The U.S. Navy has been more than tripling its funding for surface drone boats in the last several years, placing hundreds of millions toward a growing fleet of small, medium and large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations strategy.
Small drones will operate in swarms to search for mines, hunt submarines, conduct surveillance and even launch coordinated surface attacks. Medium USVs will do much of the same, perhaps with some additional command and control, larger weapons systems such as anti-ship missiles and even ship-launched defenses such as interceptors. More recently, the Navy has been working with industry partners to add larger fire-control systems to the drone boats, to include air-defense radar and perhaps even ballistic missile defenses. At very least, the Medium and Large USVs now in development will definitely operate as forward surveillance nodes in massively high-risk areas, sending real-time data to manned ships operating at safer standoff distances to perform command and control functions. The Medium USV is further along in its development than the Large ones, and the small USVs are already being produced in very larger numbers and show great promise regarding mine-sweeping and AI-enabled integrated surveillance and mission coordination.
The explosive surface drone surge is reflected in the Navy’s budget as well as its thirty-year shipbuilding plan. In 2019, the Navy spent slightly more than $100 million on USV, an amount that has jumped up over $400 million in 2020 and 2021, revealing that the service is making fast progress moving to new stages of development with its fleet. By extension, the Navy’s thirty-year shipbuilding plan writes that between now and 2026, the Navy hopes to acquire as many as twelve Large Unmanned Surface Vessels, along with Medium and Small USVs as well.
“Significant resources are added to accelerate fielding the full spectrum of unmanned capabilities, including man-machine teaming ahead of full autonomy. These systems are now included in wargames, exercises and limited real-world operations,” the plan states.
These numbers align closely with the Chief of Naval Operations recently released NAVPLAN which, among other things, calls for a large mix of manned and unmanned vessels to bring the services Distributed Maritime Operations to life. The strategic concept is, among many things, grounded in the realization that aggregated or more linear maritime attacks are far more vulnerable to enemy destruction now that has historically been the case. Accordingly, attacking forces will need to be more dispersed, yet very closely interconnected with secure networking. Much, if not all of this is driven by range, meaning aerial nodes such as drones and planes will detect threats at much greater distances, missiles such as Tomahawks, Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles and Over-the-Horizon attack weapons such as the Littoral Combat Ship-mounted Naval Strike Missile, will bring new abilities to adjust targeting in flight and strike targets at previously unprecedented ranges. This changes combat.
As part of this, weapons functionality relies heavily upon sensing and target technology; air-surface and undersea surveillance nodes have exploded into a new sphere of technical ability which, when integrated with real-time intelligence-sharing networks, completely change the equation regarding range.
These evolving tactical dynamics mean many things, a principal element of which is a need for more drone boats to test enemy defenses, conduct forward surveillance and perform combat missions in contested areas now much more vulnerable to enemy fire.
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.