Unmanned underwater weaponry

While in 2006 two thirds of the military budget in EU countries went to personnel, in 2017 this was less than half. Weapons are outdated more quickly and replaced at a faster rate, often because of new technology. Cyberspace is added to the traditional military domains of land, air, sea and space. New kinds of communication technology enables commanders to sent and receive massive amounts of information. Artificial Intelligence opens horizons even not yet understood. Military satellites are launched into space on a regular basis to search the earth’s surface for enemy movements, and sent signals to commanders on the other side of the globe. The defence industries profits, but at the expense of the exchequer.

Killer whale

The military tech revolution also creates drones, that can drive, fly, sail and go undersea. Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) are entering the battlefield to fire missiles, mine the seabed, collect intelligence and launch torpedo’s on enemy ships. They are built in the categories small, medium, large and extra large (see slide 2: UUV System Vision).

An article headed: ‘This Photo Is Dangerous: It Could Be the Future of Navy Submarines‘ shows an ORCA UUV. The US navy is planning to soon launch this Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV), calling UUVs essential to shift from large ships to a more-distributed navy. Larger quantity of smaller vessels are harder to track by the enemy and the modular design of the planned UUVs will increase the potential for adaption to mission needs. Too large to be launched from a torpedo tube, the ORCA may start its journey from a vessel with a large deck or internal dock, but also directly autonomous from a naval base. Underwater drones got serious emphasis in the US Navies budget request. According to a report for Congress in Fiscal Year 2020 the navy will spent US$ 359 million on UUVs, of which $182 million for ORCA. The whole surface and underwater drone program for the US navy is estimated at US$ 4.5 billion in the same four year period.

Mission scope

UUVs expand mission scope, increase attack options, integrate large high-tech sensors, further safeguard manned combat crews and possibly fire torpedoes and even launch smaller drones themselves. The predecessor of the ORCA (the Boeing Echo Voyager) had already a range of 6,500 nautical miles (12.000 km) and months of operation on a single fuel module. Those unmanned submarines are stealthier, cheaper to produce in larger quantities, and enabling activities with greater risk, because there is no danger of loosing trained sailors. They will “perform missions that might otherwise be assigned to manned submarines.” The US navy wants to buy nine ORCAs in the 2020-2024 period. Five are already ordered at Boeing, companies like tech firm L3 and Huntingdon Ingalls also gain from the program.

Europeans under water

In Europe, the United Kingdom is developing its own XLUUV. The UK Ministry of Defence is exploring options for an underwater drone to conduct covert missions at distances of up to ranges 3,000 nautical miles for three months at a time for the Royal Navy.
In the Netherlands an evaluation was done by Applied Sciences Institute TNO Defence to see if UUV technology available in 2027 could provide the submarine capability the Dutch navy is aiming for by the same year. Not surprising, unmanned underwater drones fail the test on delivering special forces for covert operations. On more elaborate level the evaluation mentions technological constraints of the UUVs on all aspects. “Smaller UUVs, however, could be a valuable addition to a submarine” the evaluators state. But the investigated time frame of the evaluation also shows how fast developments go. Despite their combined expertise, the evaluators in 2018 missed the ORCA. Available Artificial Intelligence is major argument to doubt some of the task possibilities of UUVs. But budgets for US Research and Development of AI are rapidly growing each year from 1.6 billion US$ in 2018 to 2.4 billion US$ in 2020; and will result in taking technological hurdles. It needs more knowledge to weight what will be the situation, but the US navy goes for it.


While the development of the diesel submarine is accelerating, European countries are planning to buy new conventional submarines or expand classes already in use, like for example in Poland, Norway and Germany, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands. Are they spending tax payers money on expensive weapons of the past?

This blog is not a plea for the acquisition of underwater drones. It just aims to question the naval industry and military plans to develop and buy a new range of submarines, while the undersea landscape is quickly changing with high endurance drones armed with weaponry or observation technology and much efforts invested – included billions of dollars – to overcome the tech problems of today. A little more patience can spare billions of tax payers money in all those countries now considering to expand their submarine fleets. Maybe this calm opens even a horizon for limiting tension, instead of adding to it.


MB 07-2019