Navy takes new tack in effort to develop minisub in Hawaii

The 32-foot submersible UOES-3 is capable of carrying two pilots and four SEALs, according to a Special Operations Command report.


By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: October 20, 2013

HONOLULU — A costly, lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful chapter in Navy SEAL mini­sub development and use in Hawaii is ending, while a more economical effort is continuing as the Special Operations Command seeks a better way to deliver commandos to their target.

It's been a painful 19-year journey for the Advanced SEAL Delivery System, a one-of-a-kind minisub at Pearl City Peninsula that was intended to deliver SEALs dry, rested and with better intelligence.

Its failure meant that the elite fighters still had to rely on flooded SEAL vehicles using scuba gear to clandestinely arrive at their mission destination from a much larger mother submarine.

A contract was awarded in 1994 for an eventual fleet of the $80 million midget ASDS submarines, but only one was built. The Northrop Grumman effort was beset by problems and ballooned to $885 million by 2007, and that one sub burned at Pearl City in a battery fire in 2008.

The following year the military said the $237 million repair bill was too much, and it wouldn't fix the sub, which was designed to ride atop specially outfitted Los Angeles-class attack submarines.

The Naval Special Warfare Command in San Diego said the 65-foot ASDS-1 is going through a "demilitarization" process that's scheduled to be completed next fall.

Christopher Johnson, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, said the ASDS already has been dismantled at the Pearl City SEAL compound.

"Portions of the actual vehicle as well as spare parts and components are being dispositioned either by reusing them in other programs or disposing of them when appropriate," Johnson said. "All will eventually be removed from the Pearl City facility."

A Joint Multi-Mission Submersible follow-on program was deep-sixed in 2010 due to "unacceptably high total program costs," a U.S. Senate report said.

About that time, the Special Operations Command announced a new acquisition strategy including the use of smaller off-the-shelf commercial technology as a more economical starting point for new minisubmarines.

Two prototypes to be tested in Panama City, Fla., called User Operational Evaluation Systems, or UOES 2 and 3, are scheduled to be transferred to Pearl Harbor by mid-2015, according to the command.

The goal is similar to that of the ASDS: mate a small submersible to a larger attack or guided missile submarine to launch SEALs within some proximity to their destination — thereby removing the need for the commandos to spend significant time in a cramped and energy-sapping SEAL Delivery Vehicle.

SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 has more than 100 SEALs in Hawaii.

One projection for the minisubs is that they would have greater than 24-hour life support capabilities. But battery limitations have been identified as a "technology gap."

In late 2009, at the request of the Navy, the Submergence Group, based in Chester, Conn., moved one of its 25-foot-long S301 commercial minisubs to the Pearl City SEAL compound for testing.

Development and production of the S301, capable of transporting two pilots and six divers, cost less than $10 million, Submergence Group said at the time.

The new testing investigates "the applicability of relevant, low-cost commercial technologies (and) techniques for use in a future affordable small lock-in/lock-out submersible," said Lt. Cmdr. Li Cohen, a spokeswoman for the Special Operations Command.

Two prototype testing contracts were awarded for the delivery of submersible systems, the command said.

One contract was awarded in 2012 to a Lockheed Martin-led team that included the Submergence Group, Northrop Grumman and Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding, Lockheed said.

The 39-foot sub, designated UOES-2, would be able to carry two pilots and eight commandos and have up to a 138-mile range at nearly 6 mph, a Special Operations Command report said.

Another contract was awarded in 2012 to General Dynamics Electric Boat with Giunio Santi Engineering in Italy as a subcontractor/ builder for a 32-foot submersible, UOES-3, capable of carrying two pilots and four SEALs 69 miles at nearly 6 mph, the command said.

"SOCOM is funding and building two (dry combat submersible) prototypes of different sizes to determine the right DCS requirements and capabilities," said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Allen, a command spokesman.

According to an IHS Jane's Navy International report, the Lockheed/Submergence team received a $22.7 million contract, while General Dynamics received a $44.3 million award.

The Military Sealift Command sent out a "market survey" in late September seeking a U.S.-flagged vessel with up to 5,000 square feet of deck space to act as a support ship for testing of the submersibles and other special operation forces equipment in Hawaii.

A 2013 Special Operations Command report identified the Virginia-class submarines USS Hawaii and a sub not yet homeported at Pearl Harbor, the USS Mississippi, as special operations forces platforms here.