by Capt. Pete Small, Program Manager, Unmanned Maritime Systems (PMS 406)

Today the Navy is challenged to maintain undersea superiority in an era marked by the return to great power competition. The National Defense Strategy clearly lays out why the military services must readily adapt to meet the emerging demands imposed by this new competition with China and Russia. The strategy also warns that America’s military cannot hope to prevail in future conflict “using yesterday’s weapons or equipment.”
The strategic goal of the Navy is to ensure access to the maritime environment for all countries. In support of this goal, the Navy is using and plans to use Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs) to conduct the “dull, dirty, dangerous, or otherwise impossible” missions to complement, enhance, and enable existing missions as well as perform the emerging missions of Subsea and Seabed Warfare (SSW), Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare (EMMW), and non-kinetic Sea Control.
Unmanned systems stand at the forefront of a new evolution in military technology that includes advances in artificial intelligence, autonomy, target recognition, endurance, and payloads that will play a critical role in extending the reach, capability, and capacity of manned fleet assets. It is no longer a question of whether unmanned vehicles will provide operational value to the fleet, but rather how quickly these new capabilities can be fielded and in what numbers.

Today, the initial parts of the Navy’s Family of UUVs complete tasking in support of Environmental Sensing, Mine Warfare, Theater Anti-Submarine Warfare (TASW), and Far Forward missions. UUVs provide access to areas that are prohibitively expensive, time consuming or too hazardous to reach with manned platforms. They provide capacity to conduct cost-effective, important, well-defined repetitive tasks. The Environmental Sensing vehicles provide near real-time, continual updates on world-wide sea conditions in order to provide weather information and optimize sensor performance. The Mine Warfare vehicles conduct hydrographic mapping, reconnaissance, and MCM operations to support Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and Special Operations Forces. The TASW vehicles support Operational Commanders through the use of modular sensors, payloads, and systems reconfigurable to meet the objectives of Anti-Submarine Warfare missions. Lastly, the Far Forward vehicles are the most advanced UUVs, designed to be launched and operated independently, exploiting the stealth of the undersea while providing the largest payloads and sensor options.

In response, to further address these emerging operational needs, the Unmanned Maritime Systems Program Office (PMS 406) in Program Executive Office Unmanned and Small Combatants (PEO USC) is rapidly developing a robust portfolio of safe, reliable, affordable, and capable UUVs and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). Resource sponsors include the Director of Undersea Warfare (OPNAV N97), Director of Surface Warfare (OPNAV N96), Director of Expeditionary Warfare (OPNAV N95), and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Strategic Capabilities Office (OSD SCO).

This portfolio is experiencing significant growth, both in terms of the number of programs under development and in the funding being invested in this rapidly evolving warfare domain. Efficient program execution and the accelerated delivery of these new unmanned capabilities are foundational principles of PMS 406.

The Navy has created detailed visions for UUVs and USVs and their supporting core technology enablers to provide a common framework for aligning the efforts of various program offices, technology developers, industry partners, fleet operators, and Pentagon staffs into a cohesive strategy. The Family of UUVs range in size from small (man portable), to medium, large, and even extra large. The variety of sizes required for both UUVs and USVs is an acknowledgement that one size does not fit all and that a family of systems is needed to accommodate the wide variety of mission requirements and payloads envisioned.
Vehicle size does not necessarily dictate which mission tasking it can conduct as requirements, payloads, and sensors can be tailored as required. In all cases, the desired future state is a common and modular hull form to support serial production and economies of scale using standardized architectures and interfaces that allow rapid integration of new technologies and payloads as they are developed.

UUV sizes are defined by diameter and range, from small (less than 10 inches) to extra large (greater than 84 inches or 7 feet in diameter). Endurance, range, payload capacity, complexity, and cost generally increase with size. For example, a small UUV is generally man-portable with relatively easy mission plans, has endurance of less than a day, a range of aboat 10 miles, small payload capacity, and costs in the tens of thousands of dollars. It can be launched and recovered from just about any host platform including a removable lockout trunk. An extra large UUV, on the other hand, is much more complex, pier-launched, has endurance of months, a range of thousands of miles, a large and flexible payload bay, and costs tens of millions of dollars.

Much of the Navy’s current fleet of UUVs is in the medium category (between 10 and 21 inches in diameter). Several program offices, including PMS 406, are developing medium UUVs for mine countermeasures, environmental sensing, and battlespace awareness. The PMS 406 portfolio includes several medium, large, and extra large UUV programs, including some launched from submarines or surface vessels (medium and large) as well as pierside (extra large).

The Navy has identified a complementary set of core technology enablers for both UUVs and USVs whose advancements are critical to the future mission success for unmanned systems. The Navy is following the proven technology-insertion process pioneered by the Submarine Federated Warfare Systems (SWFTS) upgrade program to incrementally deliver capability by advancing technologies in parallel with vehicle development and production schedules. When specific technologies are ready, they will be inserted into UUVs and USVs to increase capability while ensuring production and operations are not adversely impacted.

The modernization process being used by the Navy for these core technologies can then maintain alignment with industry advancements. The Navy has also aligned scientific research and prototyping efforts at the Office of Naval Research, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, OSD SCO, university-affiliated research centers, warfare centers, and industry with PMS 406 acquisition efforts with the overall intent to mature technologies for insertion into operationally ready systems.
The five core technology enablers and areas of research focus are endurance; autonomy and precision navigation; command, control and communications; payloads and sensors; and platform integration. Advancements in each of these areas deliver increased capacity and capability while improving reliability, safety, interoperability, and commonality.

In general, the core technology effort is aimed at harnessing and standardizing ongoing activities across many Navy, Department of Defense (DoD), and industry laboratories and research centers and harvesting the best solutions for integration and deployment on a variety of unmanned platforms.

Complementing and supporting the visions to acquire a capable portfolio of UUVs, USVs, and core technologies are efforts to bring together various Navy centers of excellence and support facilities to prepare for increased experimentation, testing, fleet introduction, and the sustainment of growing numbers of unmanned maritime systems.

The Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport has developed the Navy’s UUVs for decades. In addition to directly supporting the Navy’s portfolio of UUV programs with personnel, technical expertise, labs, and facilities, NUWC Newport has just awarded an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity, multi-award contract intended to provide wide access to key industry providers in support of prototyping and fielding a family of UUV systems.

Twenty-three industry vendors were initially awarded contracts to provide services and supplies in functional areas including payloads, hull and structure, propulsion, energy storage/conversion, electrical power, vehicle controller, software, non-payload sensors, vehicle control systems, host platform elements, ashore elements, and internal architecture. This contract is a flexible and powerful tool in support of PMS 406’s and other customers’ efforts to develop robust unmanned undersea technology.

In addition, the Navy is taking action to ensure that it has capable and proficient operators and the support infrastructure required to effectively manage a growing inventory of unmanned systems. The UUV homeport has been established at the NUWC Division Keyport. The homeport leverages Keyport’s facilities and expertise as the Navy’s torpedo depot and its close proximity to operational ranges and a fleet concentration area to provide operational readiness for UUV maintenance, integration, and training. Co-located at Keyport is the Navy’s first operational UUV squadron, also known as UUVRON 1.

Established in 2017, UUVRON 1 provides dedicated UUV operators and maintainers for the family of UUVs and is closely tied with NUWC Keyport, the acquisition program offices, fleet organizations, and the various resource sponsor offices in the Pentagon to ensure that a coordinated approach exists for the development, fielding, and operations for current and future UUV systems. UUVRON 1 is currently busy experimenting with and operationally deploying a variety of UUVs.

By 2025, UUVs will be conducting more robust and independent missions, including acting as “data fusion” nodes to connect undersea networks and address the need to control the seabed. This remains certain: the demand for UUVs to conduct the “dull, dirty, dangerous, and otherwise impossible” undersea mission tasks will only grow. In anticipation, the Navy developed a clear and comprehensive strategy for the rapid development and fielding of a family of unmanned maritime systems and supporting core technologies to extend the reach, capacity, and lethality of the fleet. PMS 406 will combine acquisition agility with unmanned technology development to deliver “pivot speed at scale,” in the lexicon of Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts. It is a high-growth area for both the surface and undersea domains. Key stakeholders are aligned and committed to working together to achieve this vision and to deliver safe, reliable, and capable unmanned systems.

In addition to various prototyping efforts, PMS 406 is executing several high-profile UUV acquisition programs.

Knifefish is a medium-class UUV that operates autonomously from mine countermeasure-configured Littoral Combat Ships or vessels of opportunity and uses low-frequency broadband sonar to search for volume, bottom, and buried mines. The ability to find buried mines is a unique and critical element in the Navy’s mine countermeasure kill chain and is a key piece to removing manned ships and crews from the dangers of operating within a minefield. Knifefish successfully completed contractor testing and transitioned to developmental testing in 2018. Milestone C and award of additional low-rate initial production units is anticipated in 2019. A competitive full-rate production award is planned in 2020.

Razorback is also a medium-class UUV that has been modified for submarine use from Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command (CNMOC)’s highly successful Littoral Battlespace Sensing – Autonomous Undersea Vehicle (LBS-AUV), a program that provides sensing of static and dynamic characteristics and features of the ocean environment in support of military operations. Similarly, the submarine-launched variants—a Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) version and a subsequent torpedo tube launched and recovered version—will extend the reach of a submarine’s onboard sensing capability by performing Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment (IPOE) independent of the submarine. Razorback’s modular, interchangeable sensor packages allow for further mission growth in the future. The first Razorbacks (DDS variant) will be delivered to UUVRON 1 this year with possible support of submarine deployments starting in FY20.


Snakehead is a Large Diameter UUV (LDUUV) for deployment from submarine large ocean interfaces. Phase 1 of the program is a government-led effort and is on track to deliver an operationally relevant prototype to begin testing and submarine integration with the legacy DDS in 2021. Lessons learned from Phase 1 of the program and additional requirements for increased capabilities will be transitioned in 2021 into a competitive procurement of additional industry-developed vehicles. Snakehead is a long-endurance, multi-mission UUV with the capability to deploy reconfigurable payloads. Future missions for Snakehead include surveillance and reconnaissance, mine countermeasures, intelligence preparation of the operating environment, and deployment of various payloads.

Orca Extra Large UUV (XLUUV) program is rapidly progressing into construction of an extra large UUV with a large, flexible payload bay. In September 2017, the Navy awarded contracts to two companies for the Orca XLUUV for Phase 1 design efforts. The speed and innovation associated with these contracts resulted in PMS 406 receiving two DoD-recognized acquisition excellence awards in 2018. Both contractors recently completed critical design reviews and submitted proposals for the competitive award of construction of up to five vehicles to be delivered by 2022. The Navy exercised an option with The Boeing Company to deliver five Orca XLUUVs and associated support elements. The fifth vehicle is not being awarded at this time and is still in source selection. Orca’s modular design will enable the UUV to deploy multiple payloads at extended ranges and will be a transformative capability for the Navy, especially the undersea force. Key performance attributes include extended vehicle range and persistence, a reconfigurable payload bay, modular construction, autonomy, and pier-launch capability.