US Navy Tests Controlling Unmanned Aerial Vehicles from Submarines

(c) K.B. Sherman, 2003

As noted earlier on, the US Navy is converting four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to cruise missile subs (SSGNs) with the dual duty of launching and supporting special warfare operations. Toward that end, in late January, the Navy held “Giant Shadow,” an exercise off the Bahamas’ Berry Islands to test this concept. Tested was an integral part of these boats’ new mission: launching and employing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs).

“Giant Shadow” tested how the SSGN, special warfare forces, UUVs, UAVs, and various sensors could provide ISR support to generate a course of action during time-critical strikes. Elements of the operation included the earlier launch of Tomahawk missiles from USS Florida, as well as the first ever vertical launch of a UUV and the insertion of a SEAL team from the submarine. A P-3 “Hairy Buffalo” aircraft (NAVAIR's Network Centric Warfare test bed aircraft) simulated a Global Hawk UAV providing ISR control, while a “Sea Horse” UUV and elements of Special Warfare Group FOUR supported special operations. USS Florida and three of her sisters were to have been scrapped, but the Bush administration decided to spend about $900 million apiece to convert them instead.

According to Maria Zacharias, spokesperson for NAVSEASYSCOM, the test scenario was that the US had received vague intelligence that a group might be making chemical weapons on a remote island and sent USS Florida to evaluate the threat and take action if necessary. Using information provided by unmanned vehicles and a sensor net, SEALs deployed from Florida, slipped onto the island, confirmed that the facility existed, and returned to the sub, which simulated firing Tomahawk missiles at the weapons site and destroyed it. Nearby, researchers and contractors aboard the survey ship Mary Sears monitored the operation. From a nearby airstrip, contractors launched a Boeing/Insitu Group ScanEagle, a 4-foot long UAV with a 10-foot wingspan, which has a range of 500 miles. The UAV took photographs of the island and served as a low-level satellite connection between the sub, the ship and the P-3. The UAV photos showed the weapons lab and Florida then launched a UUV from one of its missile tubes for the first time. It headed for shore and, in addition to finding several ``mines,'' the 27-foot craft mapped several entry routes for the SEALs. The SEALs launched from inflatable Zodiacs and, once on the island, communicated with the sub and ship by laptop, via the UAV overhead. They placed unattended ground sensors and sent back soil samples to Florida for testing via the UUV, which also brought them food, water and batteries. Testing aboard the sub ``confirmed'' the chemical weapons lab, and the decision was made to launch a missile.

The missile-launching part of the scenario actually came earlier in January when Florida successfully fired a Tomahawk underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, making it the first ballistic missile sub to do so.

It will take months to study the results of Giant Shadow, with follow-up tests possible next year. However, according to CAPT Bill Toti, exercise joint commander, "we absolutely validated that UAVs provide a great value, on the tactical and operational level of war, to an SSGN that's operating as ... an ISR home base," according to Aerospace Daily.

While the UAV in the test was not controlled by the submarine, work toward that goal continues. In January, Northrop Grumman Corporation, working with the Naval Sea Systems Command Office for Submarine Payloads and Sensors, completed the first of three tests of the Stealthy Affordable Capsule System (SACS), demonstrating that air vehicle payloads such as UAVs can be successfully launched from a submarine. Tested were capsule hydro-stability, payload support and payload ejection in the actual (test pool) environment. Two additional waterborne tests will be held in February and August, 2003, followed by fitting with alternate payloads for a series of at-sea and submarine-launched demonstrations.

According to Deborah McCallam, Manager for Media Relations, Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, the SACS capsules can be deployed from both attack submarines (through the torpedo tube) and guided missile submarines (through both the vertical launch tubes and the torpedo tubes). The launch of the UAV from the capsule can be initiated from the sub or from a remote ground, sea, or air station. Control of the UAV and receipt of its data is expected to be accomplished with a submarine at periscope depth or other by surface or air assets. Involved in the project are six Northrop Grumman organizations: Electronic Systems Sector, Oceanic and Naval Systems, Marine Systems, Land Combat Systems, Integrated Systems, and Air Combat Systems.

Boeing ScanEagle