Asia Defense

US Navy to Deploy Submarine-Launched Drones

The new drone is optimized for Anti-Access/Area Denial environments.

US Navy to Deploy Submarine-Launched Drones
Credit: AeroVironment

The United States Navy will deploy reconnaissance drones on submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), California-based U.S. defense contractor AeroVironment announced on May 16 at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition in National Harbor, Maryland.

AeroVironment’s so-called Blackwing miniature tube-launched drone can be launched from fully submerged attack and guided missile submarines, as well as UUVs. The Blackwing drone is specifically designed to operate in Anti-Access/Aerial Denial (A2/AD) environments, according to the company website.

The new drone is equipped with advanced electronics. “Blackwing employs an advanced, miniature electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) payload, Selective Availability Anti-spoofing Module (SASSM) GPS and AeroVironment’s secure Digital Data Link (DDL), all packaged into a vehicle that launches from manned and unmanned submarines,” the press release reads.

The new UAV’s primary mission will be to conduct aerial reconnaissance for submarines, special forces, and provide targeting information to strike aircraft. As I reported previously, the drone could also be weaponized, although there appears to be no plan to do so at the moment. The drone can remain in air for up to an hour.

“Blackwing can also be integrated with and deployed from a wide variety of surface vessels and mobile ground vehicles to provide rapid response reconnaissance capabilities that help our customers operate more safely and effectively,” according to an AeroVironment executive.

The U.S. Navy is slated to acquire 150 Blackwing drones, the Navy’s director for undersea warfare, Rear Admiral Charles Richard, told USNI News. “So there’s 150 small unmanned aerial systems coming in on submarines, so we’re now buying them,” Richard said.

“It’s not something that you would [just] see on a PowerPoint presentation. These are fully integrated they’ll go in talk back to the ship, talk to the combat control system and additionally we’ll have 12 of a 21-inch torpedo tube launched vehicles with much longer launched duration.”

Blackwing was developed as part of a so-called Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration (JCTD) named “Advanced Weapons Enhanced by submarine UAS against mobile targets,” sponsored by the U.S. Navy and United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 2013. “This JCTD was completed in September 2015 with a strong recommendation to transition the capability into the fleet,” according to the press release.

It remains unclear when the first Blackwing drones will be deployed aboard U.S. submarines.

The U.S. Navy is currently testing and developing a number of different underwater drones and underwater-launched UAVs. For example, the Naval Research Laboratory is testing a drone dubbed Flimmer that can operate both in the air and underwater and will purportedly be capable of spotting and attacking enemy submarines.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has also been working on launching UAVs from hidden pods on ocean floors, so-called Upward Falling Payloads (UFP). “The UFP concept centers on developing deployable, unmanned, nonlethal distributed systems that lie on the deep-ocean floor in special containers for years at a time. These deep-sea nodes could be remotely activated when needed and recalled to the surface,” according to the DARPA website.