The Depot

U.S. Navy Drone Ships: Unmanned Ships of the Future

U.S. Navy photo

Not long ago, an unmanned aerial drone took out the leader and one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks as he stood outside on a balcony in Afghanistan. There are hundreds of similar stories where a remotely piloted aircraft has engaged ground targets or provided support in the airspace above a battlefield.

All the military branches fly some type of aerial drone, and some branches have explored unmanned land vehicles to help with battlefield surveillance, recon, weapons delivery and bomb disposal.

The applicability of drones in various combat spaces seems endless, so it is no surprise that US Navy drone ships are actually a thing. In fact, the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations’ Navigation Plan 2022 calls for 373 manned ships and 150 unmanned ships for a total of 523 ships by 2045.

The plan is for US Navy drone ships to be a part of a hybrid fleet alongside of manned ships. However, these are unchartered waters for the Navy, and they are decades behind proven drone programs like the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft program.

Nonetheless, US Navy drone ships are being pushed, as the future of maritime forces, albeit carefully. The Navy is singing the praises of uncrewed maritime platforms that could conduct intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capability that will keep sailors safe. US Navy drone ships, the Navy believes, will increase lethality, capacity, survivability, operational tempo, deterrence, and operational readiness.

U.S. Navy Photo

The primary US Navy drone ships are the unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and unmanned undersea vessels (UUVs). For fiscal year 2023, the Navy requested $104 million for research and development of the USVs and almost $147 million for large USVs.

The large US Navy drone ships will be larger than a patrol craft and smaller than a frigate. The medium US Navy drone ships can be equipped with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payloads and electronic warfare systems. The Navy is also requesting $284 million for research and development of UUVs and $60.7 million for support technologies.

Extra-large US Navy drone ships, UUVs, could lay mines, and carry out other types of missions. The Navy currently has the Orca UUV which is the first US Navy drone ship UUV.

In the past, the Navy has utilized smaller unmanned systems, and this will continue, according to the Navy, but US Navy drone ships will not include those smaller robotic systems that are in place and in use now.

Many of those portable systems are deployed from small boats for ISR, countermine operations, or other taskings.

“To execute its strategy, the Navy needs to make significant investments in the development of technologies to enable these uncrewed maritime systems to operate both autonomously (or semi-autonomously) as well as in conjunction with the existing fleet. As a result, the Navy is embarking on a robust effort intended to rapidly develop and field uncrewed maritime system prototypes and overcome technical challenges prior to acquiring these systems in significant numbers,” a Government Accounting Office paper said.

However, building US Navy drone ships isn’t the real problem. Technology that operates these autonomous vessels is unproven and the Navy sees the risk. US Navy drone ships will require massive capacity to manage the amount of data required to operate a ship in the open ocean. Keep in mind, the Navy in recent years has had multiple collisions with manned ships; the natural deduction is that US Navy drone ships will be more at risk of adverse events.

To work through all of the potential issues with US Navy drone ships, the Navy established an Unmanned Task Force to solve operational challenges. Not long thereafter, a separate task force was set up with the Navy’s Fifth Fleet to develop artificial intelligence solutions and to conduct trials with unmanned US Navy drone ships.

Several Navy exercises, like International Maritime Exercise 22, have explored the technology used in US Navy drone ships and the Navy has been testing the sea capability of different vessels like the Sea Hunter, to sail long distances without a crew.

In the near future, US Navy drone ships will likely evolve into minimally manned ships instead of unmanned vessels. Part of the evolving nature of the US Navy drone ships program is that it will take time to refine the technology and there will have to be sailors on board to take corrective actions if something fails.

Unfazed by the work ahead, the Navy sees the possibility of deploying US Navy drone ships with strike groups and amphibious elements by the late 2020s. How many US Navy drone ships American naval forces will need to fight America’s wars on the seas is to be determined.  

For now, US Navy drone ships are experimenting with sensors and electronic payloads. And US Navy drone ships like the Sea Hunter are working with the USS Anchorage at the moment.

In order for US Navy drone ships to become the large, mission enhancing power projection platforms of the future, the Navy needs to continue to build robust smaller vessels to refine the data management and AI on board.

Eventually, the US Navy will send these unmanned systems into battle to perform a variety of dangerous tasks. Because they are unmanned, they will likely have long loitering times.