1 November 2016
Unmanned underwater vehicles will play a big role in the next generation attack submarine.
We're nearly two decades away from the time that the U.S. Navy expects to put its next generation of attack subs in the water. But the service is already looking ahead and researching the technologies that will allow future subs to become mother ships to entire fleets of swimming (and flying) drones that find and sink the enemy.
The Navy's current attack sub is the Virginia class. The Virginias are successful and being steadily upgraded with new technologies, but by the 2030s the basic design will be 30 years old. The Navy expects to buy its first next-generation submarine, tentatively titled SSN(X), in 2034 and is currently exploring new technologies to stuff in it.
A key technology, according to U.S. Naval Institute News, is the field of unmanned underwater systems (UUVs). UUVs haven't received as much attention as unmanned aerial vehicles, mostly because they operate underwater. But the Navy is examining a whole slew of missions for UUVs, from mine-hunting to surveillance to even hunting other submarines.
In the future, a single submarine might control several UUVs at once, each performing a different mission. For example, a submarine attempting to quietly land
commandos on a hostile beachhead could use one UUV to clear mines out of its path, one UUV to prepare to attack enemy patrol craft, and a third flying UAV to scout the beachhead.
Drones are hard to operate from submarines, because the submarines must deploy them while underwater. Drones are currently expelled from submarines via torpedo tube, the torpedo countermeasures tube, and even the trash disposal unit. These methods severely restrict a UUV's size because a torpedo tube has a diameter of 21 inches.
According to USNI News, one possibility for drones is that they stick to the hull of a submarine the way a remora fish sticks to a shark. UUVs could attach and reattach as necessary. Without the need to enter and exit the sub, they could grow quite large.
Not all submarine drones are meant to operate underwater. The Navy is currently outfitting Virginia submarines to carry the Blackwing drone. Launched from a torpedo countermeasures tube, Blackwing surfaces and then flies in the air to conduct surveillance missions. This begs the question: could submarines of the future become the aircraft carriers of the future?