Unmanned Systems

New Navy undersea drone helps sailors find enemy mines

The Navy is accelerating a new large undersea drone to launch from submarines and search for enemy mines, submarines and surface ships, service developers said.

Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (LDUUV) is intended to have long-range and high endurance capacity and designed for surface or submarine launch. It is able to be recovered and stored on littoral combat ships, Virginia-class submarines, and Ohio-class submarines, according to an earlier NAVSEA release.

Once approved for accelerated acquisition, Snakehead LDUUV program approvals will be streamlined and program heads will have a direct line to top officials. Program of record requirements will still be followed, but progression will be faster, said Howard Berkof, unmanned maritime ship deputy program manager at PEO Littoral Combat Ship.

“We are leveraging mature, proven technologies to…move quickly on the Snakehead LDUUV program and get it in the water as quickly as possible. Get it into the hands of our sailors, and get feedback that will feed our future LD UUV acquisition program,” Berkof said.

Unmanned maritime systems are part of the Littoral Combat ship portfolio, the first class of ship designed from initial construction for unmanned vehicle integration. LDUUVs in the Class III Large category, which the Snakehead is part of, are about 48 inches in diameter.

Overall, NAVSEA has three phases planned for the Snakehead LDUUV program. Phase One focuses on Concept of Operations (CONOPS) and Initial Preparation of Environment (IPOE) development, along with preliminary Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capacity. 

Phase Two of the Snakehead LDCUU program will expand the range of the Phase One IPOE and increase ISR capabilities. Finally, according to NAVEA’s exhibit presentation, the Snakehead INC 1 phase will explore payload integration, electronic warfare, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, and Mine Integration Warfare (MIW).

The Snakehead LDUUV’s MIW functionality is part of the larger littoral combat CONOPS that ensures that Navy amphibious operations can be conducted in littoral and beach zones. The U.S Naval Transformation Roadmap states that by deploying mine detection and countermeasure UUVs like the future Snakehead, the Navy can create a “protected passage” of mine-free routes in high-risk areas.

The incremental approach allows what Berkof calls fast arming for the Snakehead LDUUV. The sooner it is in developmental testing, the sooner NAVSEA and developers can “understand how this thing is going to operate, how it’s going to be integrated with our undersea and our surface platforms, understand how sailors are going to operate it,” he said.

One key area of focus for the LDUUV program is energy storage.

“We are using mature technology [and] energy, whether it is silver zinc or lithium ion, most likely silver zinc in the first phase… we still have a little way to go on lithium ion, but we are still exploring what is the most mature technology that we can integrate onto existing platforms,” explained Berkof.

According to Berkof, the Navy is also exploring whether to focus development on purpose-built UUVs or on creating unmanned or “optionally manned” versions of existing manned vehicles. Another challenge for the future will be integrating Unmanned Surface Vehicles with UUVs and getting multiple unmanned systems to work together.

As for the Snakehead LDUUV program, Berkof said, “we are focusing on IPOE in Phase 1 and it will add additional missions and payloads as we progress into the future.” The feedback from Snakehead testing will inform and strengthen Navy UUV development as a whole.

The Navy expects to award the contract for Snakehead LDUUV development by the end of this year, with the goal of having a prototype by 2019.  


About the Author

Katherine Owens is a freelance reporter for Defense Systems

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