The Buzz

Why the Navy Will Turn Submarines Into Underwater 'Aircraft Carriers'

In Peter Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet, the U.S. Navy turns to drones to kill Chinese submarines after it loses the bulk of its SSN fleet. Desperation offers strong motivation for innovation. With advances in communications and artificial intelligence, it’s not at all impossible to imagine scenarios in which SSN mothership deploy a lethal force of killer torpedoes, capable of remaining on station for days (or longer) while waiting for a victim. This requires a certain tolerance for risk, of course; even under the best of conditions operators sometimes lose control of their drones. But it also offers a way in which the large, powerful nuclear attack subs of the U.S. Navy can reclaim the advantage that they may be losing against the small, quiet AIP boats increasingly used by the world’s navies.

Imagine a future in which nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) can deploy undersea drones (UUVs) to hunt, and possibly kill, enemy subs. The U.S. Navy, at least, is taking steps to make this a reality. What impact could this have? On the one hand, UUVs could shake modern antisubmarine warfare (ASW) to its core, making existing platforms vulnerable or obsolete. On the other hand, the development of UUVs could reinforce existing hierarchies; in contrast to popular understanding, established organizations are often the best at adapting to disruptive military innovations. The future of the U.S. Navy depends to great extent of which of these becomes a reality.


In a sense, submarine launched drones have existed for quite some time; even in World War II, navies used pattern following or acoustic homing in order to find their targets. Wire guided torpedoes were introduced in the 1960s, allowing the submarine a measure of control over how the weapon approached its target. These torpedoes are suicidal drones in the same sense as cruise missiles; weapons that can be launched, then directed to their target either through autonomous mechanisms or by user interface.

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Both the United States and competitor nations have eagerly pursued the potential of UUVs. UUVs can contribute to both the hunting and the killing parts of ASW, although as of yet the only firm plans involve using them in the former. Such drones offer better opportunities to track and destroy 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 has reportedly experimented with “glider” drones, capable of remaining at specific depths without the need for propulsion. The United States has used such drones for years, and although at this time they lack much practical applicability under wartime conditions, they do offer a way of monitoring and evaluating the undersea environment. China is also working on integrating UUVs into its network of undersea sensors, creating an “Underwater Great Wall” capable of detecting and deterring U.S. subs. The United States has also done work on surface autonomous vessels that could perform the hunting, and potentially the killing, of enemy submarines. A prototype vessel joined the U.S. Navy in January.