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The U.S. Navy has bought four robot submarines from Boeing (nationalinterest.org)
63 points by evo_9 38 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

"Giant" is an odd choice of word in this context. 51 feet long, $43M for four, seems pretty cheap and small as military hardware goes.

Too cheap. I suspect we arent getting the entire story. Subs are one of the biggest areas for black budgets. I would not be shocked if this is the final purchase of objects the navy has already spent billions developing.

Not final.. just the 2nd step. They previously awarded ~$40m (each) to boeing and lockheed for the design phase. This phase is for prototypes of the vehicles that were designed. There should be a 5th that should be awarded to Lockheed. In a few years, then they'll start production.

Edit: This is part of the Navy's plan to develop UUVs. They've already spent billions on it. On page 4 of this you can see the UUV systems they're planning: https://www.navsea.navy.mil/Portals/103/Documents/Exhibits/S...

This year they have $210m allocated for just XLUUVs ($120m) and LDUUVs ($90m). And I'm sure they have more allocated for other parts of the program (Edit: $1b this year for navy underwater drone r&d, and they spent 7-800m last year on it too).

Edit: XLUUV has a few other parts too: there's projects for developing lethal and nonlethal payloads for it; and a payload delivery system.

OTOH they're probably a lot cheaper to build if they don't have to support human life.

OTOOH, any and all maintenance requires return to base or abandonment at sea +/- self-destruction.

Giant as far as robot subs go though.

There was a nice investigative report on Propublica on how short staffed US surface fleet caused the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald crash into shipping containers. Basically the navy is focusing on buying newer ships and deploying too often and not so much on personnel training(?)[1]. Can't train enough people quickly enough, crews were repurposed for Iraq war etc.

If the Submarine fleet is having these issues, this might be a step in the right direction.


The situation is far more complicated than that fancy Propublica piece, color of money being just one:

1. These ships were purchased with RDT&E funds dating back to at least 2017[1 ref. N00024-17-C-6307].

2. The color of training money is O&M.

3. Congress is responsible for appropriating funds.

4. Even if Navy leadership needed to, they couldn't use RDT&E appropriations to fund O&M training; that would be a violation of the Misappropriation Act[2] as codified in 31 USC § 1301.

[1] https://dod.defense.gov/News/Contracts/Contract-View/Article...

[2] https://www.dau.mil/acquipedia/pages/articledetails.aspx#!29...

> In December 2016, the U.S. Navy announced it needed 66 nuclear-powered attack subs, or SSNs, to meet regional commanders' needs.

This feels like a ridiculously high number

That feels like a ridiculously low number to me.

Not all subs will be underway at the same time. 70% of Earth's surface is covered in water, and they only need 66‽ Though is it 66 more, or 66 total? If it's 66 total, that's about 5.45 million square miles of water per sub. That's incredible!

Does the US Navy’s mission require it to maintain readiness to blow up anything in any ocean to smithereens at a moment’s notice?

It does require continuous readiness to launch nuclear ballistic missiles from a surprise location, otherwise the “mutual” part of mutually assured destruction is less assured:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Submarine-launched_ballistic... https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_strike

Also, the US essentially controls the world’s oceans, and that comes with a whole bunch of benefits, wartime or peacetime.

I think you’ve made an honest error here, confusing the power plant of the subs with their payload. SSN’s are attack subs, not armed with nuclear SLBMs like an SSBN.

Well... yes. Maybe it shouldn't, but that decision isn't up to people actually in that branch.

Yes, at least for SSBNs -- the subs that have nuclear ballistic missiles. An "undetectable" nuclear launch platform that could be anywhere in the world [ocean-wise] at any given time is part of the "nuclear deterrent". Sure, lay waste to the continental US and all of it's farm-based missile installations; the floating, traveling, launch pad will still strike back, 24 missiles each with multiple payloads each on board. That's not including the UK's fleet.

They’re mostly reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and defensive. Occasionally might fire cruise missiles if necessary.

Helps keep the bad guys and gals from trying too much.

Sounds like a lot of enemies. I wonder how 'the good guys' ended up being hated by so many.

Where bad people means enemies of the US.

No, enemies of the western world and those who have the same values as us such as Korea, Japan, Chile, Brazil, Botswana, etc.

Clearly the US and the EU have different positions on Iran - the US considers it an enemy and imposed new sanctions, the EU haven't followed the suit.

So, no, even traditional clientele have left the US

Sure we don’t agree on everything— our agendas can diverge. The EU still gets gas from Russia, clearly we differ with them on Russia.

Exactly, you don't agree on who the enemies are and 'bad guys' mean the enemies the US, not of all the countries you lumped together.

That’s to be expected, we’re not a ‘bloc’ ala USSR and its satellites.

Except you claimed the opposite, saying that the objects of the US military's attention - 'bad guys' - are the enemies of the whole bunch of countries including the EU.

Looking at how the US tries to bully Turkey - a NATO member - into cancelling the S-400 deal with Russia, by saying the US is not going protect it despite the NATO article, you are not as different from Warsaw pact as you claim.

One the one hand, 66 total worldwide units doesn’t seem like very many compared to most other pieces of military equipment. On the other hand, the per unit cost of submarines is a staggering $2 billion to $10 billion.

For perspective, the government shutdown fight is over ~1-2 submarines worth of funding.

Given a fleet of submarines is $50B and the cost to fully instrument the entire ocean with sensors is $1B, is the price of a submarine worth it anymore?

Sensors don't attack. Sensors don't even defend themselves. They are one piece of the "kill chain", but they aren't the "kinetic" piece.

Do you necessarily need a sub to kill another sub once it's detected?

Surface navy and aviation could do the job.

We don't have adequate wartime data to know for sure one way or the other. Historically, there has only been one underwater combat engagement between submarines [1] openly acknowledged (there might be classified engagements). However, even generously accounting for all submarine lost at sea accident reports as hostile engagements doesn't yield sufficient numbers of engagements to know what would happen with today's subs between each other in open warfare.

Let's hope it stays that way indefinitely.

[1] https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-true-story-th...

The target doesn't have to be a sub. The sensors could detect a surface vessel, and the sub could be the way of attacking it.

A bomber can do it cheaper and faster.

Considering how many peoples lives were disrupted over that it is just sickening. What a bunch of bs that whole situation is/was/continues to be.

I don't know if this justifies it, and it's a gross over simplification of a much more complex reality, but even with all 66 submarines deployed around the world, each one has over 2 million square miles of coverage. While it may seem like a lot of boats, the world is large, and it takes a lot of boats to be able to respond to a situation happening anywhere in the world in a timely manner.

Like being ready to blow up icebergs near Antarctica?

The Emperor Penguins might attack humanity.

I think it’s a good idea to have robotic weapons to augment our military. If we have to fight, use everything to our advantage. But let’s not kid ourselves. Today the tech would easily be defeated by a sophisticated enemy (such as China).

We need people manning the machines, lest we fall victim to things such as jamming radio signal.

How much would a jam-proof laser communication system cost?

How much would a 99% autonomous ship with only a few sailors inside cost?

Robots and explosives are cheap; healthcare and housing for personnel are what make the bulk of DoD's expenditures.

Even better to go fully autonomous with our nuclear submarines right? Then there can be no mistakes...

The "how should a self-driving vehicle deal with someone messing with it" question gets interesting once that self-diving vehicle is armed with torpedoes.

If a Chinese fishing trawler "accidentally" drops a net on one of these and "rescues" it, can it defend itself? Should it?

It weighs 50 tons and is 51 feet could anything really mess with that?

[0] https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a263440...

Definitely. Here’s a case where a far larger submarine got caught in a net: https://outdoors360.com/fishing-boat-snags-220-foot-submarin...

This article talks about how the submarine usually ends up severely damaging any fishing boat unlucky enough to get tangled.

That article is about an incident involving aircraft, I don't think that is what you meant to link.

It's a large, heavy object being easily interfered with.

(The parent comment said "It weighs 50 tons and is 51 feet could anything really mess with that?" An EP-3 weighs 67.5 tons and is 105 feet long.)

The same applies to submarines and a net around the propeller.

(It's also a good example of the sort of diplomatic fuss that ensues after this sort of incident, too.)

Ok, so all you have to do to interfere with the robotic sub is crash a jet into it?

Posting a link to a completely unrelated article with 0 explanation is idiotic, especially when there are plenty of examples of incidents that actually involve submarines.

The point: "It's long and heavy" isn't any sort of good reason to believe it can't be messed with. That incident also demonstrates China's willingness to play chicken with US assets.

Throw a steel cable into its prop, get too close using another sub or two, etc.

How is the situation any different than at the moment?

If you can capture an autonomous submarine just by throwing a net over it, then presumably you can also capture a manned submarine in the same way? What difference do the bodies inside make in terms of being able to capture it? Just better at evading?

And losing a submarine compared to losing a submarine and the people inside it seems a better deal, doesn't it?

It's a lot more justifiable to use deadly force to respond when human lives are being placed at risk. The diplomatic consequences are likely to be different, as well.


> You mean precious lives of Americans.

I really don't. Switch the nationalities and my answer is the same - self-defense when human lives are at risk is a lot more justifiable than self-defense of a robot. People are worth more than electronics.

This is a fair point I agree with.

Is it also justifiable to use deadly force in the response to actions not involving deadly force and only hypothetically putting lives at risk?

Because this is what you said in your original comment.

I said, and I quote: "can it defend itself? Should it?"

Armed, unmanned robots change the calculus on both sides of an engagement.

I meant to refer to "It's a lot more justifiable to use deadly force to respond when human lives are being placed at risk"

It should, and almost certainly does, have scuttling charges. Alternatively there could be an “incident” although that’s less desireable.

So we entrust nuclear deterrence to compsec? I should invest in coffins

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