The Future of Submarine Fleet: U.S. Navy Eyes Submarine-UUV Mix

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    May 5, 2011
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    Aviation Week
    June 17, 2011

    By Michael Fabey

    Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) represent some of the best operational investment opportunities for the U.S. Navy, and the service could use UUVs to offset submarine fleet reductions, says Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations.

    “If we make the right decision on UUVs, we could perhaps absorb a smaller sub force structure,” Roughead said June 16 during an event sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    UUVs would be cheaper to acquire and maintain than nuclear-powered submarines, which are among the most expensive vessels in the Navy fleet. UUVs would be ideal, he says, for “dull and dangerous” missions, remaining in one place with sensors saving and transmitting data. These have been the types of missions done by the Navy’s attack submarines.

    Roughead framed his comments around a discussion about the pending clash in the 2020s between Navy shipbuilding plans and available funding. “We’re going to have the aging out of ships built in the 1980s,” Roughead notes.

    At the same time, though, the Navy is going to have to embark on a program to replace its SSBN ballistic missile submarine force — a program that’s been estimated at $40 billion for procurement, with life cycle costs of more than twice that.

    The Navy also has started to ramp up its purchases of Virginia-class attack submarines, and analysts have questioned how the service can afford both attack and missile subs in the coming years.

    While trying to reconcile those needs and costs, Roughead says, the Navy also will have to do midlife overhauls on some Nimitz-class carriers while decommissioning others. Further, the service also is in the midst of starting its new carrier class, led by the CVN-78 Ford.

    The Navy, Roughead says, is going to have to prioritize. “In the next year or two, we’re going to have to dig in and decide,” he says.

    The service could find some of its answers with UUVs, which are the one area “where we stand to have the greatest operational breakthroughs,” he says.

    Roughead says he’s more than just interested in UUVs. “I’m obsessed,” he says. The critical UUV attributes that the Navy needs to develop are sufficient procurement numbers, shipboard safety, endurance and power. UUVs have a “huge potential” to be “netted together” and sent into an area of interest, he says.

    The service had hoped to leverage commercial UUV efforts — such as programs developed by oil companies — and tweak them for Navy use, but that equipment has failed to meet military requirements.

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