With global powers moving towards developing extra-large uncrewed underwater vehicles, which essentially are submarine-sized underwater drones, it is high time European submarine builders put their heads together collaborate and leap ahead in this highly important area of naval development so that it is not left behind.
Although there are few who doubt that XLUUVs will be a disruptive force in the future of naval warfare, there are currently no major programs to build a prototype for EU naval powers. Without significant investments, it is very likely that this will continue to remain the same.
European submarine builders should make efforts not to fall back behind their global peers in the US, UK and Asia. Unless they take up this challenge rapidly in the near future, it is very likely that they will be behind the curve in this emerging technology.
Already the UK, US, South Korea and Japan are in the process of developing very large UUVs. Even Iran has stepped up investment in this sector and there are strong indicators that China and Russia are also increasing their investment in developing this capability.
XLUUVs – Disruptive Technology
It is very likely that XLUUVs will not entirely replace conventional submarines but will instead complement crewed submarines; they are likely to be used in higher risk missions, including Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, (ISR), choke-point defense, and laying mines. UsingXLUUVs for first night strategic strike with cruise missiles also makes sense and are already being considered by many navies.
It is very likely that their role will expand rapidly during a conflict and they are likely to be used more aggressively than their crewed counterparts.
Since they are most cost effective to build and operate and also are quicker to build, producing a large fleet of XLUUVs within a short span of time is an added advantage. Also since they are not manned by a crew, training for operations are also much quicker and less risky.
Despite their trade-offs, it is unlikely that XLUUVswill fully replace crewed submarines, since it is wiser to have both. The crewed boats could act as a mothership, a host platform or a command node, while XLUUVs act as autonomous underwater weapons platform.
If European submarine builders decide to build XLUUVs, it is to their advantage since it houses many of the world’s leading submarine. The export market adds value as we. Several companies across countries could collaborate in building XLUUVs.
This has yet to happen. While several companies have relevant research projects, there are only a handful of designs. While German shipbuilder TKMS has proposed a Modifiable Underwater Mothership (MUM) design, the project targets a civilian market despite having naval applications.
To take XLUUVs project forward, manufacturers will require government partnership and orders. European navies need these capabilities. Although such projects are expensive and ambitious the emerging technologies are within reach.
Unless European navies invest in such projects now, they will have to play catch up in the next 5 to 10 years.
As much as investments in these projects are important, without orders, they will become prohibitively expensive.
In the years to come, the capabilities of global powers will be determined by drones, in the water, on land, and on air.
Joint funding and collaboration, like the European Defense Fund (EDF), has potential and offers a way to overcome this strategic disadvantage.
The European Defense Fund is in the process of allocating $9.4 billion (8 billion euros) to foster a competitive and innovative defense industrial base. The spirit of cross-border government and industrial collaboration makes the most sense for such large, complex projects.
It is critical that European submarine makers look beyond the drawing board to propel XLUUV projectsm lest they completely miss the boat.