Targeting U.S. Technologies

Special Focus Area: Targeting Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Technologies

Case Study


Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are a class of underwater vessels capable of submerged, self-propelled locomotion using various enabling technologies to navigate and perform diverse tasks.

AUVs have a variety of military and commercial uses. The U.S. Navy identifies nine areas for its AUV programs: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); mine counter measures (MCM); anti-submarine warfare (ASW); inspection and identification; oceanography; communication/navigation network node; payload delivery; information operation; and time-critical strike.1 Commercial applications include underwater surveys, fisheries research, search and recovery, wreck and navigational hazard mapping, and water profile sampling.

Many AUVs can be configured for a variety of underwater missions, and some commercial and military missions are similar in nature. AUVs provide navies with a cost-effective way to modernize their ability to affect underwater battlespace and protect key ports and installations.

The Defense Security Service (DSS) intends this special focus area assessment to alert cleared industry to the increasing foreign threat to AUV technology and assist in countering that threat.


As of late 2009, there were approximately 630 AUVs worldwide. Experts anticipate the AUV market will grow exponentially by 2020, with roughly 1,400 AUVs being built over the next decade to meet worldwide demands. They project global expenditures on AUVs to total 2.3 billion U.S. dollars from 2010 to 2019.2

Military applications of AUVs have lagged behind commercial ones; however, military research and funding is increasing at a rapid pace throughout the world as more countries realize the potential value of AUVs and invest in research and development (R&D). By 2020, maritime experts expect militaries to provide roughly half of all AUV funding.3 Obtaining sensitive U.S. information regarding AUVs will provide other countries with needed information to advance their indigenous AUV programs and their production of countermeasures to U.S. military systems.

Foreign interest in U.S. AUV technologies has risen over the past several years, as indicated by increased collection attempts. Industry reporting from fiscal year 2010 (FY10) reflects this trend: foreign entities that actively targeted cleared contractors working on AUV issues showed a particularly strong interest in transforming and upgrading their naval forces.

Foreign collectors employed a variety of collection techniques to gain access to sensitive, classified, or export-controlled information. Common methods of operation (MOs) included requests for information (RFIs), suspicious network activity (SNA), solicitation or marketing, and seeking employment with cleared contractors.

Figure 5


During FY10, of those targeting AUV platforms and associated technologies, entities from East Asia and the Pacific led the way with 72 percent of the total, followed by others from the Western Hemisphere, Near East, Europe and Eurasia, and South and Central Asia, none with more than 13 percent of the total.

East Asia and the Pacific

The geography of the East Asian and Pacific region contributes to interest in expanding and improving naval capabilities. AUVs can provide both offensive and defensive capabilities in both littoral waters and further offshore.

Some East Asian and Pacific countries have contentious relationships with each other. When one country demonstrates an aggressive interest in developing a new naval technology such as AUVs, this can spur a parallel interest in other regional neighbors, targeting the same technologies, and extending even to the use of similar MOs.

None of the regions have achieved the U.S. level of overall industrial development nor the capability for military applications of technology. Access to more advanced AUV technology would allow the regions to both accelerate the implementation of improved underwater systems and save time and money by obtaining and reverse-engineering U.S. AUV technologies.

East Asia and the Pacific was the most prolific region in reported collection attempts directed at U.S. AUV technologies in FY10, accounting for over 70 percent of all AUV-related suspicious contact reports (SCRs) worldwide.

Analyst Comment: The U.S. Navy's ability to establish and maintain underwater battlespace dominance is of special importance in this region. Successful development of AUVs for East Asian and Pacific military purposes would likely pose a threat to that dominance by increasing foreign understanding U.S. AUV technologies, potentially enabling them to develop effective countermeasures. (Confidence Level: Moderate)

Based on past practice, the East Asian and Pacific region also represents a significant risk of unauthorized transfer of AUV technology, not only within the region but also to other regions. Such transfer might be motivated by either commercial profit or geostrategic goals, and could be performed deliberately or inadvertently, the latter the result of less-than-robust export control systems.

The Near East

Near East AUV programs lag behind those of the United States and East Asia and the Pacific. Collection efforts originating in the region remain at a relatively low level. However, those efforts do continue, as evidenced by industry reporting, and are likely to represent an increasing priority over the next decade. AUVs have particular value for regional powers, as asymmetric naval strategies can threaten sea lines of communication at their most vulnerable points.


Gliders are a type of AUV designed specifically for oceanic missions that require long endurance: weeks, or even months. By comparison, other AUVs tend to conduct limited-duration missions lasting hours, or at most days.

Underwater gliders make use of a variety of auxiliary driving mechanisms, such as ocean thermal energy, to quietly “glide” in the water with minimal energy consumption. While not as fast as standard AUVs, gliders using buoyancy-based propulsion have a significantly greater range and mission duration than AUVs propelled by electric motors. This makes them ideal for ISR. Diving abilities depend on the specific glider, but most range between 200 and 1,500 meters; deeper-diving gliders are under development.

Underwater gliders typically carry sensors such as sonar, hydrophones, and thermal sensors used for mapping or monitoring the ocean environment and wildlife. The U.S. Navy uses gliders for battlespace reconnaissance and mapping. Flotillas of gliders can establish a sensing network in an operational area of interest to provide commanders with the data to support their mission planning.

Industry reporting indicates that foreign targeting of underwater glider technology significantly increased in FY10 when compared to FY09.


East Asian and Pacific collectors primarily depended on commercial entities to obtain sensitive U.S. technology in FY10. Suspicious entities used RFIs in more than half of the AUV-related SCRs, with emails, faxes, or phone calls to seek price quotes and technical information being most prevalent. SNA accounted for a quarter of the incidents targeting cleared facilities working on AUV technology in FY10.

AUVs are a dual-use technology and brokers often claimed that the technologies sought were for commercial use. Commercial entities falsified documents and misrepresented end users to collect controlled U.S. technologies.

Analyst Comment: If AUV suppliers were to ship such technology, such purchasers would likely provide it to government or military end users, either for employment on an existing AUV platform or for longer-term reverse-engineering. (Confidence Level: Moderate)

Similarly, collecting entities such as government-affiliated universities often used academic solicitation, describing the sensitive AUV information targeted as having solely scientific and educational purposes with little to no apparent military application. Personnel affiliated with academic institutions sought to sponsor exchanges of personnel or information, submit research papers for peer review, or send students to participate in classified or sensitive research projects.

Analyst Comment: Suspicious entities successful in establishing such relationships would almost certainly seek to exploit them to gain access to sensitive or classified U.S. AUV information and technology. (Confidence Level: High)

Other government-affiliated entities from East Asia and the Pacific that engaged in AUV technology collection efforts in FY10 included state-sponsored R&D agencies.

Near Eastern collections, in contrast, were more likely to depend on individuals targeting AUVs, using RFIs. Nonetheless, Near East entities also used academic solicitation in their attempts to collect information. Non-traditional collectors such as individual university students sought research positions or placement at various U.S. universities or facilities where they might gain access to U.S. AUV programs. Such supposedly unaffiliated students also attended international trade shows, solicited vendors, and attempted to integrate themselves into the scientific community.


DSS analysis of FY10 industry reporting demonstrated the wide range of AUV technology collection attempts. Reporting indicated interest in not only conventional AUVs, but gliders as well, and not only AUVs themselves but all aspects of AUV enabling technologies, such as various types of underwater sensors.

Countries wishing to develop a robust military AUV capacity need to improve both overall AUV capabilities and enabling technologies. Such capabilities and technologies include navigation, communications, design and construction, sensors, propulsion, and power.

Similarly, collectors ranged from sophisticated producers in industrially advanced countries seeking specialized sub-systems to emerging third-world countries seeking entire AUV systems for military modernization programs.


Reporting from industry confirms that U.S. AUVs and related technologies are of significant interest to the rest of the world. Commercial, individual, and government-affiliated entities are likely to continue using a variety of MOs, especially RFI and SNA, to collect U.S. AUV technology and information. (Confidence Level: Moderate)

Any technologies or information acquired will likely help foreign governments develop their indigenous AUVs, assist foreign navies in countering U.S. AUVs, and increase the threat to U.S. undersea battlespace dominance. (Confidence Level: Moderate)

Based on trends in the AUV industry, DSS assesses that it is very likely that demand for AUVs will increase dramatically over the next several years, especially as more military and commercial capabilities develop. DSS assesses that, as the technology advances, foreign collectors will almost certainly increase their efforts to satisfy that demand by targeting U.S. cleared contractors working on AUVs or related systems. (Confidence Level: High)

Back to Top