The Navy just released its thirty-year shipbuilding plan which, among many other things, reflects the well-known growing emphasis upon unmanned systems, autonomy and drone-human connectivity when it comes to maritime combat.
Between now and 2026, the Navy hopes to acquire twelve Large Unmanned Surface Vessels (LUSVs), one Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel (MUSV) and eight Ex-Large Unmanned Underwater Vessels (XLUUVs), making a total of twenty-one new drones over the next five years. The Navy plan calls it an “acceleration.”
“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.
The service is already moving quickly to design and build a new large unmanned surface vehicle which could operate in a command and control, surveillance, submarine-hunting or even surface warfare attack and missile defense capacity. Earlier this year, firm-fixed-price design study deals were awarded to Huntington Ingalls, Lockheed Martin, Bollinger Shipyards, Marinette Marine, Gibbs & Cox Maritime Solutions and Austal USA. While particular progress and development schedules, as well as further contract awards, are likely still in flux to some extent, the move to put these major players on contract reveals the accelerated pace with which the Navy plans to operate.
The service is also making fast movements with its plans for the ORCA, an Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV), a large submarine-like boat intended to bring new dimensions to maritime warfare. The program has already made substantial progress.
Earlier this year, Boeing and Lockheed were both awarded developmental deals to build four ORCA XLUUVs, a clear move to expedite production and delivery of the new submarine-like drone which will likely conduct undersea surveillance missions and perhaps even fire torpedoes when directed by a human operator.
Boeing’s ORCA, developed under a previous Navy contract, is based upon its Echo Ranger undersea drone. It is an eighty-four-foot-long, fifty-ton massive drone able to hit depths of eleven-thousand feet.
The drone has obstacle avoidance, payload capacity up to thirty-four feet, autonomous buoyancy and Synthetic Aperture Sonar, Boeing data states. Boeing data sheet on its Echo Voyager variant writes “the vehicle’s advanced autonomy allows it to operate for months at a time without physical human contact and in congested waters.”
While there are what many might call countless examples of the advantages drones will bring to maritime warfare, one initial and immediate one is simply range and mission endurance. An unmanned ship or undersea platform can literally operate for months at a time without needing human intervention, particularly if it is functioning in a surveillance role. A large unmanned submarine, for example, could continuously search for enemy submarines and surface ships for weeks at a time, while sending data back data through various networking channels upon surfacing and possibly even undersea, all without needing to return to port. Boeing’s ORCA variant can reach ranges up to sixty-five hundred nautical miles, according to Boeing data.
Interestingly, the range, efficacy and growing levels of autonomy of unmanned undersea vehicles is anticipated in a 2015 essay from the “International Journal of Advanced Research in Artificial Intelligence.” The paper, called “Military Robotics: Latest Trends and Spatial Grasp Solutions from the National Academy of Sciences,” says the expected mission of a large undersea drone is to “conduct missions longer than seventy-days in open ocean and littoral seas, being fully autonomous, long-endurance, land-launched with advanced sensing for littoral environments.”
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.