Attention Turns to Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vessels
In August, 2021, after years of delays, cost overruns, and rising tensions, the Australian government canceled a A$90 billion order with France’s Naval Group for 12 conventionally powered submarines intended to replace the Royal Australian Navy (RAN)’s aging fleet of six Collins-class attack subs. Overnight, the future of the RAN’s undersea warfare capability was cast into uncertainty. The very next month, however, the United States and the United Kingdom announced a plan to help Australia fill the void, offering to assist in the design, development, and construction of a new fleet of now nuclear powered submarines. While the move was hailed by many as cunning geostrategy, the devil is in the details.
Given Australia’s lack of experience in nuclear power production or nuclear submarine construction, and that the new class of attack sub would have to be designed largely from scratch, the full realization of this trilateral security pact, dubbed AUKUS, is still many years, if not decades, away. Meanwhile, China’s regional expansion continues unabated - most recently with an infrastructure partnership with the island archipelago of Vanuatu, just 1200 miles off Australia’s east coast. “The security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region have grown significantly,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “Military modernization is occurring at an unprecedented rate and capabilities are rapidly advancing and their reach expanding. The technological edge enjoyed by Australia and our partners is narrowing.” The sense of urgency is clear. But with only a small fleet of aging attack subs, how can the RAN augment its undersea defenses in order to secure its maritime interests?
Enter Anduril Industries, a U.S. defense technology company and developer of autonomous systems, who, in May, announced a partnership with the RAN to deliver three XL-AUV (extra large autonomous underwater vehicles) by 2023. Anduril’s focus has been air and force protection systems, but earlier this year the company moved into the undersea domain with its acquisition of Dive Technologies, the Quincy, Massachusetts developer of the Dive-LD, a 5.8-meter, 2720 kg large displacement unmanned underwater vehicle (LDUUV). Founded by former Bluefin Robotics engineers, Dive pioneered the use of additive manufacturing (3D printing) to fabricate the LD’s outer hull, as well as its internal components and substructures. With the Dive acquisition, Anduril is now uniquely positioned to offer the RAN a near-term undersea warfare solution by combining the Dive-LD’s manufacturing methods with Anduril’s advanced technologies. “There is a clear need for an XL-AUV built in Australia, for Australia,” said Palmer Luckey, Anduril Founder. “The XL-AUV will harness the latest developments in autonomy, edge computing, sensor fusion, propulsion, and robotics to bring advanced capability to the Royal Australian Navy.”Since the Anduril announcement, similar industry partnerships have emerged, heralding what could be a trend toward turnkey, commercial off the shelf (COTS) solutions for defense-related large and extra large UUVs.
In addition to the Anduril partnership, the RAN, through Australian defense cooperative research center Trusted Autonomous Systems, is tapping British Columbia-based Cellula Robotics to develop the SeaWolf XLUUV. Cellula is the developer of the Solus family of AUVs, which includes the Solus-LR, a hydrogen fuel-cell powered XLUUV with a range in excess of 2000km. The 12 meter technology demonstrator, to be rolled out in late 2022, or early 2023, will have a range of over 5000 km, and will include contributions from Australian sub-contractors Mission Systems, Ocean Wave Consulting, East Consulting Services, as well as renowned Australian marine robotics engineer Ron Allum whose company, Ron Allum Deepsea Services, will assist in the integration of power and propulsion systems. And in the large displacement UUV (LDUUV) space, UK submersible builder MSubs is teaming up with U.S.-based maritime surveillance company ThayerMahan for the development of Minke, an advanced, multi-mission vehicle with a depth rating of 1500 meters. “We will use Minke in commercial work in the near term and expand to government work when the Navy's LDUUV program is re-started,” said ThayerMahan CEO Mike Connor. “The fundamental design will scale to extra-large vehicles (XLUUV) when the defense market is ready for that capability."
Meanwhile, government-driven XLUUV programs inch forward. Under development since 2017, the U.S. Navy’s Orca XLUUV Test Asset was christened in April of this year, and will put the platform through its paces while five contracted vehicles continue production. And in addition to its partnership with Thayer Mahan, since 2019, Msubs has been working closely with the U.K. Royal Navy on its XLUUV program, Manta, providing a test platform based on its existing 9-meter S201 submersible.
But the future of U.S. Navy’s LDUUV program, Snakehead, just months after christening its prototype, is now in doubt. Budget pressures, and a “misalignment of … design and procurement efforts with submarine hosting interfaces [drydeck shelters]” have forced the Navy to reconsider its commitment to the program. As a result, Msubs/Thayer Mahan, as well as Anduril and Cellula Robotics, would be well positioned to benefit should the Navy pursue a COTS LDUUV procurement
While small and medium COTS AUVs have been in use by navies for several years, given the cost and complexity of larger displacement AUVs, their development has been driven primarily by traditional government R&D efforts. The Orca, for example, is essentially a miniature diesel electric submarine, with a varied mission set that includes autonomous payload delivery, such as sea mines, as well as anti-submarine warfare (ASW). But even for well-established submarine powers, indigenous R&D can be challenging and isn’t always an option. Should the Australian model prove successful, other regional maritime powers who find themselves behind the technology curve and in immediate need of a low cost, credible ASW capability may seek out similar partnerships. Much as cruise missiles, and now drones, have enabled cash-strapped nations to acquire their own “poor man’s air force,” so too could COTS LD and XL-AUVs engender a similar trend with unmanned submersibles.
To be sure, LD and XL AUVs are largely uproven as undersea warfare platforms, and it remains to be seen how they will ultimately be integrated into naval operations. But as great power competition continues to intensify, along with the budgetary strain of high-value, high-dollar manned platforms, the demand for an affordable alternative will grow. And companies like Anduril, Cellula Robotics, Msubs, and ThayerMahan will be standing by to offer innovative solutions.