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Commercial unmanned subs may be in the Pentagon’s future

January 23, 2017 Cameron Leuthy

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The Defense Science Board is recommending that the Pentagon stop buying unmanned undersea vehicles using traditional large defense system procurement methods, potentially allowing more commercial drone makers to join the federal market.

The study, which also recommends categorizing potential missions for UUVs and new concepts for operating them, finds that by leveraging off-the-shelf technology, the U.S. could field larger numbers of low-cost assets, expanding capabilities.

“Many operationally important missions that are not currently conducted due to lack of assets could be taken on by unmanned systems,” if the number of available UUVs increased, according to the study.

Even though commercial products made by Aquabotix Technology Corp., Ocean Innovations and others might lack the range of military UUVs, the report found that using new delivery methods such as prepositioning the devices or launching from a planes, surface ships and submarines could compensate. The U.S. plans to invest $600 million over five years in variable size and payload UUVs, Defense News has reported.

Adding UUVs is consistent with U.S. Navy’s “distributed lethality” strategy, designed to reduce the service’s dependence on its limited number of aircraft carriers. The concept, written about by Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden and referenced in the Navy’s Surface Force Strategy, calls for “increasing the offensive and defensive capability of individual warships, employing them in dispersed formations across a wide expanse of geography and generating distributed fires.”

Rowden doesn’t specifically reference UUVs, though he does mention the need for unmanned aerial systems to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — requirements that would seem to be important in the underwater arena as well.

Leveraging commercial technology wouldn’t necessarily eliminate the ability of UUV vendors such as Textron Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., to compete, but would give other players a chance to enter the government market. Interested contractors should read the study and approach the Pentagon with unique concepts.

DSB provides independent advice and recommendations on matters relating to the Defense Department’s “scientific and technical enterprise,” according to its charter.

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