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How the U.S. Navy Could Use Drones to Kill Submarines

Anti-Submarine Warfare
The US Navy (USN) RQ-8A Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (VTUAV) System ÒFire Scout,Ó prepares for the first autonomous landing aboard the US Navy (USN) Austin Class: Amphibious Transport Dock, USS NASHVILLE (LPD 13), while the ship is underway in the Atlantic Ocean. With an on-station endurance of over four hours, the Fire Scout system is capable of continuous operations, providing coverage at 110 nautical miles from the launch site.

Sometime late last year, the U.S. Navy tested one of Northrop Grumman’s remotely piloted helicopters for use as an anti-submarine warfare platform, USNI News reported. During the evaluation, the Fire Scout drone dropped miniaturized sonobuoys into the water, essentially small acoustic devices that listen for enemy movement underwater.

As the name suggests, the primary goal of anti-submarine warfare platforms is to hunt down submarines, in effect creating a protective bubble around surface ships that are particularly vulnerable to submarine attack. Though this mission is typically done by much larger manned aircraft, like the MH-60R Sea Hawk, unmanned platforms like the Fire Scout offer advantages in range and endurance compared to their manned counterparts.

They’re also cheaper: the loss of a drone is comparatively light and less risky than putting a human pilot or pilots in harm’s way. In addition to deploying a mini hydrophone, an offensive capability could in theory be packed into some drones in the form of similarly miniaturized torpedos, like Northrop Grumman’s Very Lightweight Torpedo.

Given the advantages inherent to unmanned anti-submarine warfare platforms, it comes as no surprise that the Navy is interested. And, it’s not the first time the Navy has been evaluating remotely operated platforms for a specialized ASW role.

Drones for Me, Drones for You

Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout isn’t the only done that may protect American strike groups. General Atomics, the firm behind the iconic Predator and Reaper drones, is also adapting one of their drones for a submarine-hunting maritime mission. Similar to the Fire Scout, a modified Reaper drone offers advantages in terms of mission endurance and logistics when compared to a piloted anti-submarine warfare platform like the P-8A Poseidon.

General Atomics’s drone would be a boon to Navy logistics: the company asserts that their SeaGuardian maritime drone uses 90% less fuel than similar intelligence and surveillance aircraft and that the platform needs 50% fewer operations and support personnel than the Navy’s current anti-submarine warfare platforms require. Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout would likely offer savings in fuel and personnel as well.

Postscript

One of the drawbacks to replacing the manned anti-submarine warfare mission with drones is sonobuoy and torpedo capacity. Though the aforementioned drones do offer real advantages in terms of range and logistics, a single drone simply cannot carry the same quantity of munitions as a much larger manned platform like the Poseidon. Still, the move toward unmanned anti-submarine warfare platforms brings new and needed capabilities to the Navy and is a concept worth exploring.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Caleb Larson
Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

1 Comment

1 Comment

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    John Nicosia

    February 19, 2021 at 12:17 pm

    \This concept goes back to the 1960’s with the DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter). That was hosted on Fram WWII Gearing destroyers. I was on the USS Leary DD879 in 1965-1967 that did extensive testing of the platform in the Navy’s Caribbean test area and deployed with it in 1967 to Vietnam. As the following article states, Vietnam had no submarine threat so the weapon fell out of favor. It was pretty good technology at the time limited by the ability to keep it in radio control. Initially it was line of site, then enhanced to over the horizon. Once launched it was controlled from the CCC where plotters directed it over sonar contacts. We did pull a few of them out of the sea! We had one junior officer trained to handle the landing and take off plus a small maintenance team so it was a low budget operation from a personnel standpoint.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyrodyne_QH-50_DASH

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