The US Navy (USN) will soon deploy its newest, largest underwater drone for deterrence against adversaries, which would also feature impressive offensive and intelligence-gathering capabilities at a much lower cost than conventional submarines.

US Navy’s Ongoing UUVs Program

In late September, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited the Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific to check on the status of the Navy’s extra large unmanned undersea vehicles (XLUUV), which comprise both submarines and surface ships. The development of the sophisticated UUV is the latest wartech innovation and a priority the service branch deems amid the growing tension in the Asia-Pacific.

SECDEF visit highlights autonomous vehicle innovations at NIWC Pacific
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III discusses autonomous innovations at the Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific on September 28, 2022, during a visit to the San Diego-based command. (Image source: DVIDS)

During his tour, Austin received briefings on the project’s current status and remarked on the importance of collaboration to make this cutting-edge technology successful.

Taking notice of the increasing high-tech war machines from its adversaries, the US Navy has been proactively investing in UUVs to maintain naval superiority. Accordingly, the service aims to build a family of the latest tech, including the Snakehead large displacement uncrewed undersea vehicle (LDUUV), Orca XLUUV, and the Lionfish Small UUV, to name a few.

The Navy tested the Snakehead LDUUV—a modular, reconfigurable, multi-mission vehicle—prototype in July for end-to-end intelligence preparation of the operational environment (IPOE) mission, which entailed “creating detailed maps of the sea floor and identifying threats or other objects of interest” that requires for a submarine to enter or exit a specific area undetected, Eurasian Times reported. It is slated to become the USN’s largest submarine-launched UUV with a payload capacity beyond small and medium UUVs.

“The success of Snakehead testing is a direct result of the time and energy spent designing the vehicle. In-lab hardware and software simulations are major contributors to the success in water,” said Allison Philips, Division Newport’s test and evaluation lead for Snakehead.

Furthermore, the Snakehead LDUUV will also be tasked with minesweeping and electronic warfare (EW) through an electronic support measure (ESM) system that will empower the vehicle to collect data from radars and communication nodes of the enemy. So far, only one Snakehead vehicle has been built, which was christened in February and has been used for numerous trials and errors.

Echo Voyager is a fully autonomous XLUUV developed by Boeing. (Image source: Boeing)

On the other hand, the USN introduced the Orca XLUUV in April with its christening and first in-water tests in Huntington Beach, California. Renowned American military tech manufacturer Boeing won a $43 million contract for developing, testing, and delivering four Orcas in February 2019, which will initially focus on Concept of Operations (CONOPS) development, payload integration work, and mine warfare (MIW).

The default design of the Orca follows the 16-meter length of the Echo Voyager, another autonomous underwater vehicle built by Boeing in the early 2010s. However, unlike the latter, the Orca will be outfitted with additional modular construction that includes a payload module of up to 10 meters long and an extended capacity of 8,000 kilograms for 26 meters. According to reports, the sophisticated underwater vehicle will be powered by a hybrid diesel and lithium-ion battery, powering it by batteries when submerged and recharging it with diesel generators while on the surface. As a result, it can endure several months of operations and can be launched and recovered without having support ships. So far, the Orca can cruise at nearly 3 knots and a maximum speed of 8 knots within a range of up to 6,500 miles.

Future upgrades for the XLUUV will include mine countermeasures (MCM), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), electronic warfare (EW), anti-surface warfare (ASUW), intelligence and surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and even strike missions.

Lastly, the Lionfish Small UUV consists of the Remus 300 drone designed by Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), which incorporates advanced modularity and open architecture into a reliable man-portable design that can perform critical underwater missions. The Lionfish is slated to be the next-generation Mk18 Mod 1 Swordfish program featuring HII’s revered REMUS technology, known for surveying and mapping.

Deterrence against China, Protecting the Taiwan Strait

As the East superpower progresses in its military technology expansion, the US continues to maintain a step ahead, shifting towards distributing its power towards distributed fleet architecture. Among the potential solution of deterrence are sophisticated undersea vehicles and surface drones, as well as high-tech warships and unmanned vessels. While China may have been developing high-precision missiles, which they reported could tip the tide to their side regarding maritime capabilities, it is a no-brainer how America remains superior.

Once complete, these cutting-edge UUVs will be an addition to the already massive naval arsenal of the USN and could be deployed if worse comes to worst in an emergency involving Taiwan, especially when outfitted with sensing and anti-ship attack capabilities.

David Ochmanek, a senior fellow at RAND Corp., told reporters that, unlike submarines, undersea drones “can be far less expensive, meaning that we could afford to produce many of them and station them forward in places such as Yokosuka [a US naval base in Japan] so that they would be able to respond quickly to threats of aggression.”

UUVs are hard to detect—especially since China is “relatively disadvantaged” on this—thus making them an effective counter-vessel where Beijing would use its vast “powerful” arsenal of missiles against American surface ships. Besides the US, the United Kingdom and Australia are also working on developing their own fleet of UUVs under the AUKUS pact.

Meanwhile, China is gearing up for undersea warfare despite having a poor track record. According to reports, most of its UUVs in the past year have been too noisy or far behind in detecting enemy submarines. However, in 2019, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy showcased for the first time its two large-size UUVs marked “HSU001,” which roughly looks like the Snakehead LDUUV.

(Image source: Twitter)

Its size is less than half of the Orca, around 7 meters long, and is capable of being pier-launched but reportedly can also be deployed from either surface ships or via submarine drydock shelters. Moreover, China’s state-owned media claimed that HSU001 would be a flexible platform capable of operating a wide range of missions, but further details on this remain a matter of speculation.