Diesel-electric submarines are a blight upon the ocean.

File
Iranian Navy Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine. Image source: U.S. Department of Defense.

At least, that's how they look from the perspective of the U.S. Navy. They're silent to an extent that nuclear submarines can only dream of being, capable of traveling for weeks at sea before coming up to "breathe," and armed with everything from torpedoes to anti-ship missiles.

"Worst" of all, they're cheap as all get-out. Even the most advanced models of diesel-electric cost only about 20% as much as a U.S. Virginia-class fast attack nuclear submarine, and budget-priced models can cost a tenth the price of a Virginia-class boat. That means that hostile navies can afford to buy a lot more of them -- and it means even more potentially hostile countries can afford to add submarine capability to their fleets. Faced with such a conundrum, what is a first-world power like the United States supposed to do?

Call DARPA.

Www
Is ACTUV the antidote for diesel-electric submarine threats? Image source: DARPA.

Who you gonna call? Sub-busters!
Over at DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- America's top scientists are hard at work on the problem of proliferating cheap diesel-electric submarines, trying to design an antidote dubbed the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or "ACTUV."

Simply put, ACTUV is a robotic sub-hunter, an umanned surface warship tasked with locating and trailing hostile submarines, keeping tabs on their movements. One day, ACTUV might be armed and assigned kill missions -- but for now the mission is strictly "Look, don't touch."

What will ACTUV do?
DARPA awarded the ACTUV contract to prime contractor Leidos (NYSE:LDOS), itself one half of the defense contractor formerly known as SAIC. (Note: The other half  of that company inherited the company name, and remains SAIC today.) In so doing, DARPA listed several requirements for ACTUV. Among them, ACTUV must be:

  • Cheap. It should be only "a fraction" of the size of a diesel sub, and a fraction of a sub's cost as well.
  • Long-legged. ACTUV will need to range "thousands of kilometers" across the seas, for "months" at a time.
  • Independent. Manned operators will have only "sparse" ability to keep tabs on ACTUV, so the vessel must be able to conduct its mission autonomously, robotically following all "maritime laws and conventions for safe navigation" even as it maneuvers to keep track of "an intelligent adversary."

But most important, ACTUV must be able to fulfill its mission, and maintain "robust continuous track of the quietest submarine targets over their entire operating envelope." To help with that, Leidos hired  Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) to develop a Modular Scalable Sonar System (MS3) for ACTUV -- the "eyes" (or rather, ears) that it will use to identify and track enemy submarines -- for mounting aboard its trimaran prototype (construction of which was in turn subcontracted to Oregon Iron Works). Raytheon says it delivered a completed MS3 system to Leidos in November.

What does ACTUV mean to investors?
While specifying "cheapness" as a virtue, DARPA has not assigned any specific dollar value to the ACTUV project, but that doesn't make it value-less. In addition to funding for R&D work, success in this initial phase may set up Leidos and Raytheon to win additional dollars if ACTUV enters into active production.

And not just ACTUV. In addition to designing the robotic sub-hunter itself, DARPA plans to use ACTUV as a testbed that can later be expanded into the development of a "wide range of missions and configurations for future unmanned naval vessels." If fall goes well, ACTUV could eventually become the basis for a whole new robotic navy of the future.

And right now, Leidos and Raytheon are getting in on the ground floor.

Actuv And Sub Image
Don't look now, but ACTUV is watching you. Image source: Leidos.

Rich Smith owns shares of Raytheon. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 318 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.