Swarming robotic attacks, high-threat search and rescue operations, forward reconnaissance and offensive strike maneuvers are all missions the U.S. Navy is increasingly trying to perform with autonomous Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs). Specifically, the Navy wants to carry out these missions with USVs dispatched from, and operated by, larger, manned surface ships.
This conceptual and tactical vision is now being accelerated across the Navy’s fleet, including the fast-growing fleet of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) which, among other things, are being engineered and upgraded to operate larger numbers of undersea and surface drones. Unmanned systems are of great significance regarding the LCS, giving it improved, AI-enabled capacity to perform command and control functions. Moreover, the LCS could use drones for mine-countermeasures, surface attack and anti-submarine warfare. The LCS already operates several undersea mine-hunting drones and, through software upgrades, is in the process of being configured to more quickly acquire and process targeting and sensor data from air-sea-and-undersea drones.
The Navy is adding LCS ships to the fleet at a much faster pace than other ships given the increasing extent to which they are being armed with weapons and in some cases back-fitted with new technologies. Those new weapons and abilities are now being built into the Navy’s new, even more heavily armed FFG Frigate fleet. Those weapons include over-the-horizon missiles, deck-fired interceptors and mounted guns. Some of the Navy’s LCS-building industry partners, such as Lockheed and Austal USA, could be asked to increase production.
“We have the ability to flex to meet the Navy’s rate request. Through our manufacturing process we have the ability to meet changing Navy requirements as they are presented including future small surface vessels,” Craig Savage, Austal USA spokesman told The National Interest.
Operating larger numbers of unmanned systems massively changes the tactical equation for the LCS and better aligns the ships with the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy which calls for much greater levels of disaggregated operations. This is significant for the LCS as it can both operate in coordination with other surface and undersea vessels and also more independently for coastal patrol, mine-hunting missions or even deep-water attack.
“The LCS is a fast, agile, mission-focused platform designed to operate in near-shore environments, while capable of open-ocean tasking and winning against 21st-century coastal threats such as submarines, mines, and swarming small craft,” a Navy report states.
All of this pertains in great measure to the Navy’s rapid progress in the area of autonomy, a circumstance enabling the ships to coordinate a small fleet of interconnected USVs sharing information with a host ship as well as one another. Some USVs are configured to tow sonar to hunt for enemy submarines and mines, while others perform surface and aerial reconnaissance to search for potential points of entry for amphibious attack or even conduct offensive maritime combat operations. The LCS fleet is also growing in its capacity to operate undersea drones with advanced levels of autonomy. One such system in development, called Barracuda, is able to use undersea semi-autonomous networking to find and then itself explode enemy mines.
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.