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Ret. Navy Captain calls for ‘Area 52’ for new secret testing

Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS The Sullivans. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Damian Berg/Released)
July 15, 2023

Retired U.S. Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix recently suggested that the Navy create an “Area 52” to build and test unmanned ships and submersible vessels without fear of U.S. adversaries seizing the advanced ships.

Hendrix believes the Navy’s current testing of unmanned ships and submersibles in the Caribbean by the Navy’s 4th Fleet and the Navy’s operation of unmanned ships in the Middle East by Navy Task Force 59 is vulnerable to attempts by Russia, China, and other adversaries to seize U.S. vessels and reverse-engineer them.

In light of this belief, Hendrix is suggesting that the Navy design a new research facility and test range on Lake Michigan for its unmanned vessels. Hendrix argued in an article published in Proceedings, that on Lake Michigan U.S. adversaries would have no opportunity to seize U.S. ships and equipment and reverse-engineer the technology.

“Properly developed and safeguarded, unmanned/autonomous capabilities could provide war-altering breakthroughs of the same magnitude as those which accompanied the advent of stealth and precision-guided munitions,” Hendrix wrote, adding, “Lake Michigan and the midwestern tech corridor present the Navy with an ideal location to build a future force that takes full advantage of the technical advances emerging from top universities and industries, away from the eyes and ears of the nation’s adversaries.”

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Hendrix warned that the Caribbean is not currently a secure location for the Navy to test its unmanned ships, especially since both China and Russia have military bases in Cuba and have been working to extend their presence to places such as Brazil and Venezuela.

“This seems to be an area of the world where our adversaries are making major investments,” Hendrix said. “Now with China going big into the Caribbean, I think that we ought to be really cautious about doing any type of cutting edge, leap-ahead capability there but it’s going to be instantly compromised. The Chinese already grabbed one of our unmanned, underwater platforms. They’ve demonstrated that they want to grab these new breakout capabilities so that they can reverse engineer them, as they have been reverse engineering things all along.”

While Hendrix outlined the risks associated with testing unmanned ships and submersible vessels, he indicated that unmanned vessels have the potential to increase the U.S. Navy’s reach and effectiveness in a hypothetical war against China. Additionally, he highlighted the cost savings unmanned vessels could provide as opposed to expensive traditional ships that require a large crew.

 “When the time comes for combat, you’re going to be able to offset the Chinese, Hendrix said. “You’re going to be able to come at them at various different angles – or for that matter the Russians, or whoever the adversary is – in such a way that they cannot anticipate. To me, that’s the war-altering aspect of this.”

Nevertheless, Hendrix questioned how the Navy could test “breakout capabilities” and war-altering capabilities” in locations that are “right in front” of the “main adversaries” of the United States. He emphasized the potential of Lake Michigan and the Midwest region to provide a secure location and the technology support needed to test advanced unmanned military vessels.