As artificial intelligence and robotics technologies progress, the increasing autonomy of unmanned military systems will drive new operational concepts with the potential to transform modern war.

A new policy brief released today by the United States Studies Centre looks at the future of unmanned warfare at sea as Chinese military modernisation presents the United States and Australia with deepening anti-access challenges across the Indo-Pacific region.

"In the future, Australia will need to be a developer, integrator and consumer of unmanned naval technology. And as China closes the technological gap, Washington will need to cast a wider net on innovation sources, including by relying on trusted allies like Australia," said report author Lindsay Gorman.

"As a developer, Australia could fill gaps in its defence innovation ecosystem by more effectively connecting the technical research community and private sector with the defence mission."

Key points

  • The United States and Australia have undertaken promising experimentation in unmanned systems beneath, on and above the ocean, but more investment and experimentation is required in realistic scenarios.
  • Recent updates to the defence and technology ecosystems in the United States and Australia have been sensibly predicated on fostering and harnessing innovation, though both still face limitations and concerns.
  • Moving from unmanned experiments to actual capability production will require overcoming political and institutional hurdles to retiring legacy systems and making radical changes to existing force structures.

View research brief

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