The U.S. Navy is moving quickly to build two new undersea large drone prototypes to launch from a submarine, surveil the undersea, locate enemy mines, subs, and surface ships, and coordinate targeting for torpedo attacks.
Naval Sea Systems Command just released a request to industry to submit proposals to build two prototype Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (LDUUV) to begin construction next year. The LDUUV program is intended to complement a sweeping broader scale Navy unmanned system effort intended to deliver as many as twenty-one new large drone boats within just the next five years. The LDUUVs could be launched from submarine missile tubes to engage in long-dwell undersea reconnaissance missions and use various kinds of data gathering and transmission technologies to inform submarine commanders of relevant combat information.
A December 2020 Congressional Research Service report, called “Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles,” cites the LDUUV program as one of a number of high-profile undersea vehicle prototype programs likely to transform the undersea domain.
“UVs are one of several new capabilities—along with directed-energy weapons, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, and cyber capabilities—that the Navy says it is pursuing to meet emerging military challenges, particularly from China. 2 UVs can be equipped with sensors, weapons, or other payloads, and can be operated remotely, semi-autonomously, or (with technological advancements) autonomously,” the report states.
As computer algorithms continue to become more advanced, undersea platforms such as the LDUUV can increase levels of autonomy, thereby expanding mission scope and adding new abilities to respond to emerging circumstances and make adjustments while performing operations.
For example, AI-enabled algorithms could help an undersea drone identify specific classes of mines, enemy ships or submarines by bouncing new incoming sensor images off of a vast database to perform analyses, make discernments and offer optimal courses of action for submarine commanders to consider. Payloads can be sonar detection systems or other kinds of undersea reconnaissance and weapons applications.
“The LDUUV will achieve full integration with Modernized Dry Deck Shelter and Payload Handling System-equipped submarines. Initial vehicles will be designed to support Intelligence Preparation of the Operating Environment missions,” a NAVSEA report states.
The Navy is acquiring the new drone, called Snakehead, on an expedited, massively fast-tracked basis to meet pressing, even urgent, needs for long-dwell undersea surveillance. A Snakehead could, for instance, conduct much longer reconnaissance missions in high-threat areas near enemy coastline without needing to return a manned crew.
“Snakehead is a long-endurance, multi-mission UUV, deployed from submarine large open interfaces, with the capability to deploy reconfigurable payloads. It is the largest UUV intended for hosting and deployment from submarines, and has been designated a Maritime Accelerated Acquisition,” the NAVSEA report states.
The NAVSEA solicitation reports the service intends to award a deal to a single contractor to build two LDUUV prototypes next year.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.