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The Navy’s plans for the future fleet incorporate plans to operate a 500-ship fleet including as many as 150 unmanned systems, directing a substantial move into a future force with paradigm-changing levels of manned-unmanned teaming, long-range sensors and weapons and, perhaps of greatest significance, fast-expanding levels of autonomy.

Undersea Drones

While a call for 150 unmanned platforms, as articulated in the Chief of Naval Operations Navigation Plan 2022, may seem quite large, the Navy has for many years now been progressing intensely on what could be called a drone explosion. Given these numbers, it is no surprise that, alongside the Navy’s multifaceted programs to engineer unmanned surface vessels, the service also plans a massive expansion in undersea drones as well. The Navy’s 2023 budget request incorporates this emphasis with a request to procure as many as 22 new small and medium sized undersea vehicles. This initial plan is also merely a starting point from which the Navy plans to further expand unmanned, undersea platforms.

XLUUV Echo Voyager Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Drone

XLUUV Echo Voyager Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Drone

The Navy’s 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.

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.

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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 sonar to surveil 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..

Multi-domain connectivity, greatly fortified and further enabled by unmanned systems, Along these lines, Navy leaders have also in recent years talked often at Navy events about the importance of engineering the proper “interfaces” or technical infrastructure sufficient to support secure multi-domain connectivity. 

Much of this is accomplished through the use of common IP protocol standards and a strategy often referred to as “open architecture” intended to favor interoperability among otherwise disconnected platforms and enable rapid, seamless integration of new technologies as they emerge.relies upon rapid and successful prototyping, testing and experimentation, a point emphasized by Navy weapons developers in recent years. This kind of strategy is what can help the Navy accelerate the prototyping, testing and development of undersea drones as both individual and interconnected, multi-domain, collectively “networked” unmanned systems.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. 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