The Navy’s submarine-launched drone revolution

Albeit belatedly, the Navy is taking bold action to strengthen and diversify the capabilities of its submarine forces.

Its evolving procurement plan has prioritized an increase in the number of attack submarines in the fleet. This is a long overdue development, delayed by admirals’ traditional preference for big and beautiful aircraft carriers over small and silent submarines. But it’s good news nonetheless.

Still, the truly revolutionary development is the Navy’s announcement this week that it has successfully deployed submarine-launched armed, “unmanned aerial systems.” Military jargon for combat drones. As first reported by Seapower, program lead, Rear Adm. Dave Goggins, told a conference on Wednesday that the new drone system will allow the Navy’s attack submarines to strike enemy targets beyond visual range. Trials, Goggins said, had successfully proved the Navy can launch the drones “from periscope depth, control them out to tactically significant ranges — well beyond the line of sight.” Goggins added one test had allowed a submarine “to target and conduct a rapid simulated torpedo attack against a participating surface ship … pretty much at near-maximum effective range of that torpedo, by flying that [drone] to obtain [effective targeting lock] after gaining that initial sonar gain.” The drones have also been successfully tested against land targets.

This is excellent news for which Goggins and his sailors deserve great credit. The new drones would appear to offer two particular utilities.

First, in allowing U.S. submarines to get closer to targets that would otherwise be out of range. If a submarine can stay underwater, running silent and slow, and then launch an armed drone over the horizon, it could feasibly target enemy vessels at port. It could also gather real-time intelligence on the movements, communications, and general disposition of their forces. Considering that a basic principle of naval sensors is that risk of detection increases in tandem with location proximity, these drones mean American submarines can target more enemies, in more ways, at greater ranges, and at lower risk. Risk is a defining element of the U.S. Navy submarine force tradition, but managing that risk is crucial.

Second, the drones will multiply each submarine’s combat potential by allowing crews to use their torpedoes against enemy vessels while simultaneously employing drones against other targets. This ability to theoretically swarm an enemy would allow a relatively small number of U.S. submarines to have an outsize tactical effect. This would be especially useful in situations, such as a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, where the enemy would have many more warships engaged in the fight. That makes these drones a natural extension and, I would assume, element, of the Navy’s sensor deception strategy. That strategy centers on programs such as Nemesis, which aim to disorientate and distract the enemy by mixing ghost targets alongside real U.S. targets.

Considering the credible threat of war with China, the Navy cannot afford original thinking and continued reliance on the delusion that its aircraft carriers are indestructible. If America is to win a major naval war, submarines will be critical. More of this, please.

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