LONDON — The British government has launched a competition to test a large, unmanned submarine’s ability to gather intelligence and perform other roles.
In an April 16 announcement, the Ministry of Defence said it will provide £2.5 million (U.S. $3.3 million) for the winning bidder to design, refit an existing platform and trial the utility of extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles, otherwise known as XLUUVs.
A further £2 million could go toward the trials if the cash-strapped MoD can find the required funds — something the announcement concedes is unlikely.
The three-year effort includes a yearlong research, design and vehicle refit as the first stage, followed by a two-year program to test a large unmanned submarine’s ability to undertake a series of roles. The announcement specifically mentions covert intelligence gathering, the deployment and recovery of sensors, and anti-submarine warfare, but the MoD was it clear it is seeking a modular payload design to cover a range of additional capabilities.
The British decision to explore the use of XLUUVS comes weeks after the U.S. Navy awarded Boeing a deal to fabricate, test and deliver four unmanned submarines.
Based on Boeing’s Echo Voyager demonstrator vehicle, the U.S. company beat rival Lockheed Martin to a $43 million deal to deliver the platform, known as the Orca, by 2022.
A Lockheed Martin spokesman in the U.K. said the company was aware of the British program but didn’t commit to bidding at this stage.
“We are determining how our experience and technologies could pair with the MoD requirements,” the spokesman said.
Boeing UK did not return a call from Defense News.
Orca’s specifications are unknown. To get some idea of what the British are looking at for, consider Echo Voyager’s specs, which include a length of 51 feet, a weight of 50 tons “in the air,” and an ability to operate at a maximum depth of 11,000 feet. It also touts a maximum speed of 8 knots.
What we know about Britain’s trial-vessel requirement is that the successful bid will aim to autonomously pilot an underwater vehicle capable of 3,000 miles and three months’ deployment by the end of the first stage (the design and platform refit phase).
“The system must be capable of piloting a[n] unmanned vehicle" and have a 2-metric-ton capability to house payloads, sensors and operational equipment, the ministry said.
“The tests aim to determine capability limits of an unmanned underwater vehicle, to assist in the development of future requirements and the design of future capabilities,” the MoD said in its announcement.
An existing large underwater vehicle will be used for the sea trials and is not designed to produce a commercial prototype, the ministry noted.
The three-year effort is part of the cross-government Defence and Security Accelerator program, which aims to quickly find and fund exploitable innovations while supporting U.K. prosperity.
Bids for the work are due by June 11, and the MoD hopes to have the winner being work in August.
The competition is part of the Royal Navy’s effort to shape cutting-edge capabilities in the sector of maritime autonomous systems for future operations.
Last month, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced a £75 million injection of funds for future capabilities of the Royal Navy, including funds for two new autonomous mine-hunter vessels.
Williamson also revealed the formation of a new joint military and industry high-tech accelerator organization known as NavyX.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.