Australia’s Ghost Shark Uncrewed Submarine Breaks Cover

The Ghost Shark is Australia’s ambitious extra-large autonomous undersea vehicle, but details about its future missions remain scarce.

byThomas Newdick|
Ghost Shark is being jointly developed and funded by a partnership between Defence and Anduril Australia, and will become Mission Zero (0) for the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA).
Australian Defense Force


Anduril has unveiled the prototype of its Ghost Shark extra-large autonomous undersea vehicle (XL-AUV), which is being developed for Australia. The Ghost Shark is described by the manufacturer as providing a “modular, multi-purpose capability that can flexibly respond to the Australian Defense Force’s mission requirements,” although, at this point, it remains uncertain exactly what kinds of missions a production version of the underwater drone might undertake.

Anduril — together with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA), and the Defense Science and Technology Group (DSTG) — released photos yesterday of the first Ghost Shark prototype and announced that the program is ahead of schedule and on budget. Previously, it had been expected that the first prototype would appear sometime before the end of 2025.

Australian Defense Force

The company has designed and developed the prototype under a $140-million co-development contract involving Anduril, the RAN, and DSTG. The contract foresees three prototypes being completed in three years.

“The timeline we set to design and produce three Ghost Sharks in three years in Australia, by Australians for the ADF, was extremely ambitious,” said David Goodrich, the executive chairman and CEO of Anduril Australia, in a media release. Overall, Anduril says that the pace of the program represents “a fraction of traditional defense timelines.”

To help achieve this, the program is making use of what Anduril describes as “novel scaled agile development techniques,” including 3D printing.

An artist’s rendering of the Ghost Shark. Australian Defense Force

Ultimately, Anduril plans to launch quantity production of the Ghost Shark in Australia for the RAN and subsequently for export.

In terms of appearance, the Ghost Shark is significantly different from Anduril’s previous Dive-LD (with LD standing for Large Displacement), an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that has served as a testbed for the program, as you can read about here.

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As well as being significantly larger than the Dive-LD, the Ghost Shark’s appearance has a lot more in common with another extra-large AUV, Boeing’s Orca, the first prototype of which was delivered to the U.S. Navy for trials last December. The U.S. Navy is hoping to use the Orca initially as a minesweeper, before potentially expanding its mission set to underwater surveillance and/or electronic warfare later.

However, in contrast to the Ghost Shark, the Orca program had gone $242 million over budget and been delayed by three years, as of late 2022, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The Orca extra-large uncrewed undersea vehicles. Boeing

Also unlike the Orca, however, we currently have no specifications for the Ghost Shark, so a direct comparison between the two is not possible. One notable point of differentiation is the small, swept-back sail found on the Anduril design, the function of which is not entirely clear. Extendable masts on UUVs are normally used for sensors, communications, and to support propulsion.

Alex Luck, an Australia-based journalist who closely follows the RAN and underwater warfare, told TWZ: “Leaving aside the unknowns on specifications, it’s worth noting this new design is large and very Orca-like, despite some differences, including being smaller, presumably so it can still be more portable [there are reports of an aspiration for the Ghost Shark to fit inside a standard shipping container]. Orca right now focuses on mine warfare, but the Ghost Shark role description is far broader and more ambitious. Combined with the very short time to what we assume is a representative capability (three years) I question whether this is at all feasible, but again, I am keenly awaiting more details on its target specs to gauge that.”

A view down the slab-sided hull of the Ghost Shark. Australian Defense Force

As it is, there has already been much speculation about the kinds of roles that a production version of the Ghost Shark could undertake. But it’s clear that much of its concept of operations still needs to be ironed out.

When the Dive-LD testbed was unveiled in December 2022, RAN Rear Adm. Peter Quinn explained that it would be used for the experimentation, testing, and validation of potential capabilities to better define the Ghost Shark’s mission set.

The Dive-LD testbed. Anduril Industries

“Due to its modular and multirole nature, our adversaries will need to assume that their every move in the maritime domain is subject to our surveillance and that every XL-AUV is capable of deploying a wide range of effects — including lethal ones,” Breaking Defense quoted Quinn as saying at the time. “Once your potential adversaries understand what a Ghost Shark is — not that we’re going to give them any specifics at all — we expect they will generate doubt and uncertainty.”

In a statement, the Chief of the RAN, Vice Adm. Mark Hammond, was guarded when it comes to the potential future missions of the XL-AUV, stating that: “Ghost Shark is one of the tools we are developing for the Navy to patrol and protect our oceans and our connection to the world.”

Most notably, perhaps, Australia’s Minister for Defense Industry, Pat Conroy, has talked about the possibility of the Ghost Shark being used for unspecified “strike” missions.

On the whole, however, we have so far only vague mission descriptions for the Ghost Shark.

“I see the same theme here, as with the planned Tier 2 frigates, namely, there seem to be very, very aspirational capability descriptions, but it’s not at all clear to me how this is to be reconciled within the budgetary and operational criteria for the RAN,” Luck continued.

Luck considers intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to be the most plausible role for the Ghost Shark. Luck admits that he struggles to understand the mooted strike capability, but suggests that an anti-submarine/anti-surface warfare capability might be more realistic, as well as a potential broader SIGINT capability.

“If we are talking maritime strike, the relatively low payload (light torpedo or anti-ship missile) seems doable, but the required kill chain is a big question mark. That also leans into questions on its true autonomy and means of control by human operators elsewhere. If we are talking land attack, the mission (kill chain) is actually easier to accomplish but given its size, I struggle to see how it can carry a meaningful payload. Last but not least, like Orca, it may actually be useful in mine warfare and perhaps also as a mine countermeasures asset, but that’s purely speculative on my behalf given this role isn’t named so far.”

An old, but nonetheless interesting U.S. Navy graphic showing possible payloads for underwater drones, including weapons. U.S. Navy

Another role worth considering is as a ‘mother ship’ for other drones. Options would include smaller uncrewed underwater vessels, but also uncrewed aerial vehicles that could deliver kinetic effects as well as being potentially equipped with a range of other payloads, including various sensors and jammers.

Based on official statements, a combination of open-architecture design and modularity should ensure that the Ghost Shark is able to be fitted with a wide range of sensors and probably also munitions, although, again, these details are still being worked through.

While there may be a lack of clarity around the specific ways that the Ghost Shark will be used, we do know that it will rely heavily on artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure it can conduct its missions with autonomy. This is especially important when it comes to long-endurance underwater operations with limited opportunities for connectivity, especially in high-threat environments. It is also an area in which Anduril specializes, with a focus on AI/command and control in general, and how these can be leveraged into different kinds of drones.

While details about the degree of autonomy the Ghost Shark will have are also scarce, this focus does also point to the ADF’s wider interest in AI as a future force multiplier, especially in the uncrewed realm. In the case of the RAN, the service has already announced aspirations to introduce optionally crewed missile-armed ships as well as new smaller frigates, as you can read about here.

A past rendering from Australian shipbuilder Austal of a notional large optionally-crewed vessel firing a missile from a vertical launch system array on top of its central hull. Austal

Once the various mission sensors, potential weapons, and the promised AI technology are brought together in the Ghost Shark, the expectation is that it will be a valuable adjunct to the RAN’s crewed underwater fleet, which is also poised for a major capability overhaul, with the arrival of the nation’s first nuclear-powered submarines. In this scenario, the XL-AUV should be able to focus on the so-called ‘dull, dirty, and dangerous missions,’ allowing the new SSN-AUKUS boats to concentrate on more complex operations.

The overhaul of the RAN’s underwater capabilities is being driven by a significant degree by the rapid developments in the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s submarine force as well as Beijing’s increasing confrontational stance in the Asia Pacific region. As it stands, the PLAN submarine fleet numbers at least 60 boats, with the production of different designs continuing at a rapid pace. As well as numerous advanced nuclear-powered attack submarines, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and conventionally powered designs, China is also working on its own uncrewed designs.

Clearly, a long-endurance multirole XL-AUV would have very many advantages for the RAN in such an operational scenario.

A Chinese HSU-001 uncrewed underwater vehicle. IMAGINECHINA VIA AP IMAGES

Beyond Australia, however, Anduril obviously has hopes of securing sales of the Gray Shark to other allied nations. With this in mind, a rapid development program for the XL-AUV could pay dividends, offering a set of capabilities that could be very compelling, with growing interest in uncrewed underwater vessels around the world. In many ways, the nature of the program reflects the Royal Australian Air Force’s Ghost Bat drone, being developed by Boeing Australia. Both Ghost Bat and Ghost Shark will come with the advantage of being produced in Australia, making them free of potentially restrictive U.S. arms controls and export restrictions.

No doubt, with such an ambitious program, there will be some challenges ahead. Alex Luck told TWZ that he considers the budgetary and timeframe parameters to be “very ambitious, to put it mildly.” He continued: “I would be happy to see it succeed in whatever target was set for the RAN, but given other developers, notably the Orca effort, seem to work on longer timelines with bigger budgets, I am so far not convinced this effort has found the goldilocks solution to delivery a meaningful XL-AUV capability. The opacity about its exact targeted capabilities in this regard I think raises more questions than answers.”

At this stage, the Ghost Shark is very much a work in progress, especially with regard to the ways that the RAN will ultimately end up employing it. But the appearance of the first prototype in such quick order is certainly exciting and points to the rapidly changing face of underwater warfare, where the importance of uncrewed assets is only set to grow.

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