Largest UUV Deployed from Submarines – Advancement in Program

Largest UUV Deployed from Submarines – Advancement in Program

A starboard quarter view of the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine USS KENTUCKY (SSBN-737) underway as the ship departs for sea.

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Seabed mapping is critical for submarines for being able to safely ingress and egress from a designated area safely and with the lowest chance of detection. The U.S. Navy’s Snakehead unmanned undersea vehicle platform is designed for such missions. The Navy is moving ahead with plans to expand its UUV capabilities with the acquisition of a new large-displacement design as part of its Snakehead program, announcing Phase 2 of the program. 

Snakehead is a long-endurance, multi-mission UUV, deployed from submarine large open interfaces, with the capability to deploy payloads. It is the largest UUV intended for hosting and deployment from submarines.

The service wants these drones, which its nuclear-powered submarines will be able to launch and recover underwater, to initially be able to scout ahead or monitor certain areas, as well as perform other intelligence-gathering missions. It has plans to use them in other roles, including as electronic warfare platforms, in the future, as well.

Regarding the missions of the UUVs, the announcement said: “Initial vehicles will be designed to support Intelligence Preparation of the Operating Environment (IPOE) missions.” “Future vehicle missions may include deployment of various payloads.”

IPOE is a mission set that involves collecting information about a particular area or objective ahead of an operation, to help with planning. According to, UUVs used in this role typically have a mixture of sensors, including side-scan sonars and bathymetric sensors, to create detailed maps of the seabed and otherwise identify potential hazards or other objects of interest. 

If the objective itself is underwater, such as a sunken object or undersea cable, a Snakehead could also help confirm its general location and the presence of any hostile forces in the area, all without its host boat having to perform this kind of reconnaissance directly, which could put it at increased risk. 

Such details would be valuable details to pass along to teams of special operators, which the submarine in question might be carrying itself, as they prepare to carry out various missions. This could include raids, either in the water, such as blowing up ships in a port using munitions, or ashore. An IPOE mission could also be in support of a larger-scale amphibious operation.

The Navy has said in the past that Snakehead should be able to carry out more general intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, as well. 

The initial Phase 1 Snakehead was expected to be ready in the water by 2019. At the time of writing, the first Phase 1 Snakehead is still under construction and is not expected to be delivered until sometime next year.