Op-Ed: Now is the time for the EU based defense industry to leap ahead in full-size submarine drones. known as Extra-Large Uncrewed Underwater Vehicles (XL-UUVs), it is an important area of naval development.
There are few who doubt that XLUUVs will disrupt near-future naval warfare. Yet currently there are no major programs to build for EU navies. And without investment, that is likely to remain the case. This will likely see European defense firms falling behind their global competitors, in the US, UK and Asia.
European navies, and submarine builders, could be argued to already be behind the curve in this emerging technology. The US, UK, Japan and South Korea for example are already developing very large UUVs. Iran too has gone this route and there are strong indicators that Russia and China are too.
Disruptive Technology: Extra-Large Uncrewed Underwater Vehicles
XLUUVs will complement crewed submarines and perform a range of missions, including higher risk ones. ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), mine laying and choke-point defense are common propositions’. First night strategic strike with cruise missiles also makes a lot of sense and is being considered by some navies.
In wartime they can be used more aggressively than crewed submarines. They are also cheaper and quicker to build allowing a rapid fleet expansion during the build-up to conflict. And because there is no crew training involved they should be made operational much quicker.
XLUUVs are unlikely to fully replace crewed submarines, there are trade-offs and it is wiser to have both. And the crewed boats may act as host platforms, or command nodes, in underwater networks of autonomous platforms.
Europe has many of the leading submarine builders in the world. Particularly in the export market. And several companies, or countries, could be placed to go it alone with XLUUVs. But we aren’t seeing it happen. Several companies have relevant research projects, and there are a handful of designs. German shipbuilder TKMS has proposed a Modifiable Underwater Mothership (MUM) design. This may hit the water in the coming years. But while it has obvious naval applications, it is being proposed as an essentially civilian design.
The boat could sail
EU manufacturers need government investment, and orders, to take XLUUVs forward. Equally, European navies need these capabilities, as do potential customer navies. These expensive and ambitious emerging technologies feel within reach today. But in 5-10 years, if Europe is paying catch up, that time may have passed.
And there is only so much company-funded research and development, without orders, can achieve. In the coming years the global capabilities in this field will be measured by drones in the water, not glossy brochures. Joint funding and collaboration, like the European Defense Fund (EDF), may offer a way to overcome this strategic disadvantage.
The European Defense Fund is allocating 8 billion Euros (9.4 billion US dollars) to foster an innovative and competitive defense industrial base. It covers many different categories but the XLUUV gap may fit some boxes. And even if it doesn’t, the spirit of cross-border government and industrial collaboration may make the most sense.
But without investment to propel XLUUV projects beyond the drawing board, European submarine manufacturers may end up missing the boat.