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The U.S. Navy Should Deploy the Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel Now

Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel
June 22, 2022 - The medium displacement unmanned vessel Sea Hunter transits the Pacific Ocean to participate in Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022. Twenty-six nations, 38 ships, four submarines, more than 170 aircraft and 25,000 personnel are participating in RIMPAC from June 29 to Aug. 4 in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California. The world’s largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC provides a unique training opportunity while fostering and sustaining cooperative relationships among participants critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world’s oceans. RIMPAC 2022 is the 28th exercise in the series that began in 1971. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler R. Fraser)

A world-renowned defense expert explains why the U.S. Navy needs the Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel: The U.S. Navy has a vision for a future fleet that involves deploying as many as 150 unmanned platforms, both unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) of diverse sizes and weights. 

Unmanned Surface Vehicles on the Open Water

The technology for USVs is well-developed with several USVs, particularly medium-sized USVs (MUSVs), having been operated at sea for protracted periods of time over several years. In multiple deployments and exercises, these MUSVs have proven their utility. Despite this, the Navy is holding off on deploying MUSVs operationally, apparently waiting until the constituent technologies for unmanned platforms are more fully developed and a concept of operations is defined. This is a mistake. MUSVs are ready for operational deployment now. The Navy needs to deploy these systems in significant numbers to support Fleet operations. 

The Navy’s Vision for Unmanned Vehicles, on the Surface and Under

The U.S. Navy sees USVs and UUVs as critical to the full range of operational missions across the world’s oceans and to operate forward in increasingly hostile maritime environments. To meet growing peacetime demands and wartime threats, the U.S. Navy is focused on spreading its assets more broadly across the seas in a concept known as Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). 

Ships will operate in a new way while continuing to pursue its core missions of defending the homeland, deterring threats to vital interests, allies, and friends, and defeating aggression, the Navy needs a new kind of Fleet. As the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Navigation Plan 2022 makes clear, the Navy must become a hybrid fleet, one in which unmanned sea platforms play a critical role. 

Recognizing the value of unmanned platforms to its future capabilities, in 2020 the Navy published its Unmanned Campaign Framework, which addresses a path toward deployment of unmanned platforms in all domains. With respect to USVs, the Framework envisions the development of both large (LUSV) and medium USVs. According to the Framework, the primary role of a LUSV will be to support DMO with an array of anti-ship and land-attack weapons in addition to Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR); and electronic warfare (EW) packages. A smaller MUSV is envisioned primarily as a sensor platform, while secondarily hosting communications relays and EW modules. 

The Navy Should Be Moving Full Speed Ahead with Unmanned Vehicles

Initially, the Navy desired to move rapidly in deploying both large and medium USVs to augment existing Fleet capabilities while maturing the relevant technologies as it went. However, in recent months, the Navy appears to be moving away from the idea of deploying significant numbers of MUSVs and instead waiting beyond the current Future Years Defense Program to deploy a LUSV. In response to pressure from Congress, which was concerned that the Navy’s plans for rapid development of USVs and UUVs were technologically high risk, the Navy shifted from a revolutionary to an evolutionary strategy, one in which it would mature the relevant technologies needed to support the deployment of LUSVs and MUSVs.

In addition, Admiral Michael Gilday, the CNO, surprised many observers when he recently opined that the Navy might forego the development and deployment of an MUSV:  

“I don’t know if we’ll have a medium unmanned or not. The stuff that [Vice Admiral Brad] Cooper’s doing right now with CTF 59 – using small unmanned [vehicles] on the scene in the air to sense the environment … in order to yield a common operational picture for allies and partners, as well as Fifth Fleet headquarters, has changed my thinking on the direction of unmanned.”

Gilday’s observation was based on the results of experiments in the Persian Gulf by Combined Task Force (CTF) 59, the organization created to rapidly integrate unmanned systems and artificial intelligence with maritime operations in the Fifth Fleet area of operations.

Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel – Slowed Down, But Hopefully Not Halted

The decision to slow down the deployment of USVs and even eliminate the MUSV makes no sense given how successfully the Navy and industry have been operating prototype vessels and the contributions that existing types of USVs can make to current Navy operations. Under the rubric of DARPA’s Project Overlord, two surrogates for LUSVs, the Ranger and Nomad, have been operating at sea for approximately three years, participating in a variety of experiments and conducting long-range deployments under nearly full autonomy.

Even more impressive has been the performance of a number of the MUSV prototypes. The Sea Hunter and Seahawk MUSVs have been operating with the Navy in a range of experiments and exercises over the past several years. Unlike the small USVs employed by CTF 59 in its experiments, the Sea Hunter/Seahawk are significantly larger, can carry substantial sensor payloads, and can operate at sea over long distances and for extended periods.

The Navy was sufficiently confident in the operation of its LUSV and MUSV prototypes to deploy them to the recent international Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022 exercise. During RIMPAC, the two MUSVs were deployed under the control of individual destroyers, successfully demonstrating their ability to support the larger, manned vessels.

Even in their current state of development, MUSVs can make a substantial contribution to Navy operations and the realization of DMO. As a senior naval officer noted, sensor-equipped MUSVs can extend the range of manned platforms. They also can provide critical active sensing for manned platforms, permitting the latter to exercise emissions control and remain undetectable.

Given the growing tensions with China and the rise of that country’s military, the Navy should consider whether it will have the time to pursue a leisurely, evolutionary development strategy for USVs. The Navy needs to be able to expand its operating and sensing footprint now if it is to counter the rise of the Chinese military. Some observers think a clash with China may come sooner rather than later. 

It is important to get available systems to the Fleet as rapidly as possible. While the Navy awarded a contract in FY 2021 to L3/Harris for the development of a MUSV prototype, this is insufficient. Platforms such as Sea Hunter and Seahawk have proven both deployability and tactical value in multiple experiments and exercises. The Navy should acquire more of these MUSVs, providing capability now to the Fleet, rather than waiting for the promise of better technology later. 

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.