Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Nader Elhefnawy has a degree in International Relations from Florida International University and has previously published in several journals on maritime and military affairs. This is his fourth article for The Submarine Review.

Unmanned aircraft have gained growing attention in recent years with the apparent success of systems like the Predator and the Global Hawk. Along with the X45 Strikestar, they are pointing the way toward a future where unmanned combat aircraft dominate the skies, and some projections suggest they will constitute a third of the combat aircraft flying by 2020. Robotic vehicles are becoming important in land warfare, as with those which explored the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, and may play a crucial role in the next generation of tanks represented by the Future Combat System. Unmanned systems are already set to perform a variety of roles at sea, such as aiding with coastal surveillance and demining. And just as unmanned systems on land and in the air are leading in the direction of unmanned tanks and bombers, they may even be pointing the way toward an unmanned submarine.

An unmanned submarine would possess a number of significant advantages, broadly analogous to those that unmanned aircraft enjoy. One is that its size and weight could be reduced, since it would not have to accommodate human beings, over a hundred officers and enlisted personnel in the case of American nuclear submarines. Another is that a submarine’s service life could be extended; one does not need to train crews to operate unmanned submarines, thus saving them much hard usage. It would also mean the possibility of longer missions, as submarine cruises would not be limited by the endurance of their crews-potentially critical given the importance of reducing the number of subs required to maintain one submarine on station.1 Keeping hulls continuously deployed and rotating the crews of ships while they are in forward-deployed positions will be simplified when the crew is reduced in size. (If there is no crew, the task gets eliminated entirely.)

For the time being, however, the goals are likely to be much more modest. UUVs capable of theater-level reconaissance within a decade’s time appear feasible, assuming that the effort is made to develop vehicles with greater endurance and to overcome the control issues.2 As with aircraft, large UUVs could conceivably go from performing reconnaissance to mine-laying, and then combat, likely beginning with anti-ship and land-attack functions and eventually proceeding toward taking over the attack sub mission. As is implied by the fact that even the simplest of these missions remains at least a decade away, the process would be a much slower one for submarines than for humans. Warships are larger and more complex than any other weapons system, and none perhaps more so than submarines. Another major caveat exists: an unmanned, combat-capable submarine can not be effectively directed by remote control, at least not with any technology existing or on the horizon, despite steady improvement in areas like digital acoustic communication. This means that submarines will require that much more advanced a level of artificial intelligence, pushing the date at which they become viable still further into the future, if at all.

In the meantime the likelihood is that submarine crews will shrink over the long haul, rather than abruptly giving way to totally unmanned systems, just as has been the case with merchant vessels.3 Ships which had a crew of fifty are today routinely operated by less than half that number, and some designs have only ten crew. Of course, warships are not merchant vessels, least of all submarines. The greater complexity of their task aside, the small crew sizes of today’s commercial vessels was attained by their adopting an airline model where crews take ships from port to port, while maintenance and cargo-handling functions are shifted to shore-based personnel. By contrast, navy planners are looking forward to more logistically independent submarines, but even here automation has made its impact felt in the Virginia class, which has a crew of 113 compared with 129 for the Los Angeles class and 133 for the Seawolf class boats. Fifteen watch standers were eliminated through re engineering, and greater reductions are anticipated as new technologies are incorporated into the boat’s modular design.

The follow-on to the Virginia class expected to enter into service in the 2020s will almost surely be crewed, but a real chance exists that a crew less submarine may actually be an option for the generation of submarines to follow in the 2040s. Such a claim may seem spectacular, but appears less so when one considers the state-of-the-art in fields like artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.

Artificial Intelligence

The quantum leap in computer processing power seems bound to continue for the foreseeable future, with chip speed doubling and chip price halving annually. Many artificial intelligence and robotics experts, including Rodney Allen Brooks, Bill Joy, Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec anticipate that this will result in the commercial, practical availability of computers with intelligence equal to a human being’s in the 2020-2040 time frame. Whether or not computers will actually demonstrate consciousness, intuition and volition as these authors predict is surely an important question, but even without this happening they will find a growing range of roles. This increased computing power can, for instance, be used to integrate data from a wider number and variety of sensors, acoustic and non-acoustic, or to interpret that data, particularly as neural-net computers with human-like pattern-recognition capabilities are developed.

Moreover, the growth in computer processing power is thought highly unlikely to halt at this point. This may make them crucial in keeping up with the accelerating pace of modem warfare, gradually taking over a larger portion of the decision making.5 While the pace of undersea warfare has historically been slower, super cavitation weapons, dispersed sensors like those exemplified by the Advanced Deployed System (ADS) and high-capacity, high-speed communications links seem likely to bring submarine warfare in line with the speed of information-age combat on land and in the air.


The requisite advances in artificial intelligence will in part be facilitated by nanotechnology, particularly where it can contribute to faster, smaller computers, though this would not by any means be the limit of its contribution in this area. Condition-Based Maintenance (CBM), which is being facilitated by micro technology, can reduce the consumption of spare parts, and maintenance demands more broadly. The same goes for the low-friction moving parts which molecular technology can manufacture, because of the possibility of producing components with ultra smooth surfaces, will be slow to clog or wear out. This will simplify logistics and necessitate fewer part replacements, reducing the complexity of the maintenance task that an unmanned submarine’s systems would have to perform.

Additionally, nanotechnology can reduce the weight of a submarine of any given size. The creation of light, super strong materials through, nanoscale assembly will reduce the weight of its hull (and increase its strength, making it deeper-diving, swifter and more resistant to attacks). Consisting of buckyball arrangements of carbon atoms, they have a tensile strength a hundred times greater than that of steel yet only a sixth the weight. According to one estimate, a car made of them would weigh about fifty pounds. Should it become practical to build submarines out of them, the steel vs. titanium hull debate would become instantly irrelevant.

Assuming such miniaturization and new materials, and substantially smaller, lighter submarines as a result, a less powerful and smaller power plant could become practical, opening up alternatives to the present fission power plant standard on U.S. subs. By the 2040s fusion energy may have progressed to the point that a fusion-powered submarine may be feasible. New life, however, may be breathed into non-nuclear plants, presently of new interest because of the advent of air-independent propulsion. (Already, hydrogen fuel cells are becoming viable.7)

Of course, even more so than artificial intelligence, nanotechnology remains nascent, and even its simplest products are exorbitantly priced. Carbon nanotubes have until recently been several times more expensive than gold, and so enjoy only narrow applications, principally in small quantities in expensive consumer items like tennis racquets and designer clothing. The price could be coming down as new production methods are introduced, however, with high-volume plants projected to cut the price by a factor of a hundred within the next few years. Moreover, given their extraordinary strength, much smaller quantities of them would be required for a particular project than if other materials were being used.

Proceeding along these lines, the submarine may come to be crewed by a very small number of personnel, operating a highly automated vehicle considerably smaller than present-day submarines. In size, weight and internal design it may come to resemble a long-range bomber more than a traditional ship adapted to operate underwater, the capabilities of attack submarines packed into a mini-sub. Turning back to the aircraft analogy, strategic bomber crew sizes have been steadily cut down in recent decades, from six in the B-52 to four in the B-1 to two in the B-2, even as the systems grew increasingly expensive, complex and capable. The time when that figure comes down to zero is in sight, and the same could happen for submarines.

Understandably, even when such submarines become technically feasible, designers may not wish to take human beings out of the decision making loop to that extent, particularly where attack submarines or vessels equipped with nuclear weapons or power plants are concerned. Nonetheless, doing away with nuclear propulsion may increase the comfort level with reducing or eliminating human crews. A breakthrough in underwater communications, likewise, might increase the comfort level with completely unmanned systems because of the increased human control it would permit. In any event, just as the pace of underwater conflict is likely to accelerate in the coming decades, so is automation certain to be the crucial way in which navies in the future cope with that pace.


THE SUBMARINE REVIEW published its first issue in April of 1983; therefore, with this April 2003 issue we mark our twentieth birthday. Captain Bill Ruhe started the magazine and ably piloted it through the first seven years. Those years saw the tone set for a magazine of high special interest. Articles of current importance shared the pages of the new publication with objective treatments of submarine historical importance. The stated objective was to establish a forum for professional discussion of any and all topics relating to submarining. Wartime actions were examined and peacetime preparations were described, both with a view toward illustrating lessons to be learned. Captain Ruhe met that objective, won a dedicated readership for the quarterly and set the standard for exemplary submarine-related exposition. He retired from day-to-day direction of the magazine in 1990 and went on to concentrate on authoring his books. Of particular interest is his personal memoir of many patrols in War in the Boats, published by Brassey’s, Inc. in 1994.

The magazine has continued his focus on the entire submarine community and its interests. The League’s Board of Directors has a commitment to remain an independent, knowledgeable commentator on submarine issues and discussions, be they of the past, present or future. This policy has guided the publication over the past twenty years and will continue to be our charted course as we strive to provide an objective forum for all who can add to the body of submarine achievements, rationale and potential.

A total of thirteen ( 13) drawings will be selected for the 2004 calendars (the extra cartoon is for the cover of our small calendar). A $25.00 cash award and a complimentary copy of the large and small calendars will be awarded to each winning artist.

Drawings are to be of a humorous nature depicting life in the Submarine Service.

All drawings must be originals in black ink on white paper (8 Yz” X 11 “) in Landscape Format. Copies will not be accepted.

All drawings become the property of the Dolphin Scholarship Foundation and are non-returnable.

All drawings must be accompanied by the following information printed on the back of your entry: Artist’s name, Rank/Rate, Duty Station, Mailing address and telephone number.

Dependents should also include the name, rank, and duty station of their sponsor.

Children should include their age.

Send drawings to the following address:

Dolphin Calendar Cartoon Contest
Dolphin Scholarship Foundation
5040 Virginia beach Blvd., Suite 104-A
Virginia Beach, VA 23462

Entries Must Be Received on Premises by May 31, 2003

For more information contact your local Dolphin Calendar Chairperson or Ann Maliniak at (757) 671-3200 or

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League