China Defense Industry Defense Policy Defense Technologies Drones Indo-Pacific Maritime Security United States and Canada
Report November 3, 2020

Embracing underseas robots: a US strategy to maintain underseas superiority in an age of unmanned systems

By Erich Frandrup



US defense globally relies heavily on US presence and superiority at sea. The strength, versatility, and vastness of the US submarine force underpins US underseas superiority, which is key to US naval dominance globally. While submarines remain a staple of underseas superiority, unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) will be crucial to maintaining the US military advantage in this domain in the decades to come.

What is “underseas superiority”?

Underseas superiority refers to US military dominance over any opposing force within the underseas domain, permitting the United States to conduct underseas operations at any given time and place without prohibitive interference by adversaries. 

From an emerging military technology to a critical capability… 

While submarine precision-strike capabilities, covertness, and energy efficiency have proven increasingly essential to naval success since the American Revolution, the future of warfare is progressing towards automation. The US Navy is just beginning to realize the advantages unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) offer in underseas warfare. Currently, naval UUVs are primarily used for data gathering and counter-measure operations

As the United States harnesses the power of UUVs in a warfighting context, robust operating concepts will prove essential to building effective capabilities. As the future of warfare becomes more multi-regional, multi-vectored, and multi-domain, it is imperative that operating concepts apply across all domains and military services. Once developed, UUVs could create global underseas transparency, similar to how satellite imagery has slowly created global transparency of Earth’s surface. This would revolutionize underseas warfare, undermining submarine stealth strike capabilities.

A global operating context…

As emerging undersea capabilities develop, the United States will have opportunities to expand existing military partnerships and establish new ones. The United States can engage in military and non-military partnerships, including cooperation in the global marine mining market. However, the growth of underseas technologies also threatens US military advantage as great-power competitors China and Russia develop formidable submarine forces and innovative underseas concepts of their own. It will be imperative that the United States, with its allies and partners, develop counter-UUV capabilities to avoid technological or strategic surprise.

In Forward Defense’s latest report Embracing Underseas Robots: US Strategy to Maintain Underseas Superiority in an Age of Unmanned Systems, CDR Erich Frandrup, USN assesses how the United States can maintain underseas superiority in an age of unmanned systems. This strategy paper argues for prioritizing offensive capabilities, leveraging existing technologies, and taking a “crawl-walk-run” approach to fully operationalizing underseas concepts.

The strategy focuses on four major elements:

  1. Developing foresight on the promise that unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV) possess and the threats that they pose.
  2. Transitioning to manned/unmanned system joint operating concepts.
  3. Smartly and comprehensively developing the capabilities required within underseas operating concepts.
  4. Considering military and non-military opportunities to engage US partners and allies with unmanned systems.

About the author


Sign up for updates from Forward Defense to hear the latest on the trends, technologies, and military challenges shaping tomorrow.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Cole C. Pielop