The U.S. Navy has built its dominance on the conviction that bigger is better, but the nature of warfare is changing. In the post-USS Cole era it’s clear that the most ironclad expressions of might are vulnerable to a couple of guys in a rowboat. Early in the Persian Gulf War, the warships Tripoli and Princeton were blown open by mines — devices costing a few thousand dollars causing millions in damages. Unable to land, the Marines had to be airlifted in. Mines and other easily acquired technologies such as cruise and ballistic missiles mean that today any nation, no matter how technologically humble, can effectively bar U.S. forces from its coastline. In military parlance the problem is known as “broad-area denial.”

One way for the Navy to become more agile would be to employ unmanned submarines, which in the past decade have blossomed at university research labs and have been commercialized by small spin-off companies. But though the Navy funded some early AUV development, like most large bureaucracies it was slow to incorporate novelties into its long-range planning. In April 2000 a Navy committee warned that robot-sub technology was available in the global marketplace and that if the agency didn’t wake up, it would fall behind.
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