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Royal Navy orders first UUV to dominate underwater battleground

The 12m long CETUS is designed to fit into a 40-foot ISO container. The XLAUV is designed as an operational demonstrator (top) and no details have been released about how she will operate with manned submarines. Images: Crown Copyright

The Royal Navy has ordered its first Uncrewed Undersea Vessel (USV) in a £15.4 million contract with UK firm MSubs. At 12m in length, it will be the largest and most complex crewless submersible operated by European navies, designed and built specially for the Royal Navy.

In two years’ time Cetus – named after a mythological sea monster – will move stealthily through the oceans, monitoring hostile activity, listening out for ships or submarines which may pose a threat to the Fleet, or to key national infrastructure such as deep-sea cables and pipelines. The Royal Navy has experimented with – and in some cases operated – autonomous underwater systems for more than a decade. Most are small, off-the-shelf technologies, largely used in minehunting.

The Cetus is in a different league. Funded by the Anti-Submarine Warfare Spearhead programme, run by the Royal Navy’s “Develop Directorate” from their Headquarters in Portsmouth and delivered through the Submarine Delivery Agency in Bristol, this is the latest in a series of novel underwater technologies being brought to life to deal with the threats of the next decade.

The Royal Australian Navy also has a series of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) under development, most notably the Extra Large AUV (XLUUV) currently being developed by Anduril Industries under a three year contract.

The UK’s First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key said, “This is a hugely exciting moment for Project Cetus as the Royal Navy surges ahead with the development of autonomous technology.

“This Extra Large Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (XLAUV) is a capability step-change in our mission to dominate the underwater battle space. And I am delighted that the project is able to support a small, innovative UK company which is at the cutting edge of this sector.”

At 12 metres long and 2.2 metres in diameter, the 17-tonne submarine can fit inside a shipping container and be transported around the world to wherever the Fleet needs it. The unarmed battery-powered craft will be able to dive deeper than any vessel in the current submarine fleet and cover up to 1,000 miles in a single mission.

Acting as an operational demonstrator, the goal is for Cetus and its successors to work side-by-side with traditional crewed submarines, such as the current Astute-class, or independently.

The crewless submarine is the latest step taken by the Royal Navy into the world of autonomy. Autonomous minehunting systems are already operating in Scotland, driverless Pacific 24 sea boats are undergoing testing, numerous aerial drones are employed by ships both for reconnaissance/intelligence gathering and target practice for air defence.

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