The U.S. Navy has moved one step closer to designing the next generation of submarine chasers: roving drone ships capable of scanning the seas for the quietest diesel subs.
The vision for these trimarans, a project funded by the U.S. Defense Department’s advanced research arm, is to detect and trail foreign subs across thousands of kilometers for months at a time — all largely without human intervention.
While tracking the sub via sonar, the drone ships would be able to safely navigate, avoiding shoals and other ships.
After proving this core concept was feasible, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded $58 million Aug. 16 to military contractor SAIC to design, build and test these autonomous subhunters. But the unmanned vessels will require years of development and testing to consistently accomplish feats challenging for the best human crews.
The biggest engineering challenge will be proving a design that can autonomously drive itself through the ocean and avoid other ships while simultaneously tracking very quiet subs for periods of up to three months, an ability one engineer called “intelligent autonomy.”
“Building a boat is rather easy,” said retired Capt. Rick Simon, director of Spatial Integrated Systems, a contractor working with DARPA to help these vessels navigate through high sea states. “But make that thing smart enough to go out there for 90 days and not have to call home to Mama and ask for help — that’s the hard part.”
If these many technological hurdles are scaled, the Navy could have a relatively cheap way to neutralize the diesel subs, which are used by regimes such as North Korea, China and Iran and represent one of its foremost threats.
“Our goal is to transition an operational game-changer to the Navy,” said Scott Littlefield, a program manager at DARPA, in an Aug. 16 news release. “This should create an asymmetry to our advantage, negating a challenging submarine threat at one-tenth their cost of building subs.”
The next three years will be busy as SAIC and subcontractors design and construct an integrated, autonomous boat capable of detecting diesel subs.
DARPA expects vessel prototypes to start at-sea tests in 2015. Building such complex autonomous vessels will likely lead to technological breakthroughs that affect other parts of the Navy.
But as this system transitions from concept to fleet reality, the Navy will have to resolve larger issues about how to make a gee-whiz design relevant in wartime, one former submarine captain said.
“Is this a peacetime or a wartime capability?” said the retired officer, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly about a defense contract. He highlighted the vessels’ vulnerability in wartime, such as against the Chinese navy.
“If this thing is out there, banging away on top of a submarine with active [sonar],” he said, “why wouldn’t the Chinese just kill it?”