Key point: The military is testing robot warships in the hope that they can provide extra firepower and support if a war ever happened. But once Washington perfects that technology, you can be sure Beijing will want to build (or steal the plans for) its own.
While the American fleet throughout its history has shifted back and forth between naval concepts favoring fewer large ships or more smaller ones, the fleet architecture currently under development for the first time includes large numbers of robotic vessels.
The goal, according to a June 2019 report from Ronald O’Rourke, a naval expert with the Congressional Research Service, is to deploy a fleet that can spread out during wartime, absorb Chinese missile attacks then quickly strike back.
In today’s fleet of around 290 warships, there are two large warships such as 9,000-ton destroyers for every two small ones such as 3,000-ton Littoral Combat Ships. According to O’Rourke, the Navy wants to flip that ratio as it works toward a bigger fleet of as many as 355 ships. Sometime in the 2030s, there could be two small vessels for every large one.
Potentially scores of unmanned vessels -- “U.V.s,” as O’Rourke calls them -- are critical to the plan. They’re cheap enough to buy quickly in large numbers. They can sail on station for long periods of time without wearing out a human crew. And in combat, they’re more expendable than a manned ship is.
“U.V.s are one of several new capabilities—along with directed-energy weapons, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and cyber capabilities—that the Navy says it is pursuing to meet emerging military challenges, particularly from China,” O’Rourke explained.
U.V.s can be equipped with sensors, weapons, or other payloads, and can be operated remotely, semi-autonomously, or (with technological advancements) autonomously. They can be individually less expensive to procure than manned ships and aircraft because their designs do not need to incorporate spaces and support equipment for onboard human operators.
U.V.s can be particularly suitable for long-duration missions that might tax the physical endurance of onboard human operators or missions that pose a high risk of injury, death or capture of onboard human operators. Consequently U.V.s are sometimes said to be particularly suitable for so-called “three D” missions, meaning missions that are “dull, dirty or dangerous.”
The Navy is putting serious money behind its new fleet architecture, O’Rourke explained. The Navy is requesting $629 million in 2020 for research and development for three major unmanned ship programs and their enabling technologies. The service wants to spend a total of $4.5 billion on the efforts though 2024.
“The Navy wants to employ accelerated acquisition strategies for procuring these large U.V.s, so as to get them into service more quickly,” O’Rourke wrote. “The emphasis that the Navy placed on U.V. programs in its [fiscal year] 2020 budget submission and the Navy’s desire to employ accelerated acquisition strategies in acquiring these large U.V.s together can be viewed as an expression of the urgency that the Navy attaches to fielding large U.V.s for meeting future military challenges from countries such as China.”
The three unmanned ships classes include a large-displacement unmanned surface vessel, or LUSV. “The LUSV program is a proposed new start project for [fiscal year] 2020, O’Rourke wrote.
The Navy wants to procure two LUSVs per year in [fiscal year] 2020 to [fiscal year] 2024. The Navy wants LUSVs to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships based on commercial ship designs, with ample capacity for carrying various modular payloads—particularly anti-surface warfare and strike payloads, meaning principally anti-ship and land-attack missiles. The Navy reportedly envisions LUSVs as being 200 feet to 300 feet in length and having a full load displacement of about 2,000 tons.
There’s also a medium-displacement unmanned surface vessel, or MUSV. “The MUSV program began in [fiscal year] 2019,” O’Rourke wrote.
The Navy plans to award a contract for the first MUSV in [fiscal year] 2019 and wants to award a contract for the second MUSV in [fiscal year] 2023. The Navy wants MUSVs, like LUSVs, to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships that can accommodate various payloads. Initial payloads for MUSVs are to be intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payloads and electronic warfare systems.
The Navy defines MUSVs as having a length of between 12 meters (about 39 feet) and 50 meters (about 164 feet). The Navy wants to pursue the MUSV program as a rapid prototyping effort under what is known as Section 804 acquisition authority.
Finally, the Navy wants an extra-large unmanned undersea vessel, or XLUUV. The Navy has tapped Boeing to develop its Orca robot submarine to meet the XLUUV requirement.
“The Navy defines XLUUVs as UUVs with a diameter of more than 84 inches, meaning that XLUUVs are to be too large to be launched from a manned Navy submarine,” O’Rourke wrote. “Consequently, XLUUVs instead will more likely be launched from pier. The Navy wants XLUUVs to be equipped with a modular payload bay.”
The Navy wants to buy nine XLUUVs between 2020 and 2024.
As the fleet rushes into a robotic future, O’Rourke outlined the questions Congress might want to ask. “What Navy analyses led to the Navy’s decision to shift toward a more-distributed architecture?” What did these analyses show regarding the relative costs, capabilities and risks of the Navy’s current architecture and the more-distributed architecture? How well developed, and how well tested, are the operational concepts associated with the more-distributed architecture?”
Oversight issues aside, with ink drying on some contracts and money flowing, America’s robotic warships already are on their way.