WASHINGTON — When it comes to naval spending items, the talk in Washington is often about multibillion dollar programs involving aircraft carriers, submarines or jet fighters. Rarely do programs getting less than nine figures get much attention.
But in some instances, a little bit of funding can go a long way.
For a total of about $60 million, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., added in several underwater technology items to House version of the 2016 defense authorization bill, now working its way through Congress.
"The undersea domain has been an area of historical US advantage, from World War II to the Cold War," Forbes said last month. "To ensure our dominance in the years ahead, we must begin investing in technologies that hold the potential to sustain American undersea power. As our potential competitors make significant investments in the undersea realm, the US must continue researching and developing the undersea technologies of the future."
Such a relatively low level of funding can have a major impact, said Bryan Clark, a former submariner who's a naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
"These investments are pretty small — you don't need to put a lot of money into them to get some good technical insight," Clark said on May 8. "A lot of times these are universities, research institutes" getting the funding.
Science and technology (S&T) projects are also largely spared the expense of more elaborate acquisition programs, Clark pointed out.
"S&Ts aren't burdened with a lot of the overhead associated with acquisition efforts," Clark said. "They aren't developing requirement documents, paying for design work, going through the approval process, all of which adds a huge cost.
"A benefit of these S&T programs is a concept can be refined and matured before you go to acquisition, giving a better sense of what will be useful to invest in."
One of the items Forbes is trying to fund is the Fleet Modular Autonomous Unmanned Vehicle (FMAUV), "a rapid-development project to address emerging fleet capability needs," according to the House bill.
The FMAUV, the bill reads, "provides the Navy with the capability to safely ship, stow and deploy an autonomous undersea vehicle with lithium batteries from a submarine torpedo tube as well as provides [sic] the capability to download mission data without physically docking to the submarine."
The FMAUV in essentially a converted Mark 48 heavyweight torpedo, Clark said, speaking of the Navy's primary submarine torpedo.
"This thing is really cool," Clark said. "It's similar in size to the Mark 18 torpedo, which is launched from a 21-inch torpedo tube.
"Its biggest problem is fuel — the torpedo burns Otto Fuel II to run at a high speed for a relatively short time. But the underwater unmanned vehicle [UUV] wants longer endurance and doesn't need the speed." The Office of Naval Research (ONR), Clark said, is working to develop different propulsion technologies to burn for a longer period of time at a lower speed, along with developing different front ends of the vehicle to carry different payloads.
The underwater community is quite familiar with rebuilding Mark 48 torpedoes, he pointed out.
"We haven't built Mark 48s for a long time," Clark noted, "so you mix and match torpedo parts. Even now, torpedoes have parts in them of different ages, with different histories. The modular nature of the Mark 48 has been a feature since its inception. But with miniaturization of technologies, you can do a lot with a 21-inch UUV.
"This is tied also to a restart of Mark 48 torpedo production," Clark said. "That would also allow more torpedo parts to use for these unmanned vehicles."
Another system Forbes is supporting is the Submarine-Launched Unmanned Aerial System which, according to the bill's language, "provides the Navy with the capability to deploy an autonomous, unmanned aerial system from a submarine torpedo tube for over-the-horizon targeting. Additional funding will accelerate the development of a militarized all-up round and antenna as well as enable development of electronic warfare and cyber payloads for the system."
The Navy has been working for some time to develop sub-launched unmanned aerial vehicles, and test-launched an XFC UAS — eXperimental Fuel Cell Unmanned Aerial System — with the Sea Robin launch vehicle. In that December 2013 test conducted by ONR's SwampWorks development group and the Naval Research Laboratory, the UAV was successfully fired from an empty Tomahawk missile tube aboard the submerged submarine Providence.
While the Sea Robin has been developed initially for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, the Navy is thinking about weaponizing small sub-launched UAVs.
"I don't know about this one, but there are weaponized versions of small UAVs, with light weapons such as hand grenades," Clark said. "That doesn't sound like much, but it might be used against a radar array or antenna, so there are ways you could use a weaponized version.
"And in a swarm attack, for example out of a missile tube on a guided-missile submarine, you could suddenly have a lot of small UAVs. Get hit with enough of those and it could be a mission kill on what you were attacking."
Forbes pledges continued support for Navy-sponsored efforts to develop new technologies.
"Maintaining the US advantage in the undersea realm must be a priority in the decades ahead," he said April 28. "To ensure that advantage, we must aggressively invest in the technologies that hold the potential to sustain US undersea power."