The Navy has big plans for its drone fleet, that much seems certain.
These unmanned systems will perform high-risk surveillance operations under hostile fire and find weak points for attack along enemy coastlines. Moreover, these drones will be able to descend into undersea ocean depths to attack enemy mines and submarines and even perform forward positioned ballistic missile defense missions.
The Navy’s future fleet plans envision a force with hundreds of drone boats on the surface and undersea to support manned vessels across the full range of mission possibilities, a reason why the service is well underway in various stages of testing and development. Plans include small, medium and large undersea and surface drones to in large measure support fleets of manned vessels performing command and control.
Likely to be enabled by artificial intelligence (AI), emerging Navy unmanned systems will operate with various levels of autonomy to include real-time information sharing, cross domain targeting, submarine hunting and mine neutralization. With the advent of large numbers of these drones, the Navy is working vigorously to adapt its tactics and concepts of operations to optimize their value in maritime warfare.
How to get this right is a topic of concern for the House Armed Services Committee. One of the committee’s members is Rep. Rob Whitman (R-VA), who is the ranking member on the HASC Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.
“If you’re going to integrate an unmanned platform with a Carrier Strike Group, you’re going to integrate it very differently than you do with a Destroyer Squadron, or with a Virginia class submarine or with a Columbia class or Ohio class, or whatever the case may be,” Whitman told The National Interest in an interview.
Extending this reasoning, a big-deck amphibious assault ship might for instance function as a mother ship performing command and control operations for a large fleet of drones to advance amphibious attack, deliver supplies and weapons or even directly attack an enemy. A Navy Littoral Combat Ship already dispatches air, surface and undersea drones for undersea mine and submarine hunting operations, so adding more might simply function as a mission multiplier. Navy Carriers are also in the process of expanding drone operations and have even embarked upon a specific mission to engineer an unmanned systems command and control headquarters on carriers in anticipation of needing to operate growing numbers of drones.
These kinds of functions certainly appear to fortify the Navy’s movement to implement its Distributed Maritime Operations strategy which seeks to extend the sphere of maritime warfare through longer-range and multi-domain enabled surveillance and attack. More disaggregated naturally equates to a force less condensed and therefore less vulnerable to incoming enemy fire. It also increases redundancy of operations to ensure operational functionality in the event that platforms or elements of the force are attacked.
“Before you get into serial production of massive numbers of large unmanned surface vessels, or large, undersea unmanned vessels, you want to figure out how you integrate them into the fleet. So, put them out there and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to take a couple of large unmanned surface vessels, and we’re going to deploy them with a Carrier Strike Group, see what they do on a high end exercise. Are there requirements in there for them to be self-sustaining for 30 days? Are those realistic?’” Wittman said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.