Here's What You Need to Remember: The evaluation demonstrated the potential ways in which submarines, and really any other surface ship can be resupplied without even having to go into port. This is particularly true of small-volume supplies like medical or emergency supplies.
The U.S. Navy just tested a new delivery system for supplying submarines while underway at sea—by drone. In a video released by the Navy, a large quadcopter-type drone seen hovering above the deck of a ballistic missile submarine. A small payload, not much larger than a small backpack, dangled from a line attached to the drone. Despite the gentle rolling of the submarine’s hull, the drone successfully made the drop. The video description read:
“An unmanned aerial vehicle delivers a payload to the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730) around the Hawaiian Islands. Underway replenishment sustains the fleet anywhere/anytime. This event was designed to test and evaluate the tactics, techniques, and procedures of U.S. Strategic Command's expeditionary logistics and enhance the overall readiness of our strategic forces.”
The USS Henry M. Jackson has a crew of about 155 Officers and Sailors, so the small drone-delivered package probably wasn’t carrying food supplies—it was after all an evaluation. It also didn’t travel far to get to the submarine. Photos from the event showed that the quadcopter took off from a small surface ship perhaps a few hundred meters away from the USS Henry M. Jackson.
Still, the evaluation did demonstrate the potential ways in which submarines, and really any other surface ship can be resupplied without even having to go into port. This is particularly true of small-volume supplies like medical or emergency supplies.
The other important aspect of small, drone-carried deliveries at sea? Communications. In an environment where radio silence must be maintained, or where communication disruptions are being experienced due to enemy jamming or other interference, drones could serve as the new message-bearing carrier pigeons.
Previously, the Navy also experimented with using helicopters to deliver messages between ships by dropping a message in a bean bag-like package onto ship decks. During World War II the tactic had been used with some success in the Pacific to alert carrier groups about Japanese fleet’s whereabouts while maintaining radio silence.
Food and Ammunition
Alternative resupply methods are not just a topic of interest for the U.S. Navy either. The Navy’s sister service, the Marine Corps is also exploring alternative resupply techniques. One proposed method takes a page from narcotrafficers and the semi-submersibles they sometimes use to move illicit drugs across the ocean to the United States or Europe. By building a number of cheap, automatically piloted semi-submersibles, the Marine Corps could in theory also keep groups of Marines on far-flung Pacific islands fed, watered, and resupplied.
To be sure, the small quadcopter with its presumably limited range and its even smaller payload doesn’t exactly herald an immediate revolution in U.S. Naval resupply techniques—it was after a small-scale experiment. But, it does show how military logistics is changing.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.