Military applications for unmanned systems provided the genesis for unmanned underwater vehicle technology. Initially, such systems were developed primarily for undersea observation and the recovery of lost devices and weapons. Since then, the technology has moved steadily forward, bringing with it a directly related increase in operational capability. Unfortunately, this increase in capability brings with it a higher price tag—especially in the military—a fact that may have initially slowed the acceptance of such advanced technology. And more recently, the change in the political climate around the world has caused a refocusing of what the military feels is the primary mission for such systems.

Many of the original applications by the military for unmanned vehicles was in the area of mine countermeasures, where tethered ROVs were much more expendable than a ship or a diver. In addition, there were many programs conducting research into recovery technology and the fledgling arena of untethered vehicles used for search. Prior to the 1990’s, the US Navy’s eyes were focused on the depths of the ocean—the magic number being 20,000 ft (6,096 m), where 98 percent of the ocean floor could be reached. In the US military at that time, there was a need to dominate all aspects of undersea search, work, and recovery to such full ocean depths. It was a critical need, if for no other reason than to remain one up on the perceived threat from the Soviet Union.

In those early days, there was no knowledge of an obvious undersea vehicle program ongoing in the Soviet Union. That soon changed as the Soviet’s concern with the deep ocean and their capability to reach it was unveiled. Unclassified presentations on their programs in unmanned undersea systems, such as those at the Institute of Marine Technology Problems in Vladivostok, where the MT 88 autonomous vehicle (see photo to left) was developed, along with many others, soon became common at international conferences.

Although the US and Soviet Union may have led the pack, Europe was not idle. With the transition of ROV technology from the US to Europe in the 1980s, many other vehicle developers emerged, primarily to support North Sea oil fields. Along with that was the maturation of the technology and subsequent application to mine countermeasures. The once dominant PAP vehicles from France (see photo to right) began to see others arriving such as Pluto from Switzerland, Pinguin from Germany, the Eagles from Sweden and many others. Although some limited developments were pursued for deeper application, such as the rather unsuccessful Towed UnManned
Submersible (TUMS) developed for the Royal Navy’s HMS CHALLENGER, mine countermeasures (MCM) was basically the focus of military applications for some time, not the deep ocean thrust that existed in the US and the Soviet Union.

In recent years, a redirection of future military system requirements has been caused by two significant events; the first was the end of the cold war, and the second is the potential of hostilities with smaller countries that could wreak havoc through terrorism or unconventional warfare techniques. Driven by these changes, the US Navy began to rethink its "at sea" strategy and a new focus on littoral warfare began to dominate. MCM became critical—not only for surface ships, but also for submarines. If future battles were to be fought along world coastlines, with mobility a key factor, then safe operating areas needed to be found or established. Thus came one of the biggest changes in military strategy regarding unmanned systems. What had once been discussed only behind closed doors—the use of unmanned vehicles deployed from submarines—was not only out in the open, it was on the World Wide Web. In the US, major moves were made to solicit the development of "offboard sensors" for use from submarines. Contracts were awarded for the NMRS (Near Term Mine Reconnaissance System) and the LMRS (Long Term Mine Reconnaissance System). The threat had changed and the NMRS, LMRS and other versions of shallower water systems began to achieve a foothold in the US Navy.

In Russia, where the most significant unmanned undersea systems of the former Soviet Union were developed, the trend moved from secret military applications to private enterprise, as most of the institutes moved into a financial fight for survival. The cold war had ended—the game and the rules had changed.

Today, tethered ROVs are available for hire from industry, or industry is contracted to operate navy owned systems. The future thrust in the military will be toward autonomous vehicles that are not only capable, but low cost. The technology being developed in academia, and being fielded in the offshore oil fields, will soon find its way into military systems of the future, whether for intelligence collection, search, reconnaissance, mine countermeasures or various other applications. ROVs and AUVs will both play a major role in the military in the future.