Low-Cost, Small, and Agile Conflict Coming to the Undersea Domain?

An article published on Fast Company in April details the development of a new type of crewed submarine—known as Kronos—which is being designed to disrupt undersea naval operations.

The Kronos is being developed by a small Ukrainian company known as Highland Systems, which is currently operating out of the United Arab Emirates. It is a small submarine that resembles a cross between a stingray fish and an alien spacecraft. It can hold one pilot and up to eight special operations forces and is made from sonar absorbing materials to enhance its stealthy properties. Kronos can also carry up to six small torpedoes, such as Leonardo’s Black Scorpion, giving it offensive capabilities.

Highland System’s Kronos sub on display at the IDEX / NAVDEX 2023 exhibition in February 2023. Source: Highland Systems

This is, of course, a very different type of submarine design than the large, expensive, tubed designs that have dominated submarine construction for over a century. But the design is not just an attempt to introduce novelty into the field. It is critical to a new vision for submarine operations that stress the need for enhanced agility, speed, and stealth to carry out hit and run and sabotage operations.

The operational concept behind the Kronos is for it to “creep close to shore, or enemy vessels, firing pinpoint torpedoes and dropping mines” to damage its targets, similar to how small, inexpensive, nimble, difficult to detect drones are being used on the battlefield in Ukraine and elsewhere–reducing the need to spend billions of dollars on exquisite vehicles. Of course, unlike the drones and loitering munitions used in Ukraine, the Kronos is crewed and therefore is explicitly not expendable. Still, it does offer a new type of difficult to detect threat for enemy forces. It can also carry special forces operators to carry out covert sabotage attacks.

The genesis of the idea emerged from leisure and commercial applications of the submarine, either as a toy for “the eccentrically rich” or as a means of carrying workers to service underwater infrastructure such as communication cables or oil rigs. After Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, though, the company founder and chief engineer Alexander Kuznetsov turned his attention to military applications.

The craft can achieve up to 27 knots underwater and uses hybrid propulsion that takes one and a half-hours to charge the submarine batteries, after which it can operate for 18 hours. .

It does not have any windows but does use a “digital glass” of flat screens connected to external cameras and thermal sensors to give the pilot a 360-degree view of the submarine’s surroundings. When on the surface it is capable of operating in waves up to 19 feet high.

While not yet in service, Highland Systems has reportedly built 37 prototypes of the craft and even displayed one at the IDEX and NAVDEX exhibition in Abu Dhabi in February.

An image of the Kronos in a hangar showing the full size of the vessel. Source: Highland Systems

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