America’s submarines might one day be launching undersea drones, including those that can then be used to launch airborne drones, according to a speaker at the Naval Submarine League symposium in November.
The catalyst for change is a new bit of construction being added to Virginia-class submarines, the Virginia Payload Module missile tubes.
George Drakeley, executive director of the Program Executive Office for Submarines, said during the submarine symposium, “Most of you here as submariners and warfighters could think of a lot of things you could do with a VPM. Well, the handcuffs are off now, and lately we’ve been talking about other capabilities,” according to the U.S. Naval Institute.
Unmanned underwater vehicles could vastly expand the capabilities of the submarines, Drakeley said.
“We’re in a great power competition now, and so we need to be focusing on other potential capabilities,” he said, noting that the aggressive posture of Russia and China is a spur to development of new options for U.S. submarines.
Earlier this year, Defense News published a report that Russia is developing a nuclear-capable UUV.
In June, Business Insider noted that China is using artificial intelligence to create a fleet of robot submarines.
“We are working, obviously right now, on abilities like torpedo tube launch and recover for UUV,” Drakeley said in follow-up comments to C4ISRNET.
“We already had the ability to launch, recover from drydock shelters and, you know, in the Virginia bloc upgrades we are working options to make sure that we can bring UUVs in this theater.”
The Navy has been toying with robots and UUVs for years. Tests in 2016 showed that robots and UUVs could work together to launch a flying drone, according to Popular Science.
But taking that concept and implementing it in a combat situation is complicated, Drakeley told C4ISRNET.
“They are truly autonomous,” he said. “There’s no guy manning the joystick. There’s no lawyer standing behind the guy manning the joystick. So we have to make some serious technology into those unmanned vehicles to make sure that they’re capable of doing what we want. More importantly, we have to make sure that we can charge those vehicles. And, most importantly, we have to be able to get the data off those vehicles and make sure that they’re tactically relevant. …
“We look for capabilities that can help the synergy with unmanned undersea vehicles and will also give us the ability to move forward in the realm of seabed and sub-sea warfare.”
Researchers are still fine-tuning issues with the power supply that could make this concept a reality.
However, the website The National Interest painted a picture of how UUVs could change warfare.
It said UUVs launched from nuclear attack submarines, or SSNs, could “explore the area, attempting to detect any threats to their mothership. Having ascertained the existence of threats, the UUVs could either light the target up with active sonar (allowing the SSN to target and destroy it with torpedoes), passively communicate data to the mothership, or potentially carry out a ‘suicide’ attack against the target themselves.
“In effect UUVs have the potential to expand the lethal reach of an attack boat, as well as take care of threats in its own area.”
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