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Navy says unmanned vehicles are the future of carrier strike groups

U.S. Navy Sailors and civil service mariners launch an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) from Military Sealift Command's expeditionary sea base, USNS Hershel Woody Williams (ESB 4), into the Chesapeake Bay, September 14. The USV is a mine counter measure platform and the evolution was the first time a USV has been launched and recovered by a U.S. Navy ship. (U.S. Navy photo by Bill Mesta)
July 06, 2020

The Navy plans to integrate unmanned vehicles into its fleet to operate alongside manned vehicles in carrier strike groups.

“Mine warfare, surveillance and reconnaissance, and anti-submarine surface and underwater vehicles, complete with weapons capabilities, are part of the Navy’s future fleet vision, one that will increase flexibility and extend reach at a lower cost,” the Washington Examiner reported in late June.

According to the report, the Navy is aiming for a “full spectrum” of both surface and underwater vehicles by 2030. The integration of unmanned vehicles will extend the Navy’s reach and allow for taking risks that would otherwise be avoided with manned vehicles.

“From a Navy standpoint, [underwater unmanned vehicles] are not new,” said Rear Admiral Casey Moton, head of unmanned and small combatants for the Navy.

Moton said the Navy is focusing on unmanned underwater vehicles and three sizes of unmanned surface vehicles. Moton added that the vessels will remain under the protection of their carrier strike groups until the commander decides otherwise, but that they are expecting the vessels to have higher attrition once they do leave the strike group.

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“That’s the part of the capability we want to give them to be able to do that without having the people on board,” Moton said.

The Navy is also focusing on vessels that can stay at sea for over a month without any human contact. They already have two 140-ton, 132-foot prototype vessels capable of crisscrossing the ocean. Sensing and perception, navigation and mission execution are the main aspects of prototype development.

According to Moton, in 2019, one vessel successfully journeyed from San Diego to Pearl Harbor Naval Station in Hawaii and back as part of a group exercise. Another vessel traveled 1,400 nautical miles from the Gulf Coast to Norfolk, Virginia, “almost entirely in autonomous mode.”

Expanding unmanned vehicles comes with a hefty price tag: the Navy is seeking $579.9 million in 2021 for research and development of the large unmanned vessels, the Washington Examiner reported.

In the long run, however, the Navy maintains that the vessels will be less expensive and will provide more flexibility than a manned vessel. Though they have not determined whether the unmanned vehicles would be guided by someone on land or on ships in a carrier strike group, they are certain that unmanned vehicles are the future of the Navy’s fleet.

“They’re going to be fully part of our battle force,” Moton said.