U.K. Royal Marines Want to Acquire Autonomous Hybrid Surface, Subsurface Stealth Vessel

September 12, 2021 7:36 PM
Concept illustration for a shipping container-sized underwater H I Sutton Illustration

Britain’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) has issued a pre-procurement notice for a unique type of vessel to help the Royal Marine Commandos. The document outlines an ‘uncrewed surface and subsurface vessel’ (USSV). The vessel must be multi-payload, have a low signature, and long endurance, according to the notice.

The basic concept has the characteristics of an uncrewed submersible boat, one that can operate on the surface for long periods and can also run submerged. Such concepts are already familiar for special operations forces missions. But the emphasis on uncrewed operations sets this apart, from the manned variants widely in use. The document touches on possible missions but lists, as examples, deploying sensors and strike capabilities both surface and sub-surface. Given the cross-beach nature of the commando role this may refer to the launch of UAVs (uncrewed air vehicles) and loitering munitions. Or possibly larger stand-off strike weapons.

The system is part of what is being termed the naval strike network. This involves a mix of lethal Uncrewed Vessels, including Uncrewed Surface vessels (USVs) and Uncrewed Underwater Vehicles (UUVs). Now they will be joined by the hybrid, USSV.

These types of vessels are also inherently suited to ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) tasks. And they can transport cargo. The latter may be particularly relevant if the Royal Marines find themselves operating in forward bases on remote islands. Or if the environment is too dangerous for crewed air or sea resupply.

The USSV will be carried by larger vessels that can both launch and recover the system, according to the outline presented. These may include specialized amphibious warfare ships. Or almost any transport vessel capable of carrying a boat. The USSV will have to be compact however. The document describes it as being small enough to fit inside a standard 40ft shipping container. Such a requirement makes the system particularly useful for forward deployment, but will limit the size of any payload.

Britain is in an unusual position to meet the technical challenges of the project. There are several specialist boat builders who already built submersible boats for special operations missions. And they are, generally, already exploring autonomous capabilities. These include JFD who offer the SEAL Carrier submersible boat. JFD also own Ortega, a Dutch company which offers its own range of submersible boats. And Liverpool based Marine Specialised Technology Group (MST) builds the long-established SubSkimmer family of submersible boats. Newer entrants like SubSea Craft and Defense Submersibles International (DSI) also offer their own submersible boat designs. The USSV is part of a wider shake-up of the Royal Marines. On March 23, the British government announced that the Royal Marines would be transformed into the Future Commando Force (FCF). This is a move from the traditional amphibious infantry role towards a special operations capable commando unit. And while currently the bulk of the force is held at readiness in the U.K., in the future it will be mostly forward deployed. The USSV could be destined for a key role in this new and more flexible force structure.

The concept is also applicable to naval infantry units around the world. Many of these, not least the U.S. Marine Corps, are themselves entering a period of transformation.

H I Sutton

H I Sutton

H I Sutton is a writer, illustrator and analyst who specializes in submarines and sub-surface systems. His work can be found at his website Covert Shores.

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