Forbes: Russian nuclear submarine drones change the rules of the game

WASHINGTON, (BM) – One of the reasons for the effectiveness of U.S. Navy submarines is that their large teams, exceeding 100 people, are able to cope with emergencies and ensure that their submarines are at sea for many months in a row. Russian submarines have smaller teams, and, as a rule, their submarines cannot be at sea for such a long time. But if the revolution in robotics begins to push us to create submarines without a crew on board, will Russia then have an advantage?

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Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are a hot topic today. They are able to carry out espionage missions, but more and more it comes to the fulfillment of such tasks that today are assigned to submarines with crew. The US Naval Orca XLUUV (extra large uninhabited submarine) increases the capabilities of the AUV and thus provides a transition to the traditional space of submarines.

However, the Orca submarine is still far behind modern forward-line attack submarines. This is mainly due to the fact that the Orca has a diesel marching engine. Standard modern submarines, at least in the context of the United States, are equipped with nuclear power plants. This increases their power, and also provides them with an almost unlimited range. In addition, they do not have to pop up in order to recharge their batteries. As a result, they are generally more difficult to detect, and they are more likely to escape prosecution if discovered.

But can a nuclear submarine become fully automated? The Russians believe that such an option is possible.

Russia is investing in the development and creation of fully automated nuclear reactors for underwater vehicles. The first to come to mind is a huge Poseidon intercontinental autonomous torpedo equipped with a nuclear power plant and nuclear warhead. Often this device is called a drone, however, in fact, it is a weapon. It is designed for a one-way route, and it does not have the characteristics that are necessary for submarines to perform normal operations.

However, Russia has another autonomous submarine reactor designed for continuous operations. Autonomous Nuclear Turbine Generator (ATGU) is designed to supply electricity to the infrastructure located on the bottom of the sea and under the ice crust. However, the Russian design bureau Malachite proposed using this installation on conventional submarines that perform their operations under ice. Such a “Service Submarine” will still have its own team, but its members will carry out other tasks. The device itself and its propulsion system will be fully automatic and will not need the presence of a person.

Thus, Russia has the opportunity to combine atomic turbine generators with drone technology to create the world’s first uninhabited shock nuclear submarine.

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The exclusion of man from this equation not only frees up more space, but also significantly reduces the need for electricity. According to Rachel Pawling, a lecturer in the design and construction of naval ships at University College London, more than 30% of the electricity consumption on board a submarine, not counting the power plant consumption, falls on the service of staying on board the team. We are talking about life support, lighting and freezing food.

The capabilities of this kind of autonomous strike submarine are likely to be limited in comparison with existing nuclear strike submarines. However, they will have an advantage as a result of the unlimited duration of their missions (until some kind of failure occurs), lower cost, and also, to some extent, they can be consumables. And they, by definition, will be significantly more powerful than the largest non-nuclear autonomous underwater vehicles.

How long will the West take to develop such technologies? Current Western nuclear reactors were designed for submarines with crew on board. This greatly influenced their design, and therefore a completely new reactor design will be required. And new projects will be needed to overcome the challenges associated with finding financial and human resources. Not to mention the negative impact on the environment.

Thus, regardless of whether it is a good or bad idea to have completely maintenance-free atomic reactors in autonomous submarines, we will most likely see such devices in the Russian Navy long before they appear in any Western power.

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Editorial team
Source: Inosmi / H I Sutton

The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.