People walking along the Thames by Tower Bridge one day in September 2016 might have been surprised to see a fair-sized battleship making its way up river, and ahead of it a futuristic looking speedboat chugging along performing manouevres. The speedboat can actually do over 60mph if opened up fully, and versions of it are operated by navies all around the world, including Iran’s. But this version is a little different. Called MAST (Maritime Autonomy Surface Testbed), it is the British Navy's first experiment in autonomous boats.
We'll no doubt hear much more about this later in the autumn, when the British navy hosts wargames with industry and other navies to test more than 40 marine drone systems in an operational environment. There is clear momentum behind the automation of war, beginning with aerial drones and now moving into the ocean. The direct effect is to extend the scale and reach of military activity, to make it more precise and perhaps more effective. The future system-wide impacts are rather more contested, and may be to change the role and nature of warfare – including the power balance of actors – more fundamentally.
The Mast may be making waves in London, but the UK is actually years behind other nations in developing autonomous marine craft. The US has the 40m long Sea Hunter which is designed to patrol waters for months at a time without a crew or anyone controlling it remotely. The US has also tested marine drones in real operations against drug smugglers in the Caribbean.