Correction: The Remus systems are branded as Huntington Ingalls Industries products after the company acquired Hydroid in March 2020.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is “well on its way” to delivering a replacement small unmanned underwater vehicle for mine countermeasures and is in source selection for a replacement medium UUV that will support both the submarine and the explosive ordnance disposal communities.
The Mk 18 Mod 1 Swordfish and Mk 18 Mod 2 Kingfish date back to the late 1990s and 2000s. The former is a 150-pound small UUV that could be carried in and out of the water by a couple sailors; the latter is a 600-pound medium UUV primarily launched and recovered from a rigid-hull inflatable boat. The pair can be used for mine countermeasures and ocean survey, and the popular expeditionary mine countermeasures company (ExMCM) was built around an unmanned systems platoon that uses both vehicles.
The medium-size Razorback UUV has a program history more than a decade long, with the Navy initially seeking a UUV that could sense the littoral battlespace. The UUV the Navy first bought under the Razorback name will be launched and recovered via the dry deck shelter on some submarines, though the Navy has since changed course and is seeking a follow-on version that would be launched and recovered from a submarine torpedo tube.
These older technologies are reaching their limits even while the Navy continues to develop new sensors, target-recognition software and more that they’d like to put to sea, said Capt. Dan Malatesta, the program manager for expeditionary missions within the Program Executive Office for Unmanned and Small Combatants. The Lionfish small UUV and the Viperfish medium UUV programs that will replace these three legacy programs are both making good progress and should be ready to replace their predecessors in the next two to three years.
Lionfish completed a second user operational evaluation with an ExMCM company in May, he said Aug. 3 at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference. Two existing vehicles — L3Harris Technologies′ Iver 4 and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Remus 300 — are being considered for the program.
Lionfish would replace the Mk 18 Mod 1, which is based off the Remus 100 design from Huntington Ingalls. Malatesta said during his program update at the Naval Sea Systems Command booth the Mk 18 Mod 1 vehicle, which first saw use in Iraq in 2003, has “kind of maxed out its capability for computing power and those sort of things.” As a result, the Navy can’t integrate the newest sensors, autonomy packages and other updates onto the aging platform.
On the medium UUV side, the Razorback and the Mk 18 Mod 2 will merge into a single program called Viperfish. Malatesta said the Mk 18 Mod 2 and the Razorback are both based off the Remus 600 UUV design, so merging them into a single program won’t change the basics of how ExMCM companies or submarines handle and operate them. Viperfish is in source selection.
He said the Navy is working closely with the ExMCM operators to understand the upgrades they need for their current Mk 18 Mod 2s. These include better sonars and cameras for clearer pictures of potential threats in the water, automatic target recognition aides, autonomy software so the UUV can decide to circle back around to a potential item of interest and provide additional imagery for processing.
An EOD officer himself, Malatesta said being in the program office “has been very beneficial to have that tight loop [with EOD colleagues in operational units] to get those requirements. So we are working on all those things. Automatic target recognition, we’ve brought it to the topside, so after they recover the vehicle, but we’re looking to put that in the vehicle” for target recognition in-stride.
“All those things we’re doing for the Mod 2 — so whether that’s [automatic target recognition] or [artificial intelligence and machine learning] that we are starting to implement into the vehicle — the idea is to move those over to the Viperfish,” Malatesta added. “The Viperfish competition is really about the vehicle directly … and, as we continue to mature those [new capabilities] in the Mod 2, we’ll have that same capability in the Viperfish.”
According to a slide Malatesta showed, the first eight ExMCM companies are already outfitted with Mk 18 Mod 2 UUVs. As the community is in the midst of doubling the number of ExMCM companies in the fleet, the next four companies to stand up will get the Mk 18 Mod 2 as their initial UUV. The last four are expected to receive the Viperfish from the outset in the 2024 or 2025 timeframe.
Information about the Viperfish program in an online solicitation notes the first UUVs delivered will be in the MCM configuration and will be sent to the ExMCM companies, with the submarine community waiting a bit longer for their vehicles and the torpedo tube launch and recovery gear.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.