To Beat China, the Navy Could Launch Tiny Spy Drones From Submarines
Three-inch robot could spot targets for cruise missiles
by DAVID AXE
One of the biggest problems with submarines is that they’re, well, submarines. Spending most of their time alone and underwater, there’s no easy way for subs to communicate with other forces to get the latest updates on the enemy’s location.
Undersea vessels’ stealth and firepower make them by far the most powerful warships for full-scale war. Solve the comms problem and they become even deadlier.
Hence the Navy’s new three-year science project. The Advanced Weapons Enhanced by Submarine UAS Against Mobile Targets program—a.k.a. “Awesum”—is developing a small Unmanned Aerial System that can be launched from below the waves and fly for up to an hour, spotting targets and relaying their coordinates back to the sub via a special radio signal aimed at the sub’s above-water mast.
Rear Adm. David Johnson, who oversees U.S. sub production, detailed Awesum in an October presentation in Virginia.
In testing until 2015, Awesum is meant to provide “target solution for over-the-horizon, third-party strike” in an “anti-access, area-denial environment,” according to Johnson.
Translated into English, that means the tiny robot should be able to sneak hundreds of miles through enemy air defenses and pinpoint the bad guys so that the submarine can take them out with cruise missiles. All without the sub breaking cover.
Awesum, a three-inch wide, cylindrical drone with a tiny battery-powered propeller and pop-out wings, is launched through the water and into the air via the same small tubes that subs use to deploy underwater noisemaker decoys. Flying for up to an hour, guided by GPS, the ‘bot beams back data to the launching vessel’s OE-538 radio mast, which the sub crew can poke just above the surface for short periods of time.
According to Johnson, Awesum drones can be launched in succession along the same path to form a “daisy chain,” each tiny drone relaying radio signals from the one ahead of it in order to bend the datalink over the horizon back to the sub.
This stealthy targeting wasn’t possible before. For decades subs have carried long-range cruise missiles for destroying targets on land. But there was no elegant way for an undersea vessel to figure out where to aim the weapons.
A sub usually entered a war zone with targets’ coordinates pre-loaded. To get an update, an undersea boat had to spend vulnerable minutes with its mast above water, receiving large amounts of info from friendly ships, planes or satellites.
To remain hidden in enemy waters, subs need to be able to gather targeting data on their own—and discreetly.
The targeting problem has become more acute in recent years as Washington shifts its naval forces to the Pacific to confront an increasingly belligerent and heavily-armed China. Beijing’s sophisticated complex of mobile radars and long-range missiles form a kind of no-go zone for American ships and planes that extends a thousand miles or more from the Chinese coast.
Only submarines are stealthy enough to get close to these land-based defenses and take them out, clearing a way for other U.S. forces to attack. But to find these on-the-move Chinese defenders, subs need drones. Robots “will provide submarines a fully organic capability to detect, identify, precisely locate and quickly strike,” Owen Cote, a submarine expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in a 2011 paper.
If Awesum works as advertised, the Navy could add them to its roughly 50 attack submarines starting in just a few years, transforming the subs into free-ranging cruise-missile strikers. And with bigger and better subs being planned, bigger and better sub-launched drones might not be far behind.