On July 3, 2018, the Kitsap Sun reported that Keyport, WA had become home to the Navy’s first unmanned undersea vehicle squadron. Keyport, WA has been home to much of the Navy’s research and testing facilities for many years. In fact, so many test torpedoes have been developed here that the town has earned the nickname “Torpedo Town, U.S.A. It only makes sense that this new development In the Navy’s forces would begin in Keyport. But what is an unmanned undersea vehicle or UUV’s. in the Kitsap Sun, Cmdr. Scott Smith called them “pre-programmed, small submarines.” However, these vehicles are much more complex and constantly changing the landscape of undersea defense as we know it.
In simple terms, a UUV is an underwater drone. They operate without a person being on board. They can be divided into two categories – ROV’s (remotely operated underwater vehicles) which are controlled by a remote operator and AUV’s (autonomous underwater vehicles) which operate on there on like a robot. In 2015, as the idea of these vehicles were still in the early test stages, Bryan McGrath, a managing director of The FerryBridge Group and assistant director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower was asked about what these vehicles meant for the Navy’s Submarine Force. He went on to say the following:
“We’ve only begun to scratch the surface on the utility of UUV’s. I’m impressed with the degree to which the Navy’s Submarine Force is innovating in this area, and I’d like to see the surface force begin to work more closely with them to leverage what is quickly becoming a vast undersea information architecture. We will someday see UUV’s doing a great number of things that manned submarines currently do- not replacing them but extending their power and reach the way helicopters have for the surface force. Doubling down on our mystery of the undersea environment is a no-brainer.”
McGrath isn’t wrong when he says that working to understand the oceans is a no-brainer. While much of the ocean has been mapped, there is still plenty we are unaware of. As we saw in 2005 when the USS San Francisco hit an underwater sea mountain, having an extra pair of eyes in the deep black water doesn’t hurt. For the most part, UUV’s up until this point had been used for ocean surveillance and mine clearing. The new squadron in Keyport will utilize 10-inch torpedo-shaped tubes to large ones around 80 inches in diameter. The squadron will develop ideas and procedures that will shape how UUV’s can best be utilized by the Navy. According to Cmdr. Smith, while the UUV’s will be extremely helpful in reducing diver risks and sensory capabilities, they will never take away the vital importance of manned submarines. Despite the formation of this squadron and its growth over the past year, UUV’s are not currently deployed from submarines, something Smith sees changing in the next five years. Tests have been done using Virginia-class submarines to prove the viability of UUV’s in submarine missions. USS North Dakota, (SSN 784) which is homeported in Groton, finished a mission deploying and retrieving a UUV from the ship’s dry dock shelter in 2015. A dry dock shelter is a removable module that can be attached and allows ease of entering and exiting from a sub while it is submerged. The newly formed squadron is part of Submarine Development Squadron 5. This is the same command that oversees the Seawolf-class submarines- USS Seawolf, USS Connecticut, and USS Jimmy Carter.
The biggest issue with UUV’s that make them different from their aerial counterparts that have been in use for years now is that due to the ocean’s depth, controlling the drone is difficult. Singles and Wi-Fi cannot reach the drone, meaning that the entire mission would have to be programmed into the vehicle before it is launched. Small UUV’s can gather surveillance and sea conditions. They can also extend the sensor reach of a submarine. Submarines rarely use active sonar in order to remain unseen. UUV’s would allow submarines the use of active sonar without giving away their location, essentially allowing the crew to be in two places at once. Rear Admiral Joseph Tofalo was quoted in 2015 as saying, “Now you are talking about a submarine CO who can essentially be in two places at the same time – with a UUV out deployed which can dull, dirty and dangerous type missions. This allows the submarine to be doing something else at the same time. UUVs can help us better meet our combatant command demand signal. Right now, we can only meet about two-thirds of our combatant commanders demand signals and having unmanned systems is a huge force multiplier.” The innovative work on how UUV’s can aid submarines and surface ships alike is taking place in Barb Hall, a building named after the World War II Gato-class submarine USS Barb. The USS Barb knows a thing or two about being the first of a kind- having been the first and only submarine to have “sunk” an enemy train when sailors snuck ashore and took out a Japanese supply train.
Viewpoints on UUVs vary and research is still ongoing to determine the long-term use of them to the submarine force. However, the tests done so far have shown significant reasoning for submarines to be equipped with the new technology. The fear that these vehicles would take away from the effectiveness and need for submarines is unfounded when you see how UUVs can make submarines a more stealth and formidable opponent to enemy forces.