Drones and maritime surveillance

France’s EEZ, 10,2 million km² (3,94 million sq mi), is the second largest maritime area in the world after the United States. 97% of the French EEZ is related to its overseas departments and communities, the metropolitan EEZ representing only 370,000 km² (143,000 sq mi.). In order to monitor this immense overseas EEZ, a significant number of patrol vessels is necessary. While the French Navy is technologically credible, it is hindered by a modest number of naval platforms.

Maritime Surveillance

Currently, the French Navy has four Overseas Support and Assistance Ships (BSAOM), three Antilles-Guyana Patrol Boats (PAG) and six Surveillance Frigates (FS) dedicated to the surveillance of overseas marine territories.

It means only 13 vessels are monitoring an area of 9,8 million km² (3,8 million sq mi.), each vessel being responsible for an area the size of Chile. It is true that six Overseas Patrol Vessels (POM) are to be delivered between 2022 and 2025, but by the end of the decade, the six Surveillance Frigates built in the early 1990s will probably be decommissioned.

Based on this observation, the recent report by the Senate Delegation for overseas recommends coupling the delivery of the POMs with the commissioning of surface drones to monitor the EEZ.

Drones Opportunities

The use of drones to complement conventional forces would indeed allow a significant increase in capabilities…but they still need to be developed. The French Defense Industry is in the early stages of surface drones development. During the 2021 Naval Innovation Days, the company Naval Group presented a submarine drone but no autonomous surface system.

Surface drones could provide a permanent and in-depth surveillance network. They could be used either as a complement to conventional forces to reinforce an existing surveillance system and possibly create a saturation effect, or as a substitute for conventional forces for DDD (Dull, Dirty, Dangerous) missions. Indeed, this 3D rule illustrates the comparative advantage of the drone compared to a manned system: it will be able to carry out repetitive and tedious tasks over time (dull), in an unpleasant or painful environment (dirty), even hostile (dangerous).

The Israelis claim to be the first to have implemented an armed surface drone. Since then, the Americans and Chinese have made progress and caught up.

China and USA Moving Forward

A US DoD report presented to Congress in February 2022 proposed to develop a fleet made up of one third large ships (aircraft carriers, frigates), one third smaller ships and one third medium/large unmanned surface vehicles (MUSV/LUSV). The MUSVs (Sea Hunter type) would be used mainly to carry sensors (radar, sonar, electronic warfare, etc.) and weapons designed to combat swarms of enemy drones. The LUSVs (Overlord program) would provide additional mass and, in particular, sufficient weapons. They would be used in long-term operations, and specifically focused on high-intensity naval combat.

As for China, it seems to be developing mainly small USVs, intended for export (JARI – 12m or Marine Lizard – 15m) and presented at the main arms shows. Some open sources also exposed larger models, which seem to be developed specifically for the PLA Navy. Beijing barely communicates on those. Indeed, China needs increased maritime surveillance capabilities in the “nine-dash line” area, particularly around the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The Future of Maritime Surveillance

Finally, if surface drones can be used to reinforce the surveillance network, to combat illegal activities (IUU, smuggling….) on the world’s seas.They could also strengthen the offensive and defensive capabilities of a naval task force: extension of the radar detection range, multi-static anti-submarine warfare, coordinated anti-aircraft network to counter a saturating attack, etc.

Although these tools are not fully mature yet, and their lethal effectiveness in armed operations remains to be demonstrated, they have solid assets to reinforce the surveillance of maritime spaces. European countries must rapidly strengthen their R&D in surface drones, in order to maintain their strategic autonomy.

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