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Navy Contract Exposes Plans To Launch Swarms Of Drones From Unmanned Boats And Submarines

The third line of effort the Navy planned to break out of the larger “Unmanned and Autonomous Systems” funding line is called CLAWS, but no definition is given for what that acronym means. However, the plan for work on this program in the 2021 Fiscal Year is described as follows:

Continue Applied Research on the development of autonomous payloads for extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles operating in denied and contested areas. Payloads will be both kinetic and non-kinetic. Additional effort will include development of autonomy to increase the operator trust for kinetic payloads in contested areas and the development of autonomy and command & control required for swarm payload from extra-large unmanned undersea vehicle.

In 2019, the Navy selected Boeing’s Orca drone submarine, which you can read about more in this past War Zone piece, as the winning design for its Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV) program. All of this sounds exactly like work described in the contracting announcement from last week about ONR buying Block 3 Coyotes from Raytheon and the HVLRPF program specifically.

Beyond the work the Navy has already done with LOCUST, it’s worth pointing out that the service has already invested heavily in submarine-launched drone capabilities, especially in relation to its four high-specialized Ohio class guided missile submarines, or SSGNs. These boats, which you can read about in more depth in this past War Zone feature, are multi-purpose platforms with robust intelligence-gathering and command and control capabilities.

As for the exact concepts of operation and tactics, techniques, and procedures the Navy is envisioning around the HVLRPS and HVLRPF projects, while we don’t know what they might be exactly, the potentially game-changing capabilities they might offer are clear. Swarms, in general, inherently have the ability to confuse, disorient, and overwhelm opponents, especially enemy air defenses. This, in turn, can make it difficult for a hostile force to prioritize threats and respond effectively, potentially upending their plans and forcing them to divert critical resources away from their main lines of effort.

Swarms of loitering munitions could be just as effective in a maritime context as an overland one, too. Even if individual drones might not be able to outright destroy larger warships, they could still be used to target critical systems, such as radars or communications arrays, to produce a mission kill. That could put those vessels out of commission for a significant period of time while necessary repairs are conducted.

With all this in mind, it’s not hard to see how drone boats and submarines, lines of effort the Navy is also actively working on, potentially operating in swarms themselves, could be an even more capable combination. For example, UUVs, in particular, could be able to more readily ingress into a denied area without being detected and execute strikes on critical assets an opponent otherwise believes to be effectively off-limits to a hostile force. Even if those strikes fail in their immediate objective, they could easily force the enemy to redirect valuable forces away from the front lines in response.

“The CLAWS INP effort will develop an autonomous unmanned undersea weapon system capable of providing offensive effects to the Combatant Commanders beyond Phase 0 inside the first island chain,” the Navy’s 2021 Fiscal Year Budget request said regarding that program. “It will clandestinely extend the reach of large UUVs and increase the mission areas into kinetic effects.”

The “first island chain” is a zone of the Pacific defined by the boundary formed by the first line of major archipelagos out from mainland East Asia. It is a region of immense strategic importance, especially to China. It is an area that also includes the hotly disputed South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, among other bodies of water where the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can bring extensive anti-access and area denial capabilities to bear.

Drone boats loaded with swarms of loitering munitions could be a very capable additional line of defense against enemy swarms of small boats, including unmanned explosive-laden watercraft. Given that the Army is already acquiring Coyotes as a way to knock down small unmanned threats, they could serve as part of a multi-layered defensive shield against hostile drone swarms, too, a very real emerging threat.

A swarm might not necessarily have to just be made up of loitering munitions, either. Coyotes, or other small drones, carrying ISR, electronic warfare, or other payloads, could also be networked together, providing different types of functionality to make it easier to find threats and engage them in the most optimal way. 

It’s worth noting that the Navy has already been hard at work at developing and fielding components of a secretive networked electronic warfare “ecosystem” called the Netted Emulation of Multi-Element Signature against Integrated Sensors, or NEMESIS. This effort is centered on a ‘system of systems’ approach to electronic warfare that will link together manned and unmanned aircraft, including future drones swarms, as well as ships, and submarines. The main goals of this program, which you read more about in detail in this past War Zone feature, are to create phantom fleets to disrupt opponents’ decision-making cycles and otherwise employ electronic warfare capabilities in a cooperative fashion. Swarms of electronic warfare-enabled and decoy drones are a critical part of this ecosystem. Being able to push them forward into contested territory for launch via unmanned underwater vehicle or drone ship would be a critical piece of this evolving puzzle. 

With this latest contract to Raytheon, as well as all of these other at least tangentially related programs, the Navy has made clear that it sees its future operations as being full of swarms that expand the capabilities of its surface and underwater fleets, both at sea and over the shore.

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