Navy ramps up ship-borne drones to bridge gap with China
Faced with a growing threat from China, the Navy is considering drone ships keeping an electronic eye on enemy forces across the vast Pacific Ocean, extending the reach of firepower and keeping sailors out of harm’s way.
The Navy is accelerating the development of these robotic ships as an affordable way to keep pace with China’s growing fleet while pledging not to repeat the costly shipbuilding mistakes of the past few years.
The four largest drones are being used together during Rim of the Pacific 2022, the multinational naval exercise currently underway in Hawaiian and Southern California waters.
Other smaller carrier-based drones are already deployed by the Navy’s 5th Fleet in waters off the Middle East.
The goal in the coming years is to see how the radar and sensors of these research vessels can be combined with artificial intelligence, and integrated with traditional cruisers, destroyers, submarines and aircraft carriers, to create a networked fleet that is resilient because it is spread over greater distances and harder for enemies to destroy, says the Navy.
“It’s about advancing the technology and having confidence in the capability. Everything takes time,” said Cmdr. Jeremiah Daley, commander of the First Division of Unmanned Surface Vessels in California.
The Navy believes technology can help with the three keys to military success — weapons range, reconnaissance, and command and control — at lower cost and lower risk to personnel, said James Holmes, a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, RI.
But all of those benefits need to be proven, along with long-term durability in a harsh saltwater environment, he said.
“We’re kind of in Jerry Maguire ‘show me the money’ territory with technology. It will no doubt help, but whether it will be a game-changer is much less clear,” said Holmes, who is not speaking on behalf of the Navy.
Before moving forward, the Navy must first convince a skeptical Congress after a series of shipbuilding debacles.
Her fast littoral combat ships had propulsion problems, leading to early retreats. His stealth destroyer’s “advanced gun system” was a failure due to expensive ammunition. And his newest aircraft carrier had problems with elevators and a new system for launching planes.
Critics said the Navy had been rushing to cram too much new technology onto these ships, leading to failures and mounting costs.
“We can’t just throw all the resources at (robot ships) with the track record of 20 years of failed ship programs,” said Democratic Representative Elaine Luria of Virginia, a retired Navy officer.
The Navy’s unmanned task force is taking a new approach, using a military equivalent of a venture capital model to accelerate new ideas and only moving forward after the technologies have proven themselves, says Michael Stewart , director of the working group.
This summer, four large drones are working alongside conventional ships in the RIMPAC war games.
These include the Sea Hunter and the Sea Hawk, diesel-powered vessels equipped with outriggers for stability in rough seas. The other two are Ranger and Nomad, which are based on oil rig supply ships. They have large flat decks from which a missile was successfully fired in 2021.
As these larger ships are tested in the Pacific, the Navy is already seeing promising results with commercially available smaller ships being evaluated by Task Force 59, part of the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, the Navy said. Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, spokesman for the 5th Fleet.
One of the vessels that has caught the eye is the Saildrone, a sailing vessel with solar-powered systems. Equipped with radars and cameras, the Saildrones are touted as being able to operate autonomously for months without maintenance or resupply.
Based on the success of the multinational exercises last winter, the 5th Fleet said the Navy and its international partners intend to deploy 100 unmanned ships by next summer.
In total, Admiral Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, envisions a mix of 150 large unmanned surface ships and submarines by 2045. That’s in addition to more than 350 conventional combat ships.
The Navy’s spending proposal for the new fiscal year includes $433 million for unmanned surface vessels and $284 million for underwater vessels.
These ships, coupled with artificial intelligence, have the potential to make the Navy’s fleet much more efficient, said Gilday, the Navy’s top officer. But the Navy is pursuing research and development “in an evolutionary, deliberate and informed manner,” he said.
The biggest advantage of robotic ships is that they could be built at a fraction of the cost of conventional warships as the navy struggles to keep pace with China and Russia, said analyst Loren Thompson. defense at the Lexington Institute. The United States is already behind China in the number of ships, and the gap is growing every year.
But Congress isn’t rushing to fund new programs, said Bryan Clark, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute. “Congress wants the Navy to have a good plan — and then aggressively pursue it,” Clark said.
On Capitol Hill, Luria said there could be a place for unmanned ships, perhaps replacing the missile capability of ships the Navy wants to retire. But there’s a lot of research and development needed to convince Congress to invest heavily in ships without any sailors.
“I just don’t think the technology is mature enough to make a big investment,” Luria said.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, chair of the Sea Power Subcommittee, said Gilday assured her the Navy was “mindful not to go too fast on unproven technology.”
“The Navy must get it right the first time and sustain rigorous testing with prototypes before committing to purchasing a fleet,” Hirono said.