On Saturday, October 27 the Navy Christened its newest nuclear submarine, the USS Minnesota, at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia. To all that viewed the event it appeared to be nothing new, just another submarine being ceremoniously entered into the Navy’s fleet of submarines.
However, the Minnesota, which cost $2.6 billion, is a Virginia Class attack sub and this classification of submarine will some day have the capability to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), also referred to as a drone, as well as a mini-submarine.
The Navy is testing mini-UAVs called Switchblade. Rear Adm. Barry Bruner, chief of the undersea warfare section (N97) of the Navy, said at a recent Naval Submarine League Symposium, “You can launch it, you can control it, you can get video feed back to the submarine.”
Rear Adm. Bruner’s enthusiasm may be somewhat premature. After all, the drone and mini submarine are just in the experimental stages. The Navy is working on ways to get these crafts off a submarine and then back on it.
The Minnesota does not have the large diameter launch tubes that would be necessary to launch these crafts. However, it is said that the next generation “Block III” Virginia -class subs, which will be entering service in 2014, will have the ability to accommodate the drone and the mini-sub. However, at this point, no one is sure if the drone or mini-sub will actually be developed once tests are concluded.
It sounds awesome for a submarine to be able to launch a drone and a mini-sub to assist in reconnaissance. They will sure beat the reliance on a periscope. But these systems are not new. Israel has been working on them for more than 20 years.
Having a submarine with the capability of launching a drone and mini-sub that can return is only part of the story. The idea is to connect a lone wolf sub digitally to other submarines, ships, aircraft, and satellites. This concept is called “AirSea Battle.” In short, the submarine fleet will become part of a team. Vice Adm. Michael Conner, Commander of Submarine Forces has said that in such a battle plan, the submarine will be the “wide receivers” with the mission to “more or less get down the field.” What this means is that in peacetime, the submarine could be used for covert reconnaissance. In wartime, it will be a spearhead with the ability to launch cruise missiles to open up enemy defenses to other forces that are not as stealth. Instead of being a lone wolf sinking ships, submarines will become a “part of the bigger picture,” concluded naval historian Norman Polmar.