U.K. Navy Has Just Bought What Could Be the World's Biggest Underwater Drone—And It Can Be Armed

The British Royal Navy has awarded a contract for the production of an autonomous submarine that will effectively be the world's largest underwater drone once constructed.

The contract for the XLUUV (extra-large unmanned underwater vehicle)—which will measure around 100 feet in length and have the capability to carry weapons—was awarded to U.K.-based manufacturer MSubs Ltd, which specializes in building military and scientific submersibles.

The Royal Navy drone will be almost double the length of the upcoming Boeing Orca XLUUV—four of which were purchased last year by the U.S. Navy.

XLUUVs such as these dwarf most autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which usually measure less than 15 feet in length. In the case of the Royal Navy's purchase, the huge amount of space saved from not needing crew facilities will be used to carry a substantial quantity of weapons—such as torpedoes and mines—or even smaller AUVs.

The announcement of the Royal Navy's purchase was made by Admiral Anthony Radakin, First Sea Lord of the Admiralty—the head of the U.K. Navy—at the Underwater Defence & Security conference in Southampton, England, on Thursday. Among the attendees, were representatives from NATO and NATO-friendly defense firms and navies.

The new vehicle will have a range of around 3,450 miles, or 3,000 nautical miles, indicating that it will likely not be powered by batteries alone.

"I am really excited by the possibilities that this offers to increase our reach and lethality, improve our efficiency and reduce the number of people we have to put in harm's way," Radakin said at the conference.

Stock photo: A submarine moving through the ocean. iStock

"We need to remain ahead of our adversaries. This is why the Royal Navy is currently undergoing a period of transformation," he said. "We are focusing on five main areas: increasing our operational advantage in the North Atlantic, becoming a carrier strike navy, increasing our forward presence, modernizing our Royal Marines into a future commando force, and embracing technology and Innovation in a much better way. And you will recognize that two of these—the North Atlantic, and technology and innovation—are closely linked with the underwater domain," he said.

It is possible that the design of the Royal Navy's newly purchased XLUUV could be based upon an existing submersible constructed by MSubs that is already in use with the Royal Navy. This submersible is known as the Mobile Under Sea Test Laboratory.