LONDON — The U.S. Navy is preparing to take full control of the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program and procure a second craft.
A third might also be built as the Office of Naval Research (ONR) starts to evaluate additional roles for the autonomous wave-piercing trimaran design, an industry executive disclosed at the DSEI exhibition in London.
The prototype submarine tracking vessel was ordered in 2012 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), launched in January 2016 and christened Sea Hunter two months later.
In a presentation at DSEI on Thursday, Timothy Barton, the maritime chief engineer at prime contractor Leidos, said the innovative 132ft platform is now being transitioned from DARPA to the ONR for a two-year trial program. “We’re about to build a second hull and maybe a third”, he added.
Although negotiations between Leidos and the ONR are not yet finalized, Barton said the second craft will be constructed at an as yet unidentified facility in Mississippi at a cost of around $25 million.
The ONR is planning to assess the vessel’s suitability for roles other than submarine hunting, such as logistics support, hydrographic survey and surveillance. Sea Hunter has already demonstrated the Towed Airborne Lift of Naval Systems (TALONS), employing a parakite to elevate various sensors, increasing their range and enhancing the vessel’s situational awareness.
“The navy are still interested in ASW but their real interest is in the ‘autonomous truck’ capability, where we can integrate bathymetric survey or surveillance”, Barton told USNI News after his presentation.
“It will give multiple people in the fleet and intelligence community the opportunity to integrate packages, get prototypes in the hands of the fleet earlier.
“It’s essentially the navy taking over, to do more testing and integrate other mission packages, and do the kind of work that will allow the navy to build trust slowly over time, because that’s the hard part.”
The ONR’s commanding officer, Rear Admiral David Hahn, confirmed that DARPA would transfer the ACTUV program to the navy at the end of October.
“It’s being handed over to the ONR so that we can now start to embed it with other warfighting capabilities and truly start to explore how you team with unmanned surface vehicles for warfighting”, he said. This work will include developing a concept of operations for Sea Hunter and defining its performance envelope.
“We’re pretty excited, frankly, to have a very capable vehicle that has lots of payload capacity, long legs, great sea-keeping ability, and we’re going to start exploring this whole space”, Hahn told USNI News.
“It’s my belief that we will build a second vehicle, we’ve got some funding to do that in this fiscal year, so we’re busy moving down the path to get a second vehicle created.”
The new vessel will be very similar to the lead ship. “As a fast-learning organization we want to make the required improvements without putting the schedule or the cost in jeopardy”, Hahn said. “We will make the necessary improvements, get the second one out there, get it wet and off we go.”
Asked if the ACTUV would receive a self-defense capability, Hahn replied: “It’s certainly something we need to explore as we think about that vehicle [operating] alone, as opposed to operating in concert with a battle group or other surface formation.”
As initially conceived, Sea Hunter is an autonomous craft designed to track quiet diesel-electric submarines for two to three months at a time with minimal human intervention. Its extremely slender hull form has a composite fiberglass shell and a foam core to provide structural resilience in conditions up to Sea State 7.
The ACTUV program was initiated in 2010 and in November 2012 DARPA awarded Leidos a $59 million contract to design, build and test the prototype vessel. Luxury yacht builder Christensen Shipyards in Vancouver, Washington state, was subcontracted to manufacture the vessel under the supervision of Portland-based Oregon Iron Works, but Christensen subsequently went into receivership and the work was completed by Oregon’s parent company Vigor Industrial. The vessel was launched in January 2016 and named Sea Hunter two months later.
Navy officials have since categorized Sea Hunter as a Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessel (MDUSV) to reflect the shift from ASW to other roles.