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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

In recent years, Navy modernization has been characterized by a highly-visible and crucially important uptick in unmanned systems development and production in what could be called a “drone explosion.”

The Navy’s recently released 2023 budget is no exception, as the services’ request continues this emphasis with a request to procure as many as 22 small and medium sized undersea vehicles.

Undersea Vehicles

The emerging fleet of undersea drones is quite varied, ranging from small semi-autonomous mine-hunting undersea drones all the up to extremely large undersea drones such as the Large Diameter Unmanned Undersea Vehicle and the “Extra”-large Diameter Unmanned Undersea vehicles (XLDUUV) which are quite submarine-like and potentially armed with torpedoes.

Lockheed Martin engineers in Palm Beach, Florida, will design an Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle, Orca, for the U.S. Navy to support the Navy’s mission requirements. Image courtesy Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin engineers in Palm Beach, Florida, will design an Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle, Orca, for the U.S. Navy to support the Navy’s mission requirements. Image courtesy Lockheed Martin.

The massive expansion of undersea drones is entirely consistent with the Navy’s now heavily emphasized Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) strategy which calls for a dispersed, yet-highly networked, force of manned and unmanned systems able to share time-sensitive targeting and reconnaissance data across the force in real time. The networking is also intended to be multi-domain in that it aims to connect undersea drones with surface ships and even air assets such as helicopters lowering mine-and-submarine-hunting sonobuoys into the water.

Greater numbers of unmanned systems favor or support the strategic call for “distributed” operations in keeping with the services’ DMO strategy, as less condensed maritime forces are of course less of a target to enemy forces and therefore less vulnerable to destruction.

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Some of the undersea sonar and drone synergy is greatly improved by new levels of autonomy and semi-autonomy through which undersea drones can find, identify and ultimately destroy enemy mines autonomously, when directed by or approved by a human decision maker. For example, a submersible Raytheon-built AQS-20 undersea sonar system can network with a semi-autonomous, mine-exploding drone called the Barracuda.

AN/AQS-20

AN/AQS-20

The AQS-20 is a submersible cylinder-like system with four built-in sonars to find mines from the “sea-floor to the near surface in a single pass,” Raytheon data explains. It operates with side-scanning synthetic aperture sonars, a “wide-band” forward-looking sonar and a “digital gap” filler sonoar to surveill mines underneath. Using acoustic ID technology, the AQS-20 generates a high-resolution “rendering” or “image” of a threat object using advanced automatic target recognition.

The initial solicitation for the Barracuda Mine Neutralization System – from several years ago, describes it as “a modular, low-cost, semi-autonomous, expendable neutralizer conforming to the A-size sonobuoy form factor.”Navy documents further specify that Barracuda will use wireless communications, therefore allowing for a “tetherless” operation for the MCM USV. Military & Aerospace Electronics describes mine neutralizers as mini underwater drones armed with explosives which travel to an identified underwater mine – and then explode.

Barracuda will first be deployed from an LCS before potentially migrating to other surface or airborne platforms, Navy statements indicated.

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.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization