U.S. Navy’s Undersea Drone Program

By Justin Katz

The Navy plans to cancel a high-profile unmanned undersea drone research program following missteps during the design and procurement phases, according to newly released fiscal 2023 budget documents.

“Misalignment of Snakehead [Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle] design and procurement efforts with submarine hosting interfaces resulted in limited availability of host platforms to conduct Snakehead operations,” according to a budget highlights book the Navy published on Monday.

Further, the service has experienced “cost and schedule delays” associated with integrating Snakehead onto Virginia-class submarines, according to the Navy’s highlights book. The service estimates it will save roughly $186 million during FY23 and $517 million over the next five years by canceling the program.

LDUUV, as the name implies, was envisioned as a large undersea drone deployed from a submarine, capable of adapting a wide range of payloads that would have accomplished a variety of missions. Due to the sensitive nature of the missions that submarines undertake, the service has always been mum on the specifics.

Still, a significant amount of time, energy and taxpayer dollars have already been invested in LDUUV. A February 2022 press release cites a senior Navy undersea warfare official, Adam Outlaw, as having worked to “establish, resource and defend” the LDUUV program over a 14 year period. The service has sought at least $200 million in funding for development and testing efforts up through 2021, according to budget justification documents.

The Navy’s strategy for undersea drones consists of developing a family of systems, meaning the service is working on several other UUV programs of varying sizes and mission sets, such as the Orca Extra Large UUV and the Lionfish Small UUV. In other words, canceling LDUUV is a loss, but other capabilities are on the way.

The Navy received roughly $80 million in funding for LDUUV in the most recent spending bill, but it’s unclear how much of that money has already been spent or could be reprogrammed for other purposes. (There is always a lag time between when Congress appropriates funding and when the Pentagon disburses it to the relevant program offices.)

The service adopted a two-phase strategy for developing LDUUV, with the government investing a large portion of in-house research upfront, followed by industry competing for the chance to produce the Navy’s design. Most of the money saved by canceling the program stems from the second phase of the program being dropped.

The program’s cancellation is not likely to go over well with Congress. Unlike commercial-off-the-shelf drones that the service can purchase and operate for an upfront cost, LDUUV was touted to lawmakers as an exquisite Navy program of record, based on millions of dollars invested in state-of-the-art technology and carefully tested over many years.

Its failure to get off the ground — or out of the submarine — will be fuel for the fire of lawmakers who vigorously argue the Navy’s investments in unmanned technology puts cart before the horse — or payload before the drone.

Other major divestments included in the Navy’s FY23 budget request include the Sea-Launched Nuclear Cruise Missile, retiring the aircraft carrier Nimitz (CVN-68) in FY25, and the elimination of the Littoral Combat Ship anti-submarine warfare mission package.

This article was published by Breaking Defense on April 19, 2022.