ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. Navy is experimenting with launching and recovering medium unmanned underwater vehicles from submarines, even as a formal acquisition effort is ongoing.
The Program Executive Office Unmanned and Small Combatants is pursuing the project, which is meant to create a common drone that can conduct expeditionary mine countermeasures or operate from submarines.
Capt. Kevin Smith, who leads the office, said this week at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium that the program is moving through the critical design review process and that industry partners Leidos and L3Harris Technologies had built a demonstration vehicle with their own research and development dollars to help accelerate the platform’s development.
The medium UUV is set to field within the next several years, but the Navy is already practicing with similar systems available from industry to learn how to use them.
The Navy’s initial Razorback effort, the version of the medium UUV that operates from submarines, resulted in a system that had to be launched and recovered from a special operations dry deck shelter, meaning its operations were labor intensive and only a limited number of submarines in the fleet could support them.
The current medium UUV program adds a torpedo tube launch and recovery capability, allowing any submarine in the fleet to become a drone mothership.
“I think we are very close to deploying a torpedo tube-launched and -recovered UUV here within the next year. So that’s going to be a big deal for us because success in that space is going to allow us to start operating at scale and putting these capabilities on every submarine,” Rear Adm. Rob Gaucher, who serves as a special assistant to U.S. Fleet Forces Command and is the nominee for Naval Submarine Forces commander, said at the conference.
He told Defense News that Submarine Force Atlantic conducted an effort called Yellow Moray, where it tested a Remus UUV from the defense contractor HII. Submarine Force Pacific conducted a similar Rat Trap exercise, where it successfully launched and recovered an L3Harris-made UUV from a submarine torpedo tube.
“There is a plan in place to deploy that in 2024. Now, will we get there? We still have some testing to do, but that’s our plan and that’s what we’re shooting for,” Gaucher said.
He noted this effort to field an initial capability next year is happening in parallel to the formal medium UUV development and acquisition effort. He also said among the success in these early efforts are lingering challenges, but he is optimistic the fleet can adopt an unmanned capability soon.
“We want to get out there and get in the water — that’s the biggest thing,” Gaucher said.
Even as the medium UUV acquisition and experimentation efforts continue, Gaucher said in a speech at the event that other unmanned underwater vessels had already contributed to real-world operations and global exercises. The admiral said American UUVs had participated in 11 exercise alongside 17 countries in the European theater, with a focus on mine countermeasures operations. The U.S. Navy had also sent UUVs to help survey the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea following a September 2022 explosion.
In the Middle East, the admiral said, UUVs have conducted seabed surveys, harbor surveys and harbor defense missions.
And in the Pacific, they participated in 10 exercises with four allies and partners to conduct mine countermeasures and mining operations, plus an Integrated Battle Problem exercise focused on subsea and seabed warfare to inform future collaboration between the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom.
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.