back to article We'll pay £400k for a depth charge-proof robot submarine, says UK's Ministry of Defence

Britain's Ministry of Defence is offering a £400,000 pot of cash to anyone who can develop an autonomous submarine capable of withstanding naval depth charges. In the latest phase of its "autonomy in challenging environments" R&D programme, the ministry wants to hear from companies who can build underwater robots that can …

  1. x 7

    Thats our whole navy ...................

    So that will be our entire serviceable navy in that fleet in the South China Sea

    1. WolfFan Silver badge

      Re: Thats our whole navy ...................

      You have heard the stories of how loud Queen Liz’s engines are, haven’t you? Apparently they can be heard 30 nautical miles away. That’s not an operational aircraft carrier, that’s sub bait. Better add a few more ASW ships and/or subs and some helos. A _lot_ of helos. A few fixed wing ASW aircraft would be better, but can’t fly from a carrier with a ski-jump instead of a catapult... The PLAN has a lot of subs. They’re not very good, but they don’t have to be, not with that nice target... if I were a matelot on Queen Liz, I’d make sure that I learned to swim at least as far as the nearest escort.

      Seriously, to properly screen a carrier you should have four to six ASW ships in the outer ring, with lots of helos around them, and at least two subs. And three to four AAW ships in the inner ring, plus a goalkeeper right next to the carrier. That was learned back in WWII, not least off Okinawa. Having too few escorts means that the entire force is dead meat.

      I hope that the Dutch ship is an ASW frigate, the Dutch are good at ASW. I also hope that the American ship is an AAW destroyer, an Arleigh Burke destroyer would be just the thing to be the goalkeeper. Right up until it runs out of missiles while the PLAN salvos a few dozen ship-killers at the force.

      Back in my days of playing Harpoon, I used to play ‘hunt the Yankee carrier’ using a few Oscar carrier-killer subs and a Backfire regiment or two. Kick the Shipwrecks from the Oscars to draw the CAP off, close with the Backfires at full afterburners, dump Kingfish, run away really fast. The PLAN has subs which aren’t as good as Oscars, but which have very nice missiles indeed, and the PLAAF doesn’t have Backfires but does have lots of missile-carrying long range aircraft. If shooting starts the RN is going to be very uncomfortable.

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge

        Re: Thats our whole navy ...................

        Alongside the two US carrier strike groups, Liz will be the third strike carrier in the Pacific, she can also act as big sister to the USS America which is an assault carrier built to operate Harriers & F35s in support of US marines.

        US carrier groups generally have six Arleigh burke & Ticonderoga escorts so there's no real difference in escort hull count (or tonnage) and since the Vikings were retired a few years ago they only have ship & helo for close in ASW as well, they obviously think this is adequate.

        Four flat tops & twenty odd escorts is a very hard target to overcome whatever you use.

      2. Grikath

        Re: Thats our whole navy ...................

        Us cloggies will probably send one of our 7 Provinces frigs along. Besides the ability to play C&C for (part of) the escorts, they've got a long-range anti-ballistics suite which the UK hasn't got. ( besides the usual ASW/AA stuff all dutch frigs have.)

        I'm willing to bet a beer or two that the US ship will be of a similar bent. It'd plug a major hole in the defense bubble, given that a lot of the local theoretical Baddies can lob Nasty Stuff over a couple 100 miles nowadays...

      3. BazNav

        Re: Thats our whole navy ...................

        Fortunately this is the real world not a game of Harpoon.

        Whilst you are right in your assessment of what you would need to protect a carrier during a conventional conflict we're not in a conflict. The deployment is there to make a political statement not to beat the whole Chinese military in a stand up fight.

        And if a war did start during the deployment then the Chinese have spent a lot of money on Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) technology. When they are throwing anti-ship ballistic missiles at you it doesn't really matter how noisy you engines are.

      4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Thats our whole navy ...................

        "Apparently they can be heard 30 nautical miles away. "

        Since you mention the Chinese, is the sound of the engines relevant when they have live sat coverage of the area?

  2. @JagPatel3

    An off-the-shelf buy for this autonomous submarine capability requirement?

    This government’s quest for risk-free, value for money acquisitions has seen it go for off-the-shelf purchases to satisfy its military equipment needs – in the shape of orders for the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, Apache AH-64E attack helicopters, MQ-9B Protector armed drones, the E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft, and now BOXER armoured vehicles to satisfy its Mechanised Infantry Vehicle requirement – the latter two, after first having conducted a comprehensive market survey and then a comparative analysis of existing, in-service platforms. All of this equipment is being sourced from manufacturers of foreign origin.

    The main reason why the government has decided to choose off-the-shelf products is because they are considered to be fully engineered and supported technical solutions which satisfy the key user requirements at no additional cost or risk to the Exchequer, that is to say, they do not require any UK-specific modifications or related development work laden with risk to be performed upon them.

    Whereas the Ministry of Defence will not come out and say so publicly, it is clear that MoD’s preference for looking at the off-the-shelf solution as its first option is likely to be the determining factor behind its decision on which existing platform to buy for its autonomous submarine capability requirement.

    After being misled by UK-based defence equipment manufacturers with false promises and lies for several decades, this generation of elite politicians, senior civil servants, military top brass and front-line procurement officials have been so badly scarred that, there remains little appetite to consider any alternatives that may be put forward by these same dishonest suppliers.

    Hitherto, MoD has had a policy of buying equipment designed to a tailored technical specification requirement set by the military customer – which has, in itself, led to persistent delays and cost overruns on equipment procurement programmes because of the inability of its own people to identify, manage and control technical risks inherent in a starting-point for the technical solution that requires development work to be performed upon it.

    This disgraceful situation has come about because it does not possess the capability in the form of intelligent and experienced procurement officials who have an adequate understanding of what it takes (in terms of skill types, funding, tools, processes, materials, scheduled work plan, inter-business contractual agreements etc.) to advance an immature technical solution from its existing condition, to a point where it will satisfy the technical specification requirement, within a private sector setting driven by the profit motive and people who instinctively employ sharp business practices. Consequently, they are not able to establish what the true status of the evolving technical solution is, based upon claims made by Contractors.

    The harsh truth is that, these people have no business acumen at all – on account of not having spent a single day of their lives in the private sector and yet, they have been put in charge of spending taxpayers’ money to the tune of £15bn per year to buy defence equipment, outsourced services and labour from the private sector.

    So, it makes sense to consider an existing, nearly-developed technical solution for this autonomous submarine requirement, not least, because it will relieve the Exchequer from having to take on development costs which usually spiral out of control.


    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: An off-the-shelf buy for this autonomous submarine capability requirement?

      >it makes sense to consider an existing, nearly-developed technical solution for this autonomous submarine requirement

      Presumably not manufactured by Huawei

    2. sad_loser

      Re: An off-the-shelf buy for this autonomous submarine capability requirement?

      This is very similar to NHS procurement esp of IT.

      There is a game where the customer specifies a kitchen sink product, which we then underbid.

      We then build the product specified, and get to testing where they proceed to build more kitchen sinks of different colours and sizes to the original one. Every time this is done then we charge eye-watering amounts of money because a) it's expensive to retrofit b) that is the only time you make any margin.

      Most of the time the procurement team did not bother engaging end users, and so the product is roundly hated, gets ignored / workarounded, and the procurement cycle starts again.....

  3. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water

    > The so-called "unmanned underwater vehicle" must have "the ability to sense, interpret, and understand its local environment, and then respond autonomously to that understanding"

    Can it be shark-shaped? Possibly with a you-know-what attached.

  4. Efer Brick


    device needs to leg/fin it in the opposite direction

  5. g00ner

    US Lightning's

    Anyone else worried that the US Lightning's might sink our aircraft carrier.

  6. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921

    Get me a silicone filled kevlar sub with an elastic powered engine and make it snappy!

  7. Anonymous Coward

    This is a job for Elon

    Slap his Tesla autopilot onto his Thai cave rescue submarine and job do.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: This is a job for Elon

      He could call it his "TorPaedo".

  8. Cynic_999

    You won't get many moneies for those peanuts

    £400,000 ??? That might just about pay the first month of a preliminary committee's feasibility study. In order to get any sort of design, it will cost at least 1000 times that much - and that's before going 10 times over-budget.

    On the other hand, I could probably do a design within that budget. It will consist of a solid cast-iron block. This will fulfil the main requirements insofar that it will readily submerge and be highly resistant to damage from depth charges. It won't be practical or fulfil any operational requirements - but then nor does any other expensive government project. We can add ballast tanks, motors, torpedos etc. later, after we have added a few aircraft and a practical launch catapault to our expensive aircraft carrier.

    1. Alumoi Silver badge

      Re: You won't get many moneies for those peanuts

      Care to bet the robot is already built?

      The 400K are just for the demo unit, wait unit you see the price tag on the final build.

    2. Evil_Goblin

      Re: You won't get many moneies for those peanuts

      £400k would fund a 2 year PhD program rather handsomely though

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: You won't get many moneies for those peanuts

      I worked on an aerial autonomous drone as part of a college project/competition in 2000. Our TOTAL budget was about $25k, and $20k of that was for the 2 RC helicopters we were modifying. The prestige of being the university that manages to build one of these, and the challenge of it, is enough to get some "amateurs" started with university funding.

      I have to express a bit of concern about an autonomous depth-charge-proof submarine for the military. If the radio receiver is damaged, you can't countermand its orders. If the targeting data (GPS, sonar signature, etc) gets corrupted, it could go after the wrong target. And then there's hackers. Being able to blast the thing out of the water if needed seems like a useful feature.

  9. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge

    The best defense . . .

    Send out a wolf pack of small hunter-seeker submarine drones. If any member of the pack is attacked, the whole pack goes into attack mode, targeting any nearby ships or subs for destruction. I can see nothing that could possibly go wrong with this plan.

  10. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

    They also want to ensure the autonomous vehicle makes an effort to get back in contact with humans to finish its duties after losing touch,

    Will it be listening in for Radio 4 Long Wave to see if it is worth betting back in contact with humans? I read somewhere that with the UK Nuclear Sub fleet, in the event of Blighty being a waste-ground, they are to try to make contact with Australia, Canada or New Zealand

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      I think I'd pick a nice south sea island for six months while waiting to see if anyone crawls out from a deep hole in NZ

  11. x 7

    Gerry Anderson did it again...............

    what they need are something like Titan's Terror Fish, though only optionally manned

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