Big fleas have little fleas,
Upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas,
And so ad infinitum.
-- attributed to Augustus De Morgan, and quoted by Robert A. Heinlein in The Puppet Masters
It appears the U.S. Navy is taking a page from the famed science-fiction author's notebook (Heinlein himself was a former naval officer aboard the USS Lexington). As recently reported in Seapower magazine, the Navy has undertaken development of a new large-diameter unmanned underwater vehicle, or LDUUV.
Seapower described the LDUUV as "a modular, open architecture, reconfigurable UUV." Essentially large robotic submarines, LDUUVs would piggyback aboard Navy Ohio-class guided-missile submarines within their dry-deck shelters (portable airlocks built by General Dynamics, and used by Navy SEALs to store vehicles and for underwater egress).
Other vessels capable of carrying LDUUVs might include Littoral Combat Ships -- both those built by Australia's Austal and by American defense contractor Lockheed Martin, and also Virginia-class nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines from Huntington Ingalls and General Dynamics, when equipped with the latter's portable dry docks.
What does the LDUUV do?
At this early stage in the project, details on the LDUUV remain in flux. That said, Seapower noted that the LDUUV will be both "modular" and "reconfigurable," and able to conduct "below-water Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance," and that "future increments" should include "Mine Countermeasures and payload deployment." Thus, it appears the Navy plans to use the vessels as spy submarines, as assistants in the minesweeping operations that are becoming the prime focus of the LCS fleet, and for payload deployment.
This last part of the LDUUV "mission statement" should intrigue investors most. "Payload deployment" might refer to anything from launching underwater attacks with missiles or small torpedoes to deploying small UUVs of its own ("lesser fleas") to deploying other types of robotic payloads such as drone aircraft or amphibious ground robots ("ad infinitum"...).
Indeed, the description appears to slot in nicely with what we have learned about a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program to begin working out the concept of an underwater aircraft carrier -- one that can deploy all three types of "autonomous vehicles" already described.
What does it mean to investors?
Here at The Motley Fool, we're as interested in reading about supercool military tech as anyone else -- but we're really interested in translating defense news into cold, hard profits in our portfolios. With that end in mind, let's see what this week's news could mean for defense investors.
At present, the LDUUV program described by Seapower is in its early innings, and there's little for investors to sink their teeth into. In fact, the first robo-subs tested as part of the LDUUV program will likely be Sea Stalker and Sea Horse UUVs built by the Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Laboratory -- the furthest thing from a publicly traded defense contractor.
As the program gathers steam, however, and approaches a stage of low-rate initial production, it seems logical that the Pentagon would reach out to established defense contractors to build its new fleet of large-diameter robo-subs. At this point, names such as General Dynamics, iRobot, Boeing, and even Oceaneering International -- all of which have underwater robotics programs at various stages of development -- become worth considering.