Navy exploring uncrewed vessels options for 2030s

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Artist's impression of potential uncrewed Estonian navy vessels, borne by a larger boat. Source: Merevägi/ERR

The Estonian Navy (Merevägi) is investigating options on developing unmanned vessels, primarily for use in its mine clearing work, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Wednesday evening. A potential manufacturer of such craft is the Saaremaa-based Baltic Work Boats (BWB), while actual funding could, if granted, come from the European Defense Fund.

The current Merevägi fleet – made up primarily of several U.K.-built mine-hunters – reaches the end of its life-cycle at the end of this decade, AK reported, with the navy looking towards uncrewed vessels as a main focal point of development.

One vision would entail drone vessels being carried to wherever they were needed aboard a crewed mother ship.

A large component of the navy's work involves both clearing old and often hazardous sea mines, dating back primarily to the Soviet occupation when large numbers of such ordnance were installed to ring Saaremaa and the coastline as a whole, and also laying state-of-the-art sea mines, in conjunction with current Estonian defense doctrine, which puts an emphasis on coastal defense.

Navy commander, Cdre Jüri Saska, told AK that: "We would certainly like to have a presence above, on and below the surface of the water. And also in cyber. /.../ We have formulated [the European defense fund application] in such a way that [vessels would be] "crewed as necessary and uncrewed where possible."

International precedents include the voyage of a U.S. Naval drone vessel, which traversed the Pacific, from Hawaii to the west coast of the U.S. mainland.

BWB, which recently delivered two (crewed) patrol vessels to the navy, says it would like to create an international consortium of companies - not least because securing EU funding requires the involvement of at least three European countries.

A BWB representative told AK that a 20-meter vessel was being looked at, while Tarmo Räinsoo, chief of the Estonian Defense Industry Association, added that the requisite software could also be developed in Estonia, which would save time on procurement.

Estonia is applying for funding from the European Defense Fund from next year; a prototype, ready for 2027, has been costed at €70 million.

Were this to go ahead, specifics on domestic state budget needs and potential number of vessels to be ordered would follow, defense minister Kalle Laanet (Reform) told AK.

To date, Estonia has received €30 million from the European Defense Fund, which it is using in the development of similarly human operator-less land vehicles, heading up a group of eight EU nations.

Established in 2017, the European Defense Fund is a part of the union's  Common Security and Defense Policy.

Regional daily: BWB has required experience for procurement

Saaremaa local daily Saarte Hääl, part of the Postimees Group, has also reported that BWB has been earmarked as potential builder of the automated vessels and their prototype.

Saarte Hääl quoted an entry-into-service date of 2035, and also noted that the boats would have the facility for conversion to different roles – mine-hunting, patrolling, surveillance - as needed, and would also fit in with the Police and Border Guard Board's (PPA) remit.

The PPA maintains the civilian coastal patrol role.

The boats' control system and software would boast artificial intelligence, and provide and require secure communications and a cyber security solution. 

The vessels would also reflect the likely developments in tech in the next decade, increasing the range off-shore they could operate.

Saarte Hääl added that neighboring Latvia was one of the potential partner nations.

BWB board member Jüri Taal described the project as being a serious  challenge, one which his company bring to bear its many years of experience in the field on.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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