On 7 June French company Naval Group announced it was awarded a nine months contract to study the design of a future armed uncrewed underwater vehicle that could not only carry out intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, but also strike targets.
The announcement is part of broader Naval Group and French Ministry of Defence efforts to develop technologies and capabilities that will allow France to “master” the seabed.
For example, Naval Group has been developing an extra-large uncrewed underwater vehicle (XL-UUV) since 2016. A demonstrator is currently being prepared for sea qualification this summer. Once qualified the XL-UUV will be used to test different technologies critical for operating autonomous systems in the undersea domain.
More broadly, the French Ministry of Defence have prioritized undersea capabilities as the importance of the domain for military operations, infrastructure security (e.g., seabed cables), and mining of resources. In fact, the French government was the first to issue a dedicated military strategy for the ocean floor domain in early 2022 and is seeking to develop an underwater platform that can operate at depths of 6,000 meters.
Of course, France is not the only country that understands the growing importance of the undersea domain for military operations and national, economic, and infrastructure security. Increasingly, uncrewed vehicles are viewed as crucial to maintaining undersea presence and operational flexibility. In June, South Korean company Hanwha revealed a model of its armed XL-UUV design during the 2023 international Maritime and Defence Exhibition (MADEX) in Busan, South Korea.
Several countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Israel, Germany, China, and India are developing XL-UUVs. What makes the Hanwha design most interesting is that it is armed, featuring two torpedo tubes, strongly suggesting that it would also feature the capacity for autonomous launch given the latency of communications associated with the undersea domain. Only China and India have current armed XL-UUV programs, though, as mentioned above, France is also investigating an armed UUV.
The model was developed as part of a “concept study” contract with South Korea’s Defense Acquistion Program Administration (DAPA), a similar type of contract to the Naval Group contract. It appears to be part of a larger effort across the South Korean military and Navy to better integrate uncrewed systems into force structures and operations. The Navy Sea Ghost concept is an operational concept revealed last year that stresses teaming between crewed and uncrewed systems.