Bring Back My Carrier-based Fixed-wing ASW; Part 2

A couple months ago I wrote about the decline in US Navy carrier-based aerial anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities since the end of the Cold War, how the rise of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) submarine force has once again created a need for the capability, and how the MQ-25 could potentially be a quick turnaround solution for this (as well as discussing the potential for a roll-on/roll-off ASW kit for the CMV-22 as well). Well recently, Northrop Grumman showcased something that makes this concept even more enticing.

According to Xavier Vavasseur at Naval News, Northrop Grumman has been developing what they’re calling the Very Light Weight Torpedo (VLWT), for the US Navy, and showcased it to the world at Sea Air Space 2021 expo. The VLWT’s performance and capabilities are classified and not available to review, but what IS available is the diameter. VLWT is designed partially to be able to be deployed via a submarine’s existing six inch decoy tubes. So that means the VLWT’s diameter is roughly 121mm. For context, the Mark 54 torpedo, the US Navy’s mainstay ASW weapon, is 600lbs and has a diameter of 324mm. With the VLWT being just a hair over 1/3rd the diameter of the Mark 54, we can fairly confidently guesstimate that the LVWT will be just a hair over 1/3rd the weight of the Mark 54 as well. That would make the LVTW a 200lb torpedo.

Northrop Grumman stated that the VLWT will be able to be deployed from the air as well. This makes things interesting. The MQ-9’s two outer hardpoints are typically equipped with either two AGM-114s (Hellfires) or a 500lb JDAM. So in the context of the MQ-9, the two inner hardpoints get equipped with the sonobuoy dispenser system (SDS) pods, while the outer hardpoints are then equipped with 1–2 of the VLWTs. You now have an aerial ASW asset that can stay up for 18+ hours, carrying 20–40 sonobuoys and 2 to 4 torpedoes. With an MQ-25, there’s only two external hardpoints that we know of at this time, but that would still equate to 10–20 sonobuoys and 1–2 torpedoes. For the CMV-22, the smaller diameter and lower weight of the VLWT would make it even easier to develop a roll-on/roll-off (RORO) ASW kit for when the CMV-22 isn’t going out to pick up supplies/personnel. I should again note that the idea of the V-22 performing ASW is not new. It was an idea the US Navy flirted with at the early stages of the V-22’s development, and one the Naval War College recommended procuring it for as part of what they referred to in 2004 as part of the “Sea Shield” mission set for the aircraft. So this is not just something out of the blue, but rather something the US Navy has very much looked into and considered.

The VLWT will be a huge boost to submarines in that it can dramatically increase their torpedo loadout, and allow them to deploy multiple torpedoes in order to ensure the adversary can’t evade. However, the biggest potential for the VLWT at this point, looks to be integrating it into lower cost UAVs such as the MQ-9 (roughly $12M USD per airframe) to heavily augment the higher end and higher costing manned platforms such as the P-8 (roughly $200M USD per airframe) to shore up land-based aerial ASW capabilities, as well as onto the MQ-25 and CMV-22 to bring back credible long range ASW capabilities to the carriers. It can allow for ASW to shift from expensive and personnel intensive aircraft tracking and engaging, to lower end UAVs taking on some of the tracking, to lower end UAVs being capable of tracking and engaging on their own, which is a huge boost to ASW capabilities that the US Navy is desperate need of, given the PLAN’s massive fleet of 80+ submarines.

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