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All U.S. Navy Ships Should Be Transformed Into ‘Motherships’

Littoral Combat Ship. Image Credit: US Navy.
Littoral Combat Ship. Image Credit: US Navy.

In a recent letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro stated that the U.S. Navy is considering using the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) as a mothership for unmanned systems.

This made headlines which implied that the Navy might be making some kind of brilliant course change for the failing ship class.

While the force-multiplying effect of unmanned systems is a positive development for the Navy, the fact of the matter is that the surface Navy is late to the mothership game.

The Naval oceanography community has been using their Pathfinder class oceanographic survey ships (T-AGS) to globally deploy up to 100 unmanned vehicles at a time, while also being the first to operationalize REMUS 6000 autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV). 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has also demonstrated the capability of operating multiple autonomous vehicles for ocean mapping and exploration.

In one innovative example last year, NOAA’s Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute employed an ocean mapping uncrewed surface vessel (USV) to command, control, and dynamically alter the operation of two subsurface AUVs.

NOAA has been so successful with this USV that the agency has drafted a request for proposals (RFP) to acquire 8 unmanned maritime systems in addition to the 2 operational units in its inventory.

This RFP is an component of the NOAA Class B Ship acquisition program, the first surface drone mothership program in the federal government.

What is most vexing about Secretary Del Toro’s letter is that he has not directed the conversion of LCS to a mothership program, rather, he has directed a study on it.

Why wait? LCS has already operated with the MQ-8 Firescout unmanned aerial system, and the LCS Mine Countermeasures USV program is nearing initial operating capability.

Also, other types of surface ships such as destroyersamphibious and expeditionary ships, and even the Mk V Special Operations Craft have deployed a wide variety of autonomous vehicles.

Additionally, the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet’s Task Force 59 has shown stunning success in integrating manned and unmanned platforms. Now Secretary Del Toro wants more task forces like it in other numbered fleets.

In view of the Navy’s significant progress in unmanned aerialsurface, and undersea systems programs, and considering the high technical readiness levels of readiness of such systems that are available off-the-shelf in industry, the Navy should accelerate its application of autonomy across every domain through a mix of government-owned and operated (GOGO), government-owned/contractor operated (GOCO), and contactor owned and operated (COCO) acquisition models.

During the West 2023 conference in San Diego last week, commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence  Rear Admiral Mike Studeman commented, “It’s disturbing how ill-informed and naïve the average American is on China.” In my opinion, the U.S. Navy appears to be ill-informed and naïve about China’s developments in unmanned systems.

Last June, China launched the world’s first autonomous unmanned system mothership. China claims that the intelligence collection ship, known as Zhu Hai Yun, can operate at a top speed of 18 knots, is 290 feet in length, and is equipped with launch and recovery equipment for 50 aerial, surface, and submersible unmanned systems.

We do not need to sustain a broken ship class by repurposing it as a costly means of advancing autonomy in the fleet. Instead, we need to build the ships – manned and unmanned – that will fight and win against China.

Then, by leveraging the diversity, maturity, and cost-effectiveness of all domain autonomy in the private sector, the Navy should up-armor all of its ships by making them motherships of drones uniquely adapted to each vessel’s design, manning, and mission.  

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Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet (USN, Ret.), Ph.D., is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC. He is a former acting and deputy administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), acting undersecretary and assistant secretary of Commerce, and oceanographer in the Navy. This first appeared in RealClearDefense

Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet (USN, Ret.), Ph.D., is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC. He is a former acting and deputy administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), acting undersecretary and assistant secretary of Commerce, and oceanographer in the Navy.