WASHINGTON — The Navy is getting ready to start a new competition for large underwater drones that can be linked together, providing the service an undersea network of communications equipment or sensors.

During a briefing at the Surface Navy Association conference, Capt. Jon Rucker announced that the service plans to release a request for proposals for the Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (XLUUV) program as soon as this month. The competition will include both vehicle design and construction.

The Navy envisions the XLUUV as a modular, open architecture system that can be reconfigured with different payloads, according to a September request for information. The vehicle will be able to be launched pierside without needing to be carried aboard a host ship, Rucker said.

The XLUUV will differentiate itself from current submersible systems by its greater endurance and payload capacity, including the potential to perform offensive maneuvers while submerged underwater, he said.

"There is a joint emerging operational need for certain capability in the near term to deliver some offensive capability. That's all I can say about that," he said. "Other than that, the payloads are really going to be designed to be able to carry extra support, whether that's special warfare or undersea sensors. Eventually the goal is an undersea network of power or communications, which you can network out to extend our reach."

The service intends to host an industry day on Jan. 12, with one-on-one sessions occurring the following day. Rucker said about 25 vendors, spanning from small businesses to large defense primes, have expressed interest in attending the event.

The RFI laid out some preliminary specifications for the system.

"It is expected that the modular payload bay or bays have a minimum height of 60 inches, minimum length of 125 inches and total volume of at least 325 cubic feet in order to accommodate multiple deployable payloads," the RFI stated. "The XLUUV will transit to an area of operation, loiter with the ability to periodically establish communications, deploy the payloads and transit home. For the purpose of this RFI, notional straight-line total transit would be 2,000 nautical miles."

However, Rucker stressed that the Navy hopes to use industry feedback to further refine requirements and technical specifications ahead of the RFP release. If a particular requirement is not technologically achievable in the near term, it may be pared down.

The government will chose up to two competitors for a 12 to 18 month design phase before downselecting to a single company, which will build the first five vehicles, he said.

"We envision to have options in the contract to build additional vehicles if the Navy desires that capability, but the requirement to meet that urgent operational need is five [systems]," Rucker said.

Companies have already begun to design large UUVs that may be able to meet the service's needs. For example, Boeing in March unveiled an unmanned submarine, the 51-foot long Echo Voyager, that can stay underwater conducting missions for months at a time.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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