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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

The US Navy Needs a Fleet of Unmanned Warships Now

US Navy
GULF OF ADEN (May 17, 2016) Members of the visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) alongside guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez (DDG 66). Gonzalez is currently operating with the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations.

The Navy Needs To Move Faster To Build A Fleet Of Unmanned Surface Vessels – The U.S. Navy is in a proverbial race against time to create the fleet required to deter great power competitors such as Russia and China. The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Michael Gilday, recently proposed a fleet of 500 ships by the 2030s. This means building more surface ships, aircraft carriers, amphibious warships, and submarines.

But reaching the CNO’s goal also will require the Navy to take the radical step of incorporating approximately 150 unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) into its fleet architecture. This will require major investments, not only of budgetary resources, but also in time and people. It will also necessitate a lot of experimentation with unmanned platforms to develop appropriate concepts of operations, tactics, and procedures to fully integrate unmanned vessels with the rest of the fleet.

Unmanned vessels are envisioned as an essential enabler of the Navy’s new operating concept, Distributed Maritime Operations. They are also critical to the Navy’s ability to field a fleet of sufficient size and capability to address U.S. national security. Admiral Gilday explained the importance of unmanned platforms thusly:

“So, first of all, we believe it’s an important part of the future. That we can’t afford to field a Navy like we did in the previous century. That we believe that numbers are important, but with respect to affordability, with respect to lethality, that there’s a better way to get at it than we have before. Unmanned is part of that answer. And certainly manned-unmanned teaming, which eventually would lead to an element of a more autonomous fleet, is where we’re headed.”

The Navy proposes to develop at least four classes (Very Small, Small, Medium, and Large) of USVs. The first two classes will serve as adjuncts to other surface vessels, primarily as sensor platforms. Navy plans to build a 500-ship fleet emphasize the last two categories, the Medium USV (MUSV) and Large USV (LUSV) which are proposed to be about the size of a Corvette and patrol frigate, respectively. MUSVs and LUSVs are envisioned as conducting a range of missions, including anti-surface and submarine warfare. Some of these ships may be optionally manned, at least until the required autonomy can be achieved.

In the Very Small and Small categories, the Navy has a program of record for the Common Unmanned Surface Vessel (CUSV) which can carry a variety of sensors and operate from shore or from a Littoral Combat Ship. Other examples of small USVs include the Saildragon and Manta, both of which have been deployed with the fleet in exercises in the Indo-Pacific and Middle East.

The Navy has funded the development of several prototypes of LUSVs and MUSVs. The defense department’s Strategic Capabilities Office funded the creation of two prototypes of a potential M/LUSV,  the NOMAD and the RANGER, as part of its Ghost Fleet program. Last year the Navy conducted a test launch of an SM-6 missile from the Ranger. After extensive experimentation with these two vessels, including long-range deployments, they have been turned over to the Navy. Two additional Ghost Fleet ships will be acquired to further development of the large classes of USVs.

Perhaps the most promising USV is the medium-sized Sea Hunter. At 135 feet, the composite trimaran hull Sea Hunter and its sister ship, the Seahawk, provide substantially greater range and payload than smaller USVs but at a fraction of the cost of an LUSV.  In repeated exercises with the fleet, Sea Hunter has demonstrated many of the capabilities necessary for an operational USV, including long-range deployment under autonomous guidance and good seakeeping.

The Navy initially proposed an aggressive program that would rapidly acquire a small number of MUSVs and LUSVs to provide the basis for experimenting with concepts of operation (CONOPS), command and control, and relevant technologies. As the technologies matured, operating a limited number of USVs would have allowed the Navy to better define its technical requirements, begin to understand how to use USVs, and gain insight into other critical issues such as training and sustainment.

Unfortunately, the Navy recently announced that it would not initiate a formal program for USVs for at least five years. In doing so, the Navy appears to have capitulated to Congressional critics who have demanded that critical technologies for unmanned vessels be proven before a major acquisition program is initiated. The CNO has proposed an evolutionary approach, deploying a number of smaller USVs with the fleet to begin the process of developing CONOPS and tactics while waiting for the relevant technologies associated with both MUSVs and LUSVs to mature.

Waiting on technologies to mature and deploying only small USVs for experimental purposes is likely to prove a losing strategy when it comes to the real test:  operating multiple M/LUSVs. Many relevant technologies are being developed in the private sector at a rate faster than the Navy can achieve. This sequential, “develop before you buy,” approach virtually guarantees that the Navy will be continuously behind the power curve either with respect to USV technologies or to relevant operating concepts, training, and sustainment.

To learn how to operate and support M/LUSVS, the Navy needs to deploy a capability beyond the smaller classes of USVs. To do this, the Navy should consider acquiring a squadron of Sea Hunter MUSVs equipped with various sensor packages. The Sea Hunter is a relatively cheap yet sturdy platform—and it is production-ready. Deploying a squadron of Sea Hunters would put real capability in the fleet’s hands and allow the Navy to gain invaluable experience operating USVs by exploiting their unique properties. These ships could even be deployed forward with elements of the new Marine Littoral regiment, which would pose a new and difficult challenge to China.

Time is the commodity in the shortest supply if the Navy is to meet its goal of 500 ships in the 2030s. The Navy would be wise to adopt a mixed strategy, emphasizing the development of appropriate building blocks for M/LUSVs while acquiring and operating multiple Sea Hunters to advance suitable tactics and sustainment concepts.

Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.

Written By

Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.