U.S. and British Navies Get Ready for the Unmanned Fight

U.S. and British Navies Get Ready for the Unmanned Fight

The United States and Britain are sailing in the unmanned direction.

The U.S. Navy and the British Royal Navy are both moving forward with unmanned ships to augment their manned ships’ capabilities at sea. A recent bilateral exercise between the two navies highlights how unmanned ships could be a game-changer in the future.

“Putting more eyes out on the water enhances our picture of the surrounding seas and enables us to position our crewed ships to react more rapidly,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, in a U.S. Navy statement.

The U.S. Navy statement explained that during the exercise, called Phantom Scope, “unmanned and artificial intelligence systems operated in conjunction with crewed ships and naval command centers ashore in Bahrain. Sensors from unmanned vessels were able to locate and identify training aides in the water and relay visual depictions to the command centers.”

“Whenever we work in the maritime environment, particularly when working alongside international partners, it is critical we have relevant maritime domain awareness,” said Royal Navy Commodore Adrian Fryer, commander of the UK’s maritime component based in the Middle East.

“Alongside the more traditional methods, uncrewed systems are an essential tool, and the future, in building this understanding, the picture they provide can enhance the security and stability of the maritime environment,” Fryer added.

The U.S. Navy has indicated that it could rely more heavily on unmanned and potentially unarmed ships in the future as a more persistent alternative to manned vessels for applications like reconnaissance and surveillance.

Powered by solar panels and wind, some unique vessels could remain at sea for virtually as long as required, barring significant repairs or maintenance. While solar power could be used to power onboard sensors, vessels like those built by Saildrone would rely on the wind to move about the ocean like the sailing ships of old.

Though unmanned ships could also excel in an offensive role, right now the U.S. Navy appears set on mating the sensors of an unmanned vessel with the crewmembers of a manned ship, augmenting sailors’ eyes and ears on the water and keeping U.S. Navy personnel out of harm’s way in higher risk scenarios.

Either way, the future of both the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy appears to be sailing in the unmanned direction.

“We have already achieved more today than many might have imagined possible when we started,” said Cooper. “Our goal is a distributed and integrated network of systems operated with our partners to significantly expand how far we can see.”

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer with the National Interest. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson.

Image: DVIDS.