US Navy submarines have big plans to turn small drones into 'a flying periscope' to hit long-range targets

  • The US Navy, worried about fighting a war against a sophisticated enemy over long distances, is looking to unmanned vehicles to extend their reach.
  • A lot of that work is focused on unmanned surface and underwater vehicles, but the Navy's submarine forces are also using unmanned aerial vehicles to enable them to see and operate farther.
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Like the rest of the US military, the Navy is banking on unmanned vehicles to enhance its capabilities as its prepares for a potential conflict with a comparable adversary — namely China.

Much of the Navy's work has focused on unmanned surface and underwater vehicles, but the Navy's submarines have also been testing unmanned aerial vehicles to stretch their operational reach.

"We are pursuing the use of unmanned aircraft launched from submarines," Rear Adm. Blake Converse, commander of the US Navy's Pacific Fleet submarine forces, said at the Navy Submarine League's annual symposium on Tuesday.

"We've developed a common operating picture, actually, for over-the-horizon targeting for some of our anti-ship cruise-missile capabilities that we have now and we're going to be delivering to the force in the future," Converse added.

With potential combat in the vast Pacific in mind, the Navy has emphasized being able to fight over long distances. For submarines, that means extending the range of their weaponry, Vice Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of Navy submarine forces, said during another symposium event on Monday.

"Longer-range torpedoes, of course, because that's our clandestine weapon, but also fielding and bringing back Harpoon [anti-ship missiles] in the Pacific," Caudle said. "We're also pressing hard to get the Maritime Strike Tomahawk fielded as well."

On Tuesday, Converse said that unmanned aerial vehicles could allow subs could see and strike over greater distances.

"Consider a submarine-deployed unmanned aircraft as a flying periscope able to dramatically extend our submarines' organic sensor range, provide target-quality sensor data back to the submarine, or to a joint force capability, and enable Harpoon and Maritime Strike Tomahawk missile engagements," Converse said.

"We are always working on tactic development exercises to enhance the performance of our existing submarine sensors and identify areas for improvement so that we can detect the adversary well before he sees us and we can shoot him first," Converse added.

Extending the range

Submarines in the Pacific have also conducted resupply exercises with unmanned aerial vehicles several times over the past year.

In October 2019, a UAV delivered a 5-pound payload to the fast-attack sub USS Hawaii over a mile off the coast of Oahu.

"A large percentage of parts that are needed on submarines weigh less than 5 pounds, so this capability could alleviate the need for boats to pull into ports for parts or medical supplies," a Navy officer said of the October 2019 exercise.

In October this year, a UAV delivered a payload to a missile sub for the first time, dropping a package of insignia pins and congratulatory letters to the ballistic-missile submarine USS Henry M. Jackson as it sailed near the Hawaiian islands.

That exercise was followed by similar deliveries with an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter, an MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, and a C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft.

"The purpose of that was to exercise our ability to maintain our ballistic submarines at sea and fully ready in a pre-conflict and post-initial-strike conflict scenario, so that we can maintain the nation's strategic deterrent," Converse said of the drills with the Henry M. Jackson.

At present, drones' limited payload sizes and ranges would restrict that capability, but they can still save time by negating the need for a sub to sail into port to get those supplies as well as a safety benefit by taking those supplies to the sub, rather than requiring crews to carry them from one ship to another.

Such a capability could also be scaled up in the future, with larger drones operating from land or from ships at sea to create "a more distributed supply network," Bryan Clark, an expert in naval operations at the Hudson Institute, told Insider late last year.

"We exercise those things to demonstrate the ability to keep our submarines at sea," Converse said Tuesday, citing components for subs' atmosphere-control system or weapons system, or food, medical, logistical supplies, as potential deliveries.

"Our submarines are very reliable and carry quite a bit of food, but this further extends the range of those submarines," Converse added.

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