To the world it might be called a robot boat, but its proper name is the Unmanned Surface Vehicle, and the U.S. Navy expects it to be a major tool in countering what officials believe is a growing threat posed by quiet diesel-powered submarines owned by rogue nations.
In advance of the official roll-out today, reporters were allowed to see the boat on Thursday at Naval Base Point Loma before it took a trial run on San Diego Bay.
The goal is to greatly expand the Navy’s ability to detect hostile submarines by sending the unmanned boats, equipped with sonar, to probe the nooks and crannies where subs might be hiding to ambush a Navy ship or a merchant vessel.
The boats will be controlled by sailors at a safe distance on a much larger ship.
The Navy wants to have 32 of the unmanned boats, each packed with the most-sophisticated electronic gear available.
The first of the two boats, developed and stuffed with sonar-detection gear, cost $197 million.
In the future, the price is slated to drop to $46 million per boat.
Each aluminum-hulled boat is 39 feet long, weighs 17,000 pounds and can carry up to 5,000 pounds of intelligence-gathering technology while traveling up to 35 knots in rough waters.
If all goes as planned, the first will be deployed in 2011, possibly to the Persian Gulf, where the Iranian navy says its submarines, lurking undetected, could close the Strait of Hormuz, through which tankers carrying much of the world’s oil supply travel.
The boats are meant to be launched by the so-called Littoral Combat Ships, shallow-draft ships that can maneuver close to shore.
“With the way the world is now, with terrorists just sitting around looking for new ideas to attack us, it’s very important we have a way to protect our sailors as they transit through the shallow waters,” said Thomas Mulkeen, one of the contractors working on the project, whose motto is “Detect, deter, defeat.”
San Diego will be the home port for six of the Littoral Combat Ships. The Space and Naval Warfare Command Systems Center, San Diego, has been a leader in developing the submarine detection technology for the unmanned boats.
“We’re still in the early stages of the concept,” said Capt. Mike Good, program manager.