The Buzz

Why the U.S. Military's Unmanned Surface Vehicle Could Be a Game Changer

The Pentagon is engineering high-tech, removable Unmanned Surface Vehicle “kits” designed to change amphibious warfare by delivering combat-relevant supplies, firing weapons, swarming enemies, refueling ships, searching for enemy mines and submarines and dispersing attacking forces to minimize risk from enemy fire.

A key advantage of using remotely-controlled drone ships is that, quite naturally, they can save sailors and marines from being exposed to enemy fire during an attack operation.

The project, now advancing through a Science & Technology effort led by the Pentagon’s once-secret Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), brings the possibility of using drones to substantially improve amphibious assault tactics and procedures, Dr. William Roper, Director of the SCO, told reporters.

Different mission kits are being developed more various mission applications, allowing unmanned ships to perform a wide range of tasks currently performed by manned vessels. The kits are exchangeable so that ships can be operated as both manned and unmanned systems, he added.

“This can greatly help expeditionary logistics for a ship that is standing off from the shore. Instead of having to use an amphib manned by a lot of people - you have an unmanned boat supply boat,” Roper said.

Computer processing speeds and algorithms are progressing at an alarming rate, increasingly allowing unmanned ships to perform a greater range of functions without necessarily needing human intervention for each particular step.

Roper added he expects this “autonomy kit” effort to progress for another two years before it is formally fully transitioned to the Navy. The Navy is, however, already involved in this testing and technological maturation lead by the Pentagon effort; the Strategic Capabilities Office is a special DoD-level effort to integrate harness, leverage and integrate near-term emerging technology for faster delivery to combatant commanders at war. Much of this involves merging new platforms, weapons and technologies with existing systems in a manner that both improves capability while circumventing a lengthy and often bureaucratic formal acquisition process, Roper explained.

(This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.)

Higher tech enemy sensors and longer range surface and land-fired weapons have drastically increased the vulnerability of approaching amphibious assault operations, making them more susceptible to enemy fire; as a result, the Navy and Marines have been evolving amphibious tactics to include more dis-aggregated approaches designed to spread out an approaching force – making it more difficult for enemy weapons to attack an advancing assault.

For example, the historic amphibious assault such as the famous Iwo Jima attack in the Pacific during WWII involved a group of Marines approaching enemy shores in close proximity to one another; weapons, Marines, equipment and attacking infantry all came ashore in rapid succession, at times close to one another. Modern threats, quite naturally, are changing amphibious tactics to succeed against higher-tech more lethal enemy weapons.    

“Instead of having to land as a single unit, they can now break out. There is safety in numbers and they can re-distribute,” Roper explained.  

When it comes to offensive surface operations, unmanned boats could form a swarming of small attack craft designed to overwhelm and destroy enemy ships with gunfire, explosives or even small missiles.

Roper explained that this strategic and tactical trajectory is greatly enhanced by the possible use of USVs. The Navy’s current inventory includes ship-to-shore amphibious craft called Landing Craft Air Cushions, LCACs, and Landing Craft Utility Vehicles, LCUs; these platforms, now being upgraded by newer transport boats able to move faster and carry more payload (such as Abrams tanks), are manned and therefore involve the use of a crew. LCACs require a crew of 13 and LCACs use a crew of 5. New high-tech LCAC replacements, called Ship-to-Shore Connectors, are already being developed and delivered to the Navy by Textron.

Fast-moving Unmanned Surface Vessels could indeed lower risk and increase efficiency for a large number of missions, to include Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), countermine operations, search and rescue, electronic warfare, supply and weapons transport and amphibious assaults.

The Navy and the Office of Naval Research are already immersed in the development of a variety of USVs, including a mine-detecting Unmanned Influence Sweep System, or UISS, for the Littoral Combat Ship. The UISS is carried by a Textron-developed Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle, or CUSV. The CUSV, in development since before 2009, can travel for more than 20-hours carrying up to 4,000-pounds at speeds up to 20-knots, Textron information states. Also, it is engineered to withstand waves up to 20-feet.

The UISS is engineered to find and detonate undersea mines in order to save sailor and manned vessels from a potentially deadly explosion.

The Navy’s influence sweep system will be towed behind the unmanned vehicle and will emit sounds and magnetic signatures that mimic a ship – setting off nearby mines that listen for passing ships, according to a report from the US Naval Institute.

The Navy is also advancing its recently christened DARPA-inspired submarine-hunting unmanned ship called Sea Hunter; the ship is built to travel up to 10,000 miles while using sonar and other sensors to locate enemy submarines. A high-frequency sonar will send acoustic “pings” into the ocean before analyzing the return signal to determine the shape, size, speed and characteristics of any undersea enemy activity.