Drones can be better at tracking and destroying diesel-electric subs, even those which use Air-independent propulsion (AIP) technology. These vessels can operate more quietly than manned subs, and remain submerged for a greater length of time. Instead of hunting enemy submarines, they can simply lay in wait until the prey comes to them.
China’s Haiyi (or “Sea Wings”) unmanned underwater glider drone set a world record for deepest depth before being retrieved from the ocean by the crew of the Tansuo-1 ship on March 5, 2017 in this still from a clip shared by the state-run China Central Television network.
DARPA has the falling upwards payload program
Today, cost and complexity limit the Navy to fewer weapons systems and platforms, causing strain on resources that must operate over vast maritime areas. Unmanned systems and sensors are commonly envisioned to fill coverage gaps and take action at a distance. However, power and logistics to deliver these systems over vast ocean areas limit their utility. The DARPA Upward Falling Payload (UFP) program intends to overcome these barriers.
The UFP concept centers on developing deployable, unmanned, nonlethal distributed systems that lie on the deep-ocean floor in special containers for years at a time. These deep-sea nodes could be remotely activated when needed and recalled to the surface. In other words, they “fall upward.” In today’s fiscally constrained environment, such a system of pre-positioned, deep-sea nodes could enable a full range of maritime mission sets that are more cost-effective than existing manned or long-range unmanned naval assets.
Nearly 50% of the world’s oceans are deeper than 4 km, which provides vast areas for concealment and storage. As a consequence, the cost to retrieve UFP nodes is asymmetric with the likely cost to produce and distribute them to the seafloor. Concealment provided by the sea also provides the opportunity to quickly engage remote assets that may have been dormant and undetected for long periods of time, while its vastness allows simultaneous operation across great distances. Getting close to objects without warning, and instantiating distributed systems without delay, are key attributes of UFP capability.
The UFP system is envisioned to consist of three key subsystems: The ‘payload’ which executes waterborne or airborne applications after being deployed to the surface; the UFP ‘riser’ which provides pressure tolerant encapsulation and launch of the payload; and the UFP communications, which triggers the UFP riser to launch.
To succeed, the UFP program must be able to demonstrate a system that can: (a) survive for years under extreme pressure, (b) be triggered reliably from standoff commands, and (c) rapidly rise through a water column and deploy its payload.
Sub as mothership for drones
The U.S. Navy hopes to use small UUVs, capable of being launched from a torpedo tube, to create the same kind of picture of the undersea space that satellites, radars and UAVs can create of airspace. Using both passive and active sonars, UUVs could deploy from an SSN and explore the area, attempting to detect any threats to their mothership. Having ascertained the existence of threats, the UUVs could either light the target up with active sonar (allowing the SSN to target and destroy it with torpedoes), passively communicate data to the mothership, or potentially carry out a “suicide” attack against the target themselves.
Now the US Navy has about 70 submarines and they are now costing about $3 to $8 billion each. This up from $1-3 billion ten years ago.
China is now matching this number and could go to 100-150 submarines at about $200 million to $1 billion. Many of them could have Air independent propulsion for quiet operation and the ability to practically match the months that nuclear submarines can stay submerged. China is also developing small nuclear reactors to enable hybrid diesel-nuclear submarines which would have the advantages of nuclear submarines but lower costs.
The US and China will both be developing drone submarines in the million dollar to hundred million dollar price ranges.