Autonomous vessel for tracking silent subs is under construction

Expected to be launched in 2015, DARPA’s unmanned ACTUV would track diesel submarines for months at a time.

Construction is underway on an unmanned vessel designed to track quiet-running diesel submarines across oceans for months at a time with minimal human supervision.

ACTUV autonomous sub tracker

An early DARPA concept illustration of the ACTUV.

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) is being built by Leidos and is expected to set sail for testing in 2015, according to an announcement from the company.

DARPA envisioned a ship that wouldn’t require human sailors to step aboard, reducing the need for traditional naval designs such as crew support systems, reserve buoyancy, and accessibility. The program also sought advanced unmanned maritime system autonomy for autonomous compliance with maritime laws, operational reliability and autonomous interactions with intelligent adversaries.

The ACTUV will utilize a variety of sensor packages—including sonar, electro-optical, short-range radar and Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR)—that will allow it to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and other missions.

"ACTUV's advanced sensor technology should allow for continuous surveillance which, combined with the vessel architecture and design, is expected to provide autonomous safe navigation supporting Navy missions around the world," said Leidos Group President, John Fratamico.

The tactical goal of the ACTUV is to allow the Navy to track diesel submarines at a fraction of the cost of current anti-submarine trailing operations, and mitigate submarine threats. By detecting and neutralizing submarines, DARPA is seeking to make the fielding and construction of the vessels less viable. The Navy has been growing concerned over diesel-electric subs, including new models being built by Russia, that are so quiet they are difficult, if not impossible, to track.

“Our goal is to transition an operational game-changer to the Navy”, Scott Littlefield, DARPA program manager, said in a DARPA release. “This should create an asymmetry to our advantage, negating a challenging submarine threat at one-tenth their cost of building subs. The program also establishes foundational technologies for future unmanned naval systems.”

North Korea fields the most submarines, all 78 of which are diesel-electric. China, which comes in third with 69 subs, uses a mix of conventional and nuclear-powered submarines, though most are diesel-powered. The United States ranks second in terms of the total number of fielded submarines with 72. Russia is fourth with 63.

The program has four phases -- Phase 1 refined and validated the system concept and performance metrics, Phase 2 involved designing the vessel, and Phase 3, the current phase, is the construction of the vessel. Phase 4 is the actual testing of the submarine. The ACTUV is expected to be launched on the Columbia River in 2015.

DARPA awarded a $58 million contract for Phases 2-4 of ACTUV to Science Applications International Corp. in August 2012. SAIC split into two companies—Leidos being the other—in September 2013,