20,000 Drones Under the Sea
By: Andrew Metrick
Early in November 2015, Russia let slip that it is in the process of developing a new unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), or as it is more commonly called, an underwater drone. This drone, with the simultaneously innocuous yet menacing Russian designation of “Oceanic Multipurpose System – Status 6,” supposedly has a range of 5,400 nautical miles and a top speed of 100 knots. Most terrifying of all is this system’s payload and purpose. Equipped with a megaton range enhanced radiation nuclear warhead, the Status 6 is directly aimed at destroying coastal cities both with its explosive force and extreme radioactive potential, even compared with “conventional” nuclear arms.
The existence of such a nuclear-armed system is questionable given the carefully scripted nature of the “leak.” However, it is clear that nations such as China, India, France, Great Britain, Japan, and Russia are all interested in developing UUVs for a host of missions. A number of other, less technologically advanced nations are likely to be interested in purchasing UUVs from more advanced suppliers.
If not nuclear doomsday weapons, what value do these systems have? First, such systems are much cheaper to field and maintain than manned submarines. This makes them appealing to small navies with limited resources, as well as large, well-resourced navies looking to augment their traditional submarine fleets. Second, due to their small size and correspondingly minute sonar signature, UUVs are extremely dangerous in littoral waters. A persistent, armed UUV on station outside an adversary’s naval base could alert, track, and if necessary destroy an enemy surface or submarine force before it could enter the fight. In addition, underwater drones can provide relatively robust surveillance capabilities for nations interested in enhanced monitoring of their territorial waters.
Recognizing the potential advantage of such a capability, the U.S. Navy has undertaken significant development work in this field. The former chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, was vocal in his belief that autonomous UUVs would be required in order to maintain U.S. undersea dominance. The Office of Naval Research is leading the development of the largest underwater drone, the creatively named Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV), set for a prolonged field trial in 2016. It should be noted that despite its name, the LDUUV is only about 30 feet long; compare this to the largest U.S. manned submarine, which is more than 550 feet long. The Navy has already tested smaller underwater drones meant for underwater surveillance, most notably from the USS North Dakota, a Virginia-class submarine, operating in the Mediterranean.
While they may never be able to match the capabilities and endurance of a manned, nuclear-powered submarine, UUVs have the potential to dramatically affect the conduct of war at sea. Given their potential, the U.S. Navy must begin to think about and prepare for a world of 20,000 drones under the sea.