The United States is accelerating the deployment of unmanned ships as an affordable way to catch up with the rapidly growing Chinese navy and simultaneously avoid recent costly shipbuilding mistakes, according to the Associated Press. reported Last week.
This year’s iteration of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises from June 29 to August 4 includes the new Unmanned Surface Vessels Division 1 (USVDIV-1), a U.S. Navy unit tasked with “accelerating delivery of unmanned systems in conjunction with increasingly capable manned platforms in the fleet,” the US Naval Institute reported.
According to the Institute, the USVDIV-1 will operate the unmanned trimarans USV Sea Hunter, USV Sea Hawk and the unmanned support vessels Nomad and Ranger.
sea hunter was unveiled in 2016 as part of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program and is suitable for shallow water operations. Two diesel engines give her a top speed of 27 knots with 40 tons of fuel for a range of 10,000 nautical miles at 12 knots.
sea hawk is an upgraded version of Sea Hunter, delivered to the US Navy in 2021. It is slightly heavier at 145 tons and incorporates over 300 lessons from the old design.
According The war zone, the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Capabilities (SCO) converted the Nomad and Ranger from commercial fast replenishment vessels used for various offshore activities, such as resupplying oil rigs and offshore wind farms. As a result, they feature sizable rear cargo areas, which mission planners can reconfigure to accept different payloads.
In September 2021, the United States Navy fired an SM-6 missile from a containerized four-pack launcher from the deck of the Ranger, as reported by Le Poste de Défense. The test showed the type’s potential to be an ad hoc combatant under the US Navy’s concept of distributed lethality.
Experimentation conducted during RIMPAC 2022 will allow USVDIV-1 to gather data on ships’ operational needs and how to integrate unmanned resources into a larger fleet structure, according to the US Naval Institute.
The Associated Press report mentions that the long-term goal is to see how their sensors and radars can be integrated with AI and manned combatants such as cruisers, destroyers, submarines and carriers. aircraft to create a networked, resilient and dispersed fleet that is more difficult to hunt down and destroy.
Defense analyst Loren Thompson mentions in the Associated Press that cost is the biggest advantage unmanned ships have to offer as the US struggles to keep up with China’s shipbuilding program . China already has the world’s largest navy in terms of number of ships, and the gap between China and the United States continues to grow.
The source also mentions that although the US Navy is already using unmanned vessels on a relatively small scale in the Persian Gulf, it must persuade a skeptical Congress to step up the deployment of such vessels in the much larger Pacific against China.
A July 2022 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report raises critical questions about the US Navy’s efforts to ramp up the deployment of unmanned ships in the Pacific. The report examines how these unmanned vessels fit into a larger fleet structure, their concept of operations (CONOPS), acquisition strategies, timing, costs, technical risks, implications for shipbuilding and their potential to contribute to escalation and miscalculation at sea.
The CRS report mentions that the US Navy is making progress in developing plans for a more distributed fleet structure in which unmanned ships will play a significant role, but also notes that many specific details are left to the imagination.
The CRS report also doubts the accuracy of the US Navy’s focus on the combat measures of these systems and less on their implied indirect sustainment tasks and required sustainment assets, such as motherships and support bases.
Despite these shortcomings, Nurettin Sevi, a captain in the Turkish Navy writing for the defense website Naval Technology, notes that unmanned ships can be integrated into current fleet structures as force multipliers by extending and supporting the situational awareness of, and operating with, crewed ships in missions such as mine laying, mine sweeping, searching, tracking and engaging adversaries.
The report also asks questions about the degree of development of the US Navy’s CONOPS for unmanned surface combatants and how the US Navy will operate and maintain these systems on a day-to-day basis. The report notes the potential for ever-changing capacity demands of these systems due to a lack of fully developed CONOPS.
Faced with these questions, defense analyst Robbin Laird writing in Defense.info that the United States is studying how to integrate unmanned ships into combined operations with its allies, how these systems would interact with crewed assets, and the implications of emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning on capabilities of unmanned maritime combatants.
With respect to acquisition strategies, timing, costs, and technical risks brought by unmanned vessels, the CRS report asks whether the US Navy’s risk management and mitigation programs are sufficient to deal with the risks involved in technology. It also asks if operational concepts and enabling technologies such as networks and software are mature enough before mass production of unmanned vessels.
The CRS report highlights that the US Navy uses a “learn-on-the-fly” approach to unmanned vessels, as it has acquired a handful of prototypes and notes lessons learned from their use. He also mentions that the US Navy believes this approach is the fastest way to deploy these assets.
However, this practice, as opposed to building terrestrial test facilities first, has infuriated US policymakers in the past due to previous failures of expensive programs after skipping the final stage.
Among these controversial programs are the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the production of which was discontinued in favor of the Constellation-class frigates, the Advanced Gun System (AGS) for the Zumwalt-class destroyers, whose ammunition proved too expensive for practical use. , and the prolonged development of Ford-class supercarriers.
Paradoxically, the CRS report notes that unmanned ships can increase overall vulnerability to cyberattacks. Their complex systems can increase reliance on human operators, maintenance crews, and manned ships, defeating their purpose of disarming the battlespace.
In a paper 2017 published in St Antony’s International Review, Caroline Varin notes that around 30 people are needed to operate a Predator or Reaper drone, with another 80 needed to analyze drone data. He notes that unmanned ships could end up having similar personnel requirements.
The report also notes that the false promise of battlespace decrew made by unmanned ships, driven by a misplaced reliance on immature technology and a paradoxical increase in the human input required to make these unmanned systems work , can lead to the premature retirement of inhabited assets, opening up even larger capacity gaps.
In terms of shipbuilding and maintenance requirements for unmanned vessels, the CRS report asks what portion of these unmanned vessels can be built by other shipyards that make the US Navy’s major combatants and how production of these systems could affect current US shipbuilding plans, workloads and employment programs at various facilities.
Perhaps most tellingly, the CRS report mentions that unmanned vessels have significant implications for miscalculations or potential escalations at sea. The report notes that these unsustainable systems can lower the threshold for military action, encouraging commanders to adopt aggressive courses of action without risk to human life.
In addition, the proliferation of unmanned vessels can lead to a “blitzkriegin which opposing autonomous systems interact, leading to an escalating spiral out of control.