Forging the Apex Predator:­­­ Unmanned Systems and SSN(X)

By LCDR James Landreth, USN, and LT Andrew Pfau, USN

2041: USS Fluckey (SSN 812) Somewhere West of the Luzon Strait

Like wolves stalking in the night, the pack of autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) silently swam from USS Fluckey’s open torpedo tubes. In honor of its namesake, “The Galloping Ghost of the China Coast,” Fluckey silently hunted its prey. With the ability to command and control an integrated UUV swarm via underwater wireless communication systems, Fluckey could triangulate any contact in the 160-mile gap between Luzon and Taiwan while maintaining the mothership in a passive sonar posture. Its magazine of 50 weapon stows brimmed with MK-48 Mod 8 Torpedoes. 28 Maritime Strike Tomahawks glowed in the vertical launch system’s belly like dragon’s fire. With just one hull, the Galloping Ghost sealed the widest exit from the South China Sea. Any ship seeking passage would have to pass through the jaws of the Apex Predator of the undersea.


The Navy has its eyes set on the future of submarine warfare with the Next Generation Attack Submarine (SSN(X)), the follow-on to the Virginia-class attack submarine. Though SSN(X) has yet to be named, the Navy began funding requirements, development, and design in 2020. Vice Admiral Houston, Commander of Naval Submarine Forces, described SSN(X) in July 2021 as, “[T]he ultimate Apex Predator for the maritime domain.”1 In order to become the “Apex Predator” of the 21st century, SSN(X) will need to be armed not only with advanced torpedoes, land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles, but also with an array of unmanned systems. While SSN(X) will carry both unmanned aircraft and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV), it is assumed that UUV optimization will lead the unmanned priority list. Acting as a mothership, SSN(X) will be able to deploy these UUVs to perform a variety of tasks, including gaining a greater awareness of the battlespace, targeting, active deception and other classified missions. To fulfill its destiny, UUV employment must be a consideration in every frame of SSN(X) and subjected to rigorous analysis.

SSN(X) must be capable of the deployment, recovery, and command and control of UUVs. To fulfill this mission, every aspect of contemporary submarine-launched UUV operations will need to scale dramatically. Submarine designers and undersea warriors need to understand the trade space available in order to gain an enhanced understanding of potential SSN(X) UUV employment. A detailed study of the trade space must include all relevant aspects of the deployment lifecycle including UUV acquisition, operation, sustainment and maintenance. The following analysis provides a first approximation of the undersea trade space where the Apex Predator’s ultimate form will take shape.

UUV Concept of Operations

Effective solution design of SSN(X) and UUVs can only come from a mature concept of operations (CONOPS). These CONOPS will center around the use cases for submarine launched UUVs. UUVs will provide SSN(X) the ability to monitor greater portions of the battlespace by going out beyond the range of the SSN(X)’s organic sensors to search or monitor for adversary assets. The ability to search the environment, both passively and actively, will be key to fulfilling the CONOPS. Additionally, active sonar scanning of the seabed, a current UUV mission, will continue to be a key UUV mission. These are by no means the only missions that UUVs could or will perform, rather they examples of relevant missions that enhance the combat power of SSN(X).

It is critical that CONOPS developers and acquisition planners consider the SSN(X) and its UUV as an integrated system. That integrated system includes the SSN(X) mothership as well as the UUV bodies, crew members required to support UUV operations and the materiel support strategy for deployed UUVs. Other categories are necessary for consideration, but each of these provides a measurable constraint on SSN(X) CONOPS development. While the acquisition of UUV and SSN(X) may ultimately fall under separate Program Executive Offices, the Navy must heed the lessons of Littoral Combat Ship’s (LCS) inconsistent funding of mission modules.2 One of LCS’s early woes related to the failure to develop mission modules concurrently with LCS construction. Absent the mission modules, early LCS units bore criticism for lacking combat capability. Instead, the Navy should draw on the success of iterative capability developments like the Virginia Payload Module (VPM).3 In the same way Virginia-class introduced incremental capability improvements across its Block III through Block V via VPM, the Navy must prioritize continuous UUV development just as urgently as it pursues its next submarine building initiative. Table 1 lists some priority considerations:

Category Elements for Consideration
UUV Size of the UUVs carried inboard
Quantity of embarked UUVs
Deployment methods of UUV
Communications between SSN(X) and UUV
UUV Crew UUV Support Crew Size
Training requirements for UUV Sailors
Materiel Support Strategy Charging and recharging UUVs inboard
Maintenance strategy for UUV
UUV load and unload facilities

Table 1. UUV Considerations

Designing SSN(X) for UUVs

Organic UUV operations are the desired end state, but several gaps exist between the Navy’s current UUV operational model and the Navy’s stated plans for SSN(X). At present, submarines deploy UUVs for specific exercises, test and evaluations, or carefully planned operations.4 Additionally, UUV missions require specially trained personnel or contractors to join the submarine’s crew to operate and employ the UUV system, limiting operational flexibility. To their credit, today’s SSNs can deploy UUV from a number of ocean interfaces according to the size of the UUV including: 3” launcher, the trash disposal unit, torpedo tubes, lock-in/lock-out chamber, missile tubes, large ocean interfaces or dry-deck shelters.5 However, the ability to perform UUV-enabled missions depends heavily on the legacy submarine’s mission configuration. Two decades ago, the Virginia-class was designed to dominate in the littorals and deploy Special Forces with a built-in lock-in, lock-out chamber. Just as every Virginia-class submarine is capable of deploying Special Forces and divers, every SSN(X) must be UUV ready.

In order to fully define the requirements of the Apex Predator, requirements officers and engineers within the undersea enterprise must understand the trade space associated with UUV operations. SSN(X) must exceed the UUV capabilities of today’s SSNs and should use resources organic to the ship, such as torpedo tubes, to employ them. Also, given that Navy requirements need SSN(X) to transit at maximum speed, these UUVs will need to present low appendage drag or stay within the skin of the submarine until deployed.6 Similar to the internal bomb bay configuration of Fifth Generation F-35 Stealth Fighters, internally-housed UUVs, most likely with the form-factor of a torpedo, will likely yield the greatest capacity while preserving acoustic superiority at high transit speeds.

With so many variables in play and potential configurations, requirements officers need the benefit of iterative modeling and simulation to illuminate the possible. Optimization for UUV design is not merely a problem of multiplication or geometric fit. Rather, an informed UUV model reveals a series of constraining equations that govern the potential for each capability configuration. The following analysis examined over 300 potential UUV force packages by varying the number UUVs carried, the size of the UUV crew complement, and UUV re-charging characteristics in-hull, while holding the form-factor of the UUV constant. Appendix 1 provides a detailed description of the first order analysis, focused on mission-effectiveness, seeking to maximize the distance that a UUV compliment could cover in a 24-hour period. Notably, the UUV sustainment resources inside the submarine matter just as much as the number of UUVs onboard. Such resources include maintenance areas, charging bays, weight handling equipment and spare parts inventory.

Given that SSN(X) and its unmanned systems will likely be fielded in a resource constrained environment, including both obvious fiscal constraints and physical resource constraints within the hull, a second order analysis scored each force package on maximum utilization. After all, rarely-utilized niche systems are often hard to justify. While more UUVs generally resulted in a potential for more miles of UUV operations per 24-hour period, smaller numbers of UUVs in less resource-intensive configurations (that is, requiring less space, less operational support, etc.) achieved up to 5x higher utilization scores. Given the multi-mission nature of SSN(X) and the foreseeable need to show high utilization in the future budgetary environment, requirements officers have a wide margin of trade space to navigate because many different types and configurations of UUVs could achieve high utilization rates as they performed various missions.

What should be Considered

SSN(X) will be enabled by advanced technologies, but its battle efficiency will rely just as much on qualified personnel and maintenance as on any number of advanced sensors or high endurance power systems. In order to identify the limiting factor in each capability configuration, the study varied the following parameters according to defined constraint equations to determine the maximum number of miles that could be scanned per 24-hours: number of UUVs, size of the UUV support crew, the UUV support crew operational tempo, the number of UUV charging bays, and the numbers or charges per day required per UUV. As a secondary measure, the UUV utilization rate for each capability configuration was determined as a means of assessing investment value. The constraint equations are provided in full detail in Appendix 1: Analysis Constraint Equations.

The Navy currently fields a variety of UUVs that vary in both size and mission. The opening vignette of this essay discusses UUVs that can be launched and recovered from submarine torpedo tubes while submerged, which the Navy’s lexicon classifies as medium UUVs (MUUV) and which this study uses as the basic unit of analysis. The current inventory of MUUVs include the Razorback and Mk-18 systems, but this analysis used the open-source specifications of the REMUS 600 UUV (the parent design of these platforms) to allow releasability. These specifications are listed in Table 2, and Table 3 assigns additional values to relevant parameters related to UUV maintainability based on informed estimates. While the first SSN(X) will not reach initial operating capability for more than a decade, the study assumed UUV propulsion system endurance would only experience incremental improvements from today’s fielded systems.7

Remus 600 Characteristics
Mission Speed 5 knots
Mission Endurance between Recharges 72 hours
Number of Sensors (active or passive) 3

Table 2. Remus 600 Characteristics

Informed Estimates on Maintainability
Maintenance Duty Cycle 0.02
Sensor Refit Duty Cycle 0.09
Duty Cycle Turnaround 0.23

Table 3. Informed Estimates on Maintainability

Model Results and Analysis

The Navy’s forecasted requirements for SSN(X) weapons payload capacity mirrors the largest torpedo rooms in the Fleet today found on Seawolf-class submarines. Seawolf boasts eight torpedo tubes and carries up to 50 weapons.8 Assuming SSN(X)’s torpedo room holds an equivalent number of weapons stows, some of these stows may be needed for UUVs and UUV support.

Trial values from the trade study for specific UUV, crew, and operational tempo (OPTEMPO) capability configurations are shown in Table 4:

Parameter Values
Number of UUVs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Number of UUV Crew Watch Teams 2, 3, 4
Crew OPTEMPO 0.33, 0.5
Number of UUV Charging Bays 2, 4, 6, 8
Daily Charges per UUV 0.33, 0.5

Table 4. Study Parameters

The number of crew watch teams could represent a multiple based on the ultimate number of personnel required to sustain UUV operations. Crew OPTEMPO represents the time that UUV operations and maintenance personnel are on duty during a 24-hour period. A value of 0.33 represents three 8-hour duty sections per day. 0.5 represents two 12-hour duty sections per day.

The results in Table 5 represent seven of the highest scoring capability configurations from among the 336 trials in the trade study.9 The most significant variable driving UUV miles scanned was the number of UUV Crew Watch Teams, and the second most significant variable was the UUV Crew OPTEMPO. UUV configurations with 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 UUVs all achieved the maximum score on scan rate of 240 miles scanned per 24 hours, though utilization rates were much higher for the configurations with fewer UUVs. The 3 UUV configuration was able to achieve 240 miles with the fewest number of UUVs and yielded the second highest utilization score. The 2 UUV configuration earned a slightly higher utilization score (+2%), but the scan rate was 42% less than the 3 UUV configuration. 

# UUV # Crew Crew OPTEMPO UUV Charging Bays Charges per Day Miles Scanned per 24 hrs Utilization Notes
8 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.25 Big footprint; High scan rate; Low utilization
7 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.29 Big footprint; High scan rate; Low utilization
6 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.33 Medium footprint; High scan rate; Low utilization
5 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.4 Medium footprint; High scan rate; Medium utilization
4 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.5 Medium footprint; High scan rate; High utilization
3 4 0.5 2 0.33 240 0.67 Small footprint; High scan rate; High utilization
2 3 0.5 2 0.33 165 0.69 Smallest footprint, Medium scan rate; Highest utilization

Table 5. Sample Analysis Results 

This study shows that in order to scan more miles, loading more UUVs is not likely to be the first or best option. Understanding of this calculus is critically important since each additional UUV would replace a weapon needed for combat or increase the overall length, displacement and cost of the submarine. Instead, crew configurations and watch rotations play a major factor in UUV operations.


The implications for an organic UUV capability on SSN(X) go far beyond simply loading a UUV instead of an extra torpedo. The designers of SSN(X) will have to consider personnel required to operate and maintain these systems. The spaces and equipment necessary to repair, recharge, and maintain UUVs will have to be designed from the keel up.

The Apex Predator must be more than just the number and capability of weapons carried. SSN(X)’s lethality will come from the ability of sailors to man and operate its systems and maintain the equipment needed to perform in combat. The provided trade study sheds light on the significant technical challenges that still remain in the areas of UUV communications, power supply and endurance, and sensor suites. By resourcing requirements officers, technical experts and acquisition professionals with a meaningful optimization study, early identifications of UUV requirements for SSN(X) can enable the funding allocations necessary to solve these difficult problems.

Lieutenant Commander James Landreth, P.E., is a submarine officer in the Navy Reserves and a civilian acquisition professional for the Department of the Navy. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy (B.S.) and the University of South Carolina (M.Eng.). The views and opinions expressed here are his own.

Lieutenant Andrew Pfau, USN, is a submariner serving as an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the U. S. Naval Academy. The views and opinions expressed here are his own.

Appendix 1: Analysis Constraint Equations

The following equations were used to develop a reusable parametric model. The model was developed in Cameo Systems Modeler version 19.0 Service Pack 3 with ParaMagic 18.0 using the Systems Modeling Language (SysML). The model was coupled with Matlab 2021a via the Symbolic Math Toolkit plug-in. This model is available to share with interested U.S. Government parties via any XMI compatible modeling environment.

Number of Miles Scanned per 24 hours=Number of Available Systems*Speed*24

Equation 1. Scanning Equation

Number of Available Systems= min⁡(Number of Available UUV,UUV Crew,Number of Available Charges)

Equation 2. System Availability Equation

Number of Available UUV=((Number of Available UUVs by Day+Number of Available UUVs by Night)*UUV Duty Cycle)/2

Equation 3. UUV Availability Equation

Number of Available UUV=((Number of Available UUVs by Day+Number of Available UUVs by Night)*UUV Duty Cycle)/2

Equation 4. UUV Duty Cycle Equation

Number of Available UUVs by Day=min⁡(number of day sensors,number of UUVs)

Equation 5. Day Sensor Availability Equation

Number of Available UUVs by Night=min⁡(number of night sensors,number of UUVs)

Equation 6. Night Sensor Availability Equation

Number of Available Crews=Number of Crews*Crew Time On Duty

Equation 7. Crew Availability Equation

Number of Available Charges=(Charges per Day)/(Daily Charges per UUV)

Equation 8. Charge Availability Equation

Utilization= (Number of Miles Scanned per 24 hours)/((Number of UUVs*Patrol Speed*24 hours))

Equation 9. Utilization Score 


1. Justin Katz, “SSN(X) Will Be ‘Ultimate Apex Predator,’” BreakingDefense, July 21, 2021,

2. Congressional Research Service, “Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Updated December 17, 2019,

3. Virginia Payload Module, July 2021,

4. Megan Eckstein, “PEO Subs: Navy’s Future Attack Sub Will Need Stealthy Advanced Propulsion, Controls for Multiple UUVs,” USNI News, March 9, 2016,

5. Chief of Naval Operations Undersea Warfare Directorate, “Report to Congress: Autonomous Undersea Vehicle Requirement for 2025,” p. 5-6, February 2016,

6. Congressional Research Service, “Navy Next-Generation Attack Submarine (SSN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” May 10, 2021,

7. Robert Button, John Kamp, Thomas Curtin, James Dryden, “A Survey of Missions for Unmanned Undersea Vehicles,” RAND National Defense Research Institute, , 2009, p. 50,

8. U.S. Navy Fact Files, “Attack Submarines – SSN,” Updated May 25, 2021,

9. The results of all 336 capability configurations are available in .xlsx format upon request.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN – USS Santa Fe (SSN 763) joins Collins Class Submarines, HMAS Collins, HMAS Farncomb, HMAS Dechaineux and HMAS Sheean in formation while transiting through Cockburn Sound, Western Australia.

4 thoughts on “Forging the Apex Predator:­­­ Unmanned Systems and SSN(X)”

  1. The point of making sure the sub and the UUV plan are in sync is spot on. I also start to see that a dry decck shelter built into the sail like the Chinese have done with one of their subs is probably a good step that fits my existing thoughts on a plan.
    – We need to use a modified Columbia to save money with a 40 year hull and best propulsion plant available. At 2 per year we are eventually looking at 68 boats.
    – A Seawold like front end can fit in the Columbia’s space. Use those 8, larger tubes with Torpedo room large enough to embark special forces.
    -Keep 4 large tubes since they build those in common sections. It keeps that capability and helps up tube numbers in the long run.
    – It appears there is room to design a new sail with dry deck shelter with the space forward of the Torpedo tubes.

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