• A Seahawk unmanned surface vessel in the Pacific Ocean and an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter from the Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 73 participate in U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21 in April. Naval exercises have been crucial to aiding the integration of unmanned vessels into the fleet and pairing with manned capabilities, experts say. Credit: U.S. Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe
     A Seahawk unmanned surface vessel in the Pacific Ocean and an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter from the Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 73 participate in U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21 in April. Naval exercises have been crucial to aiding the integration of unmanned vessels into the fleet and pairing with manned capabilities, experts say. Credit: U.S. Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe

U.S. Navy Needs Abundant Quantities of Unmanned Vessels

June 29, 2021
By Kimberly Underwood
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The sea services should aggressively pursue plans for autonomous air, surface and subsurface platforms, experts say.


The Department of the Navy (DON) has set a course to add a “large number” of air, surface and subsurface unmanned platforms to operate in all domain alongside manned systems. In March, the Navy and the Marine Corps published the Unmanned Campaign Framework to guide their investments in and integration of unmanned platforms. The service should not stray from this effort, despite cultural, operational and funding barriers, said a panel of experts, led by moderator Capt. George Galdorisi, USN (Ret.), director, Strategic Assessments and Technical Futures, Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, speaking at the virtual West 2021 conference. 

Unmanned aircraft and ships in great quantities are needed to help maintain power projection and sea control, and must be well integrated in the Fleet and the Fleet Marine Forces if the United States is to succeed on the seas, said the panel of naval unmanned system experts on the first day of the June 29-30 conference that is co-sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute and AFCEA. The event will return as an in-person conference in San Diego, February 16-18, 2022.

Adm. Michael Gilday, USN, chief of Naval Operations, has had a focus on unmanned vehicles “from the time he stepped in the office” two years ago, said Bryan Scurry, executive director, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet. The admiral’s vision is to make unmanned systems “a trusted, sustainable part” of the naval force structure. “Unmanned systems allow a persistence and a range that our manned vehicles, no matter whether they are airborne, surface or undersurface, cannot obtain,” Scurry noted.

Within the naval air wing, the sea services have a plan to partner its aircraft platforms with unmanned components, “like the MQ-8 Fire Scout team with LCS [littoral combat ships] and the [anti-submarine helicopter] HS 60 communities, or the HSM [helicopter maritime strike],” he noted. “The Triton we pair with the P-8 community.” And in four years, when the MQ-25 Stingray refueling drone is deployed, the air wing will pair it with the E-2 Hawkeye reconnaissance aircraft. 

“From naval aviation, we're all in,” Scurry emphasized. “We have planned and projected the implementation and integration of unmanned vehicles in our force structure going well into the future.”

Meanwhile, the Pacific Fleet is accelerating the Navy's plan to add autonomous platforms by putting unmanned systems into the hands of warfighters during exercises, such as during the Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21 in San Diego in April, said Carl Graham, lead, Naval Warfare Analysis and Assessment (N9 War), U.S. Pacific Fleet. The fleet also has been active members in supporting the Unmanned Campaign Framework. 

Unmanned systems offer the fleet “a lot more persistence, a lot more access and hopefully at a decreased cost,” Graham said.

However, any autonomous platforms have to come equipped with secure and reliable communication systems that can be plugged into existing Navy or DoD paths and networks. “Reliability and sustainability also are obvious key enablers, as what we find is that these things operate in environments where manned systems sometimes don't and those have to be built in from the beginning,” he suggested. 

Moreover, any naval unmanned vehicle would need edge processing, artificial intelligence and machine learning to filter and process mission data on board—thereby reducing transmission requirements in remote environments. “That's very important,” Graham stated. “It is also about using that machine learning to adapt to that surrounding environment and recognize what's going on.”

Trust in unmanned systems has to be fostered for sailors to gain confidence, Graham continued. “These are new things,” he observed. “They are going to be doing things that we are not used to, and if we don't trust them, we're not going to use them well. And the only way you can trust them is by using them. 

From an industry point of view, Bruce Hanson, chairman and CEO, MARTAC, relayed that participating in naval exercises has been crucial for the company to find out what works and does not work as the maritime autonomous system market evolved. MARTAC, which manufacturers the Mantas and Devil Ray unmanned surface vessels (USVs) for the Navy, started out in the offshore racing about industry 20 years ago.

Already having a focus on speed, the company experimented with various sized autonomous vessels, from 3-feet to 12-feet long, and much larger 50-foot ships. With the smaller vessels, “we realized we stumbled onto something there, so we said, ‘Let's just try it,'” Hanson said. “We didn't really set any boundaries. We reinforced them, and then we had them running during hurricanes. We were driving these things all over the place."

They quickly found the need to improve the communication systems into agnostic, dynamic, multi-tier platforms offering 4G, line-of-sight, over-the-horizon and satellite communications.

MARTAC took the USVs to multiple Trident Warrior exercises and other events. They experimented with the autonomous vessels in harbor operations; port security; logistics; mine countermeasure, littoral reconnaissance; surveillance; and high speed maneuvering, Hanson said. At the multinational littoral warfare exercise called Bold Alligator at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, MARTAC remotely launched unmanned vessels and operated them from 200 miles away.

“We learned a lot from those exercises,” he noted. “And you find out there's a lot of places where unmanned can go that manned [boats] can’t. They can stay out persistently. They don't have to eat, they don't sleep. They can be out there in various sea states and be able to do things that people just get beat up on. 

Graham concurred with Hanson that the Navy should capitalize on USVs that are “small, cheap, fast, reliable and sometimes disposable."

“Our acquisition system tends to skew towards exquisite and expensive,” Graham warned. “But really, we want to have these unmanned systems be easy to use and have them all over the place. It just makes more sense to me to have a lot of relatively simple, adequate, reliable, attributable, if not expendable, unmanned systems that sailors can work with every day that are relatively simple and cheap to maintain. Really, make them easy to operate and integrate, and make a ton of them.”

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