(Washington, D.C.) The Navy is massively fast-tracking a new fleet of unmanned underwater vehicles to more safely perform a range of submarine-like missions to include reconnaissance, countermine operations and even undersea attack.
Alongside increasing survivability by enabling manned submarines to operate at further distances, drone submarines provide an unprecedented mix of additional attributes of great relevance to maritime warfare. A principal element of this is endurance, as unmanned sub-like drones can operate for months at a time given that they do not require crew shifts.
This advantage recently took a large step forward through an Office of Naval Research deal with General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems to provide the emerging Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) with advanced power for propulsion and energy storage systems.
Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV)
The LDUUV mission, according to a 2015 study from the “International Journal of Advanced Research in Artificial Intelligence,” is to “conduct missions longer than 70-days in open ocean and littoral seas, being fully autonomous, long-endurance, land-launched with advanced sensing for littoral environments,” a paper called “Military Robotics: Latest Trends and Spatial Grasp Solutions” from the National Academy of Sciences. (Peter Simon Sapaty)
In a company statement, GA-EMS explains that the new high-tech integration is intended to improve undersea drone performance, to include extended endurance. “Over the course of the last two years, the motor has undergone lab testing, and power system has completed underwater testing. Both systems have performed successfully, demonstrating capabilities to both power and propel underwater vehicles.
Together, the systems are proving to be key technologies to provide the combined power, energy density, and improved vehicle performance necessary to help meet the objectives,” Scott Forney, president of GA-EMS, explained in a written statement.
The National Academy of Sciences’ study, among other things, points out the merits of “long-endurance” and “autonomy” associated with the LDUUV and XLUUV.
As an unmanned platform, it is of course self-evident that it will bring longer mission time by virtue of not transporting people or needing to return after a fixed period of time.
Furthermore, a larger form factor will likely increase the technical capacity of propulsion systems, thereby enabling longer missions and dwell time on station.
Strategies, missions and applications of the new drones continue to evolve, yet there is widespread consensus across the service that these new undersea craft are expected to greatly inform tactics, techniques and procedures for underwater attack.
Initial applications include land-launched drones as a key step toward moving toward undersea launches, Navy developers explain. The service is working on both launched and recovered drones; both options involve the important priority of pairing with undersea or surface “mother ships” able to coordinate command and control, receive information and, in some cases, direct mission activity for the drones.
The Navy plan is to one day soon have forward positioned undersea drones able to fire weapons.
Unmanned Maritime Autonomy Architecture (UMAS)
Autonomous, or self-navigating undersea drones can also extend and improve mission possibilities. The concept aligns with the Navy’s now-under-development Unmanned Maritime Autonomy Architecture (UMAS) program, which is currently engineering and testing “different layers of autonomy,” according to senior Navy developers. “
Developers have built highly autonomous systems that can navigate, maneuver, and carry out surprisingly complex tasks. Operating above or near the surface simplifies the power and control, but compromises stealth,” the National Academy of Sciences study states.
GA-EMS Energy and Battery Systems
GA-EMS new energy storage is intended to support the mission described here in the essay, meaning the improved propulsion could enhance both navigation and undersea maneuver.
“Our energy and battery systems have been successfully demonstrated and proven safe for use on a variety of underwater manned and unmanned vehicles,” GA-EMS stated.
GA-EMS further stated that development and testing of both motor and power systems continues in order to optimize performance. An LDUUV with the integrated motor and power propulsion system eventually will undergo at-sea testing during a later phase of the program.
Twenty-One (21) New Drone Boats
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. 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.
Enhanced undersea energy storage and efficiency could also bring the added benefit of increasing computer processing performance as well, given that functionality could be improved. 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. This is something GA-EMS’ newly integrating technologies are intended to support, given that they increase power efficiency, propulsion and of course much longer endurance.
For example, AI-enabled algorithms could help 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.
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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.