Armed underwater drones are just around the corner, finally. And the Royal Navy does not intend to be left behind. They have awarded a contract for what may be the world’s largest underwater drone. The XLUUV (extra-large unmanned underwater vehicle) will be 100 ft long and have the capacity to be armed. This means that Britain joins the U.S. in leading world development of full sized underwater combat drones.
The Royal Navy’s new underwater drone may be 100 feet long, which is larger even than the U.S. … [+]
H I Sutton (author)
The news was shared by Admiral Anthony Radakin, First Sea Lord of the Admiralty. He was speaking at Underwater Defence & Security earlier today. The event, taking place in Southampton, United Kingdom, is attended by NATO and NATO friendly navies and defense firms.
The Royal Navy does not have plans to increase the number of Astute Class nuclear powered attack submarines or next generation SSN(R). So XLUUVs could be a cheaper force multiplier.
Having an XLUUV is significant as it will allow the Royal Navy to learn how to use them. Building them is one challenge, developing the tactics and doctrine is another. The future may favor the early movers such as the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy who learn how to use them effectively.
Speaking to Steve Hall, Chief Executive of the Society for Underwater Technology (SUT), there are other challenges which this project to help the Royal Navy overcome. XLUUVs will take the International Rules of the Road, the maritime law designed to prevent collisions and other issues, into uncharted territory. And adding an armament will further complicate the law topic. This situation is similar to when armed aerial drones were first being used. Aerial drones generally have a human in the loop before the weapon is fired, but this may not be practical for an autonomous submarine.
The contract has been awarded to U.K. based MSubs Ltd, part of the Submergence Group. The company has a history of building midget submarines and large autonomous underwater vehicles. Customers include the U.S. Navy SEALs who’s new Dry Combat Submersible (DCS) is entering service. The U.S. Navy’s own XLUUV, the Orca, is being built by Boeing however.
One of the most ambitious aspect of the Royal Navy XLUUV is that it will have a range of around 3,450 miles (3,000 nautical miles). This implies a diesel-electric or air-independent-power (AIP) as batteries alone are unlikely to be enough.
While 100 feet long may sound small for a submarine, it is massive for an uncrewed boat. If you were to add the crew space back in it’d be around the same size as many navies’ submarines. Most unmanned underwater vehicles are tiny by comparison, less than 15 feet long. The increased size will allow the new craft to carry substantial armament such as torpedoes and mines, or even smaller AUVs.
The first vehicle is expected to be an enlargement of an existing vessel built by MSubs. the Royal Navy already use the Mobile Under Sea Test Laboratory (MUST) design. But the company offers all-new XLUUV designs including the Moray. This has a sail like a submarine and can perform a wide range of roles such as anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare and attacking surface ships. It also conducts surveillance and intelligence gathering, and can support Special Forces. The exact armed roles that the Royal Navy has in mind are unclear, but the Moray may hint at the direction things are going.
China, South Korea and Japan are known to have large AUVs under development but nothing of the scale of the Royal Navy Project. It remains to be seen how Russia may respond to this trend.