by Lt. Cmdr. Stephan Boatwright

The Navy has a long history of employing Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUV) for oceanographic surveys, research and development (R&D), and various sensor employment, all meant to enhance the warfighters’ ability to extend the reach of sensor capability. The Navy recognized the advantages of UUVs in reducing the risk of dangerous manned systems operations. This utility coupled with the need to develop operational Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP) that harness the innovation found in both government and industry technologies revealed the need for a specific organization to manage and opererate UUVs.

The Chief of Naval Operations established Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron ONE (UUVRON 1) as the Navy’s first dedicated UUV command on October 1, 2017. Cmdr. Scott J. Smith was selected to be the first Commanding Officer of UUVRON 1 almost a year prior to the official stand-up of the new command. This allowed Cmdr. Smith to better manage the transition from the previous Submarine Development Squadron FIVE (CSDS 5) UUV Detachment. UUVRON 1 is an Echelon 5 Command, which reports directly to CSDS 5, currently led by Commodore Steve Mack. UUVRON 1 also contributes to the nation’s Disabled Submarine Search function under an agreement to support Undersea Rescue Command.

“Cmdr. Smith started with only 22 personnel with a handful of vehicles across a set of defined mission sets to operating several dozen vehicles supporting multiple task force commanders across the globe. UUVRON 1 has doubled in size and is slated to be over 55 Sailors by the end of this year,” said UUVRON 1’s Executive Officer, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Boatwright. “UUVRON 1 is a new command and is setting the stage to seed the Fleet with UUV experts. Right now, only second sea term or higher Submariners, who must also meet the additional requirements for working in Submarine Special Projects, can currently apply to work at UUVRON 1. As the mission requirements, training, and technology of UUVs continue to grow in the next couple of years, UUVRON 1 will eventually support billets of many other ratings not limited to the Submarine Force, such as Operations Specialists and Aerographer’s Mates, but applicants will still be required to meet the Submarine Special Projects criteria.”

UUVRON 1 is UUV system agnostic. The command works closely with specialized UUV operators from around the Navy and partners with industry and academia across the Department of Defense to develop the expertise in house to carry out its tasking. These interactions and engagements with all things UUV allow for the crew of UUVRON 1 to become integrated into cutting-edge UUV technology and glean lessons learned from current UUV operators to develop flexible and proficient UUV specialists.

UUVRON 1 is capable of operating all classes of vehicles from small vehicles such as the commercially available L3-OceanServer IVER-580, medium vehicles such as Bluefin Robotics, BF-12D, to the large and extra-large systems currently under development by Navy program offices. Sailors are tasked with learning to operate and repair most UUV systems and are able to do this currently by attending factory maintenance schools. They conduct frequent UUV familiarization through on-the-job training and industry demonstrations. UUVRON 1 develops and implements the TTP as well as designing all UUV training and qualification programs necessary to complete tasking. Currently, TTP development is primarily for commercial-off-the-shelf vehicles until programs of record are developed.

Small UUVs
The cadre of small UUVs conducts mission planning and post-mission analysis with IVER 580-sized UUVs. The IVER is 80 inches in length, 5.8 inches in diameter, and weighs around 85 pounds. Since the IVER is commercially available, many other organizations both civilian and military employ it. The small-UUV staff developed the TTP for disassembling the Lithium-ion-powered IVER to allow for safe travel on any commercial or military flight. This capability ensures the agility and rapid deployment ability of the small UUVs anywhere in the world. This was recently tested and proved successful using commercial air when called on to support the search for ARA San Juan.

In addition to standard tasking for oceanographic surveys or bathymetry, small UUVs are capable of complementing diver teams in a variety of mission types. The small-UUV team, working with a group of divers, traveled to Point Loma in San Diego, Calif. to conduct a multiple parallel leg or “lawnmower” search pattern of the bottom area around the Point Loma pier to determine if the bottom was safe for deep draft vessels to moor after a recent dredging. In the past, divers conducted this type of search manually, which required spending over a week with a hand-held sonar carefully surveying the bottom. The small-UUV team, using an IVER vehicle, accomplished the same search result in eight hours. Subsequently, the small-UUV team found several items that posed a potential risk to a deep draft vessel and labeled each according to depth and size severity. This UUV mapping allowed the divers to rapidly assess the critical items, dive directly over the mapped objects, and remove them. It is not hard to imagine how the skills learned during this task would easily translate to clearing a far forward port following a hurricane or attack.

Medium UUVs
The medium-UUV cadre employs REMUS 600 UUV systems in a variety of configurations. Vehicles from 140 inches long up to 163 inches, 12.75 inches in diameter, and 600 pounds to upward of 800 pounds. Many different types of sensors and payloads are possible, but most are designed and used to survey the ocean bottom. Several other payloads are in development to support future mission plans and capabilities. The vehicle is capable of conducting operations for about 24 hours using an alkaline battery as its energy source. Subsequent missions require a full change out of battery packs. This system can be launched and recovered from many platforms, including a Submarine Dry Deck Shelter.

The medium-UUV group is heavily involved in R&D of the Navy’s first Submarine Force UUV Program of Record, RAZORBACK. The team participates in not only the design of RAZORBACK, but also provides technical inputs for the planned RAZORBACK Interactive Electronic Technical Manual (IETM). The medium-UUV force attends all factory and Fleet training for both operations and maintenance of RAZORBACK and maintains proficiency operating medium-sized UUVs for several Applied Research Laboratories (ARL) and other programs. They have supported multiple operations around the world for more than five years including source of supporting multiple medium UUV missions launched from submarines.

Large UUVs
The large-UUV (LUUV) cadre is currently focused on the movement and technological capabilities that a large-diameter vehicle offers. As UUVRON 1 prepares for the delivery of its first LUUV program of record vehicle in the next few years, the team attends focus groups that include discussions on maintenance, payload integration launch and recovery concerns, and other requirements that affect a vehicle of this size.

The team also works with NUWC-Keyport to learn how to maneuver such a large vehicle inside and from a shore facility to a sea-going state or platform and how to prepare for a deployment. This includes developing the support infrastructure concepts and emergency handling methods of a vehicle that is estimated to be 54 inches in diameter. Most of these development efforts for handling LUUVs use the Office of Naval Research Innovative Prototype #2 (INP2).

Some of the planned technological upgrades include fuel-cell power source prototyping and improved methods of navigation and sensor package employment, efforts that are assisted by ARL Penn State’s local Keyport team and use of their Large Test Vehicle 48 (LTV-48).

eXtra Large UUVs
The extra-large-UUV (XLUUV) cadre is integral to the design, functionality, logistics, and future delivery of the XLUUV system, also referred to as ORCA. In addition to providing direct feedback to the manufacturer and program office for use of this size of vehicle, UUVRON 1 attends all briefings and homeporting plans to help ensure that future requirements for an XLUUV are achievable.

As a first-of-its-kind effort, XLUUVs will possess some of the most advanced undersea technology available including propulsion, communications, autonomy, sensors, and payloads. UUVRON 1 is the direct link for the program office for prototyping and officially developing XLUUV deployment around the world. UUVRON 1 is expecting the receipt of the XLUUV program of record, ORCA, to arrive in 2021. The specific missions of this vehicle are currently under evaluation, but are anticipated to support numerous global operations.

In addition to supporting tactical operations, UUVRON 1 provides services to strategic oceanographic monitoring and Theater Anti-Submarine Warfare prototype systems. UUVRON 1 operators are capable of globally monitoring underwater vehicles around the clock for several days unassisted and, with reservist support, up to several months. UUVRON 1 often supports long periods of vehicle testing and training across the country. This maximizes the experience the UUVRON 1 operators gain with each system while developing close relationships with technical teams and engineers. This improves their system knowledge and leads to more extensive Sailor-conducted troubleshooting and repairs in the field.

UUVRON 1 is no stranger to hard work. Since standing up as a command only 16 months ago, UUVRON 1 Sailors have deployed on three submarines, operated from several surface ships, locally conducted hundreds of hours of at-sea testing, are involved in almost every UUV working group, and provide daily UUV support to Task Force commands. However, despite the busy schedule of the small command, the job is very satisfying. To quote Cmdr. Smith, “I am constantly amazed at how my team gets it done with professional execution every time. They are doing first-ever evolutions and go after every challenge with a smile on their faces. This is the best job in the Navy, and I will surely miss it.” Cmdr. Smith was relieved by Cmdr. Robert Patchin on March 22, 2019. UUVRON 1 will continue to operate UUVs in new ways, further develop UUV capabilities and extend the reach of existing submersible systems around the globe.

Search for the San Juan

The ARA San Juan (S 42) was a diesel-electric submarine in the Argentine Navy. San Juan was commissioned in 1985 and participated in a fleet exercise with the U.S. Navy in 1994. When the San Juan was declared missing in November 2017, UUVRON 1 supported the American contribution to efforts to locate the missing allied submarine, last reported over 200 miles off the coast of Argentina. The team arrived in Buenos Aires embedded with Undersea Rescue Command (URC) within 48 hours of notification and began searching for the San Juan 24 hours later.

Drawing upon their expertise with acoustic imagery, UUVRON 1 Sailors ran analyses on several days’ worth of data collected by URC equipment and directly surveyed one potential site conducive to UUV operations. The location was identified separately via magnetic anomaly detection as harboring a large, metallic object. The object turned out to be a fishing wreck, but the site was removed from consideration as a result. The team was able to rule out a number of other possibilities over an area spanning 7,000 square miles.

Due to the independence of the UUVs and fidelity of the sensor systems, UUVRON 1 Sailors were able to investigate with greater resolution than most surface-deployed survey methods. Unfortunately, the San Juan was not located during the URC operations period, but the experience gained by UUVRON 1 Sailors using UUVs in actual operations was invaluable to the evolution of UUVRON 1 mission planning and target localization capabilities. As Submariners, the Sailors of UUVRON 1 considered it an honor to assist in any way possible when the call came to look for missing shipmates, whether or not they flew a different flag.

Photo at left: The entire URC-UUVRON
search team aboard the Skandi Patagonia.