificial intelligence, and how we keep control of it is really paramount to defense,” said Kavanagh to Breaking Defense. “We’re very strong on that view about how we will control artificial intelligence.”
AI infusion in UUVs is especially critical due to the limited opportunities for connectivity dictated by the underwater combat environment compared to the aerial combat environment, especially in high-threat areas. Allowing drones to more freely work without constant communication is critical to realizing their potential and ensuring a high degree of survivability.
All told, the XL-AUV team hopes to have a production-representative Ghost Shark prototype delivered by the end of 2025, according to statements made by Dr. Shane Arnott, senior vice president of engineering at Anduril Industries, during the Monday ceremony. Arnott hopes that Ghost Shark can soon be used in place of the RAN’s crewed submarines for the more “dull, dirty, and dangerous missions,” thereby freeing them up for more complex operations.
Submarines in general are a major aspect of military activity in the Indo-Pacific region as tensions with China continue to rise, and will only become more so in the coming years. In terms of Australia specifically, the nation is slated to receive a brand new fleet of at least eight nuclear-capable attack submarines to bolster its maritime presence in the region.
However, the first of these new submarines is expected to arrive within 10 years, and even still the timeframe is highly questionable based on the ambiguity around how exactly Australia will acquire these boats and from who under the new AUKUS security corporation deal with the United States and the United Kingdom.
With this in mind, it's easy to see just how critical long-endurance UUVs could become for Australia, especially if the timetable for the acquisition of their new nuclear boats drags out. Beyond that, as previously noted, there are some missions these unmanned submarines will be capable of executing that are just too risky or impossible for their much larger manned counterparts. As China develops similar capabilities, it's likely that more and more reliance on UUVs will become a reality, in general, and that will greatly complicate undersea warfare.
Beyond China and Australia's own ambitions, UUVs like Ghost Shark have been a growing interest among militaries across the globe. For example, the United States’ Boeing-designed Orca drone submarine is broadly reminiscent of what the XL-AUV has planned for Ghost Shark in regard to its size and concept of operations, with the Navy hoping to leverage it for mine sweeping missions first and potentially underwater surveillance and/or electronic warfare later. Even kinetic missions could grow out from there.
No matter how Ghost Shark’s role may ultimately manifest among the RAN, the drone sub appears to be an exciting effort for Australia with the potential to evolve how the country operates below the surface. Not only that, but it will take its place alongside Ghost Bat as a glimpse of what's to come for the Australian military.
Author's note: Text and headline were tweaked to make it clear that the submarine pictured is a testbed for the upcoming Ghost Shark UUVs that have yet to be delivered. Those UUVs will look different compared to this one.
Contact the author: Emma@thewarzone.com