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Navy to Field ‘Optionally Unmanned’ Vessels to Supplement Future Surface Combatant

The Sea Hunter, a Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV). US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Navy’s Future Surface Combatant will likely include both an unmanned and an optionally unmanned surface vessel as part of a growing family of systems, as the Navy works through how manned/unmanned teaming can provide the biggest benefits at various phases of warfare.

Officials previously described the Future Surface Combatant program as having a large, small and unmanned variant – like a cruiser or destroyer, a Littoral Combat Ship or a frigate, and something akin to the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessel that the Office of Naval Research (ONR) is working on. Increasingly, though, officials have begun talking about unmanned and optionally unmanned vessels as separate platforms.

Cmdr. Kyle Gantt, branch head for destroyers and future ships, said last week at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ annual Technology, Systems and Ships conference that several big-picture questions drove the separation of unmanned and optionally unmanned vessels.

First, if an unmanned system is weaponized, how does the Navy assure it maintains command and control in a contested and possibly communications-denied environment, to stay within the rules of engagement? And what would the role of an unmanned vessel be in Phase 0 operations, where the Navy’s primary mission is presence – which requires people to be there?

“How do I employ these systems in a way that I get the sea control, the deterrent, the traditional Navy missions that I’m there to execute?” Gantt said, saying that optionally unmanned vessels appeared to be the solution. During Phase 0 presence missions, the vessels would be fully crewed and would have all the berthing, mess halls and other facilities to support a crew.
“The optionally unmanned part gets to, now I’m into Phase 2 and the conditions aren’t set in the environment to put manned platforms, but I have a mission that is worth the risk, worth the risk of the asset – I can remove the people and sail it and use that vessel in an unmanned capacity for lethal effects in a place where I would be unprepared to do that with a manned vessel. So that’s how we came to optionally unmanned. It plays very well in our wargames, having an armed system that can serve as an adjunct magazine to a manned (ship).”

Gantt said unmanned surface vessels may be more susceptible to being captured or boarded than an unmanned underwater vehicle or an unmanned aerial vehicle, and that vulnerability puts some limitations on what the Navy would want purely unmanned USVs to do – primarily relegating them to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and counter-ISR missions that require the persistence of an unmanned vessel.

“What are you willing to put at risk?” Gantt said of the systems on an unmanned vessel.
“The aerial system, it’s moving pretty fast, it’s pretty hard to capture. The UUV is pretty hard to find. So you get a lot of benefit from those,” whereas the Navy will have to balance what systems it would want to field on strictly unmanned USVs.

An undated image of Houthi forces capturing a US Navy operated REMUS 600 unmanned underwater vehicle.

The Navy has already seen vulnerability in its slow-moving unmanned systems, such as the glider captured by Chinese forces in December 2016 and a UUV captured by Houthi forces off the coast of Yemen in January. Neither are the type of USV Gantt was discussing, but the incidents do prove the need to ensure the systems can either protect themselves from capture or can protect the data they’ve collected in the event they are captured by enemy forces.

Despite that vulnerability, Gantt said the Navy is sure that unmanned and optionally unmanned surface vessels will be a force-multiplier for the Navy fleet.

“We’ve started to build out these capabilities that we’ve deployed on either optionally unmanned or unmanned; really talk about unmanned in the context of being a distributed sensing capability, or being a counter-ISR capability [with persistence and] the ability to expand your ability to operate in a contested environment.”

Gantt noted that unmanned vessels outfitted with sensors make perfect sense to support distributed lethality, where the USVs can either spread Navy capabilities to a greater geography at a lower cost than sending manned vessels, or spread Navy capability to a greater geography with lower risk to sailors.

In the same panel discussion, Howard Berkof, the deputy unmanned maritime systems program manager within the Program Executive Office for Unmanned and Small Combatants (formerly PEO LCS), said his office is now considering purpose-built unmanned vessels and optionally unmanned vessels as part of a “family of Future Surface Combatant USVs.”

Two ongoing research and development efforts will inform requirements for the Future Surface Combatant family of USVs: the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office’s Ghost Fleet effort, and the SeaHunter MDUSV effort that was created by DARPA and now transitioned to ONR.

Also during his presentation, Berkof said testing continues in South Florida on the unmanned influence sweep system, which will be towed by the Textron Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV). Textron has completed the company-led builder’s trials and is in the middle of pre-delivery inspection and trials, ahead of Navy developmental testing and operational assessment. Berkof said the Navy would make a milestone C acquisition decision in August, if all continued on schedule, to begin production.

Textron Systems Unmanned Systems’ Common Unmanned Surface Vessel (CUSV). Textron Photo

The same CUSV vehicle will also undergo “minor” modifications so it can accommodate the AQS-20 and AQS-24 minehunting sonars and the Barracuda mine neutralization system. Barracuda integration efforts and sonar integration testing will begin in Fiscal Year 2019, he said. The Navy is also considering that the CUSV could host other systems to support surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare or other mission areas as needed.

On the UUV side, the Knifefish UUV completed contractor testing and transitioned into Navy developmental testing, which is ongoing. The Large Displacement UUV (LDUUV) that will be employed from an attack submarine has finished its preliminary design review and is currently in critical design. After lawmakers trimmed the program budget in the current fiscal year, Berkof said LDUUV is now looking at having its critical design review in mid-FY 2019 and would begin fabrication to support in-water testing in FY 2021, compared to previous plans to begin in-water testing in FY 2019.

  • DaSaint

    The Royal Navy just operationalized an unmanned surface sweep capability, and are now looking at a minehunting version. The US and UK should be cooperating to ensure that they’re not duplicating efforts and wasting resources.

    First, I’m ok with the UUV and the UAV concepts. I’m not yet sold on this proposed optionally-manned SV. Why design a ship to handle a crew, with all the requisite functionalities to support it, then eliminate the crew later? To do what with them? Would they all be remotely operating systems on the vessel? If so, ok, but not everyone right?

    Second, we’ve argued ad nauseum regarding the vulnerabilities of the LCS, but certainly these ‘optionally manned SV’ would be just as susceptible to anti-ship missiles and/or aircraft, as they would be by definition small and therefore lightly armed. So they too would be at risk.

    Third, we’ve figured by now that the concept of ‘quickly transitioning from one module to another’ with the LCS is not viable, particularly as environments get hot quickly. So therefore, the same should apply to transitioning from an optionally-manned vessel to the unmanned version. Where does that take place? The same port we envisioned making the module changes for the LCS?

    Looking forward to hearing more, but not sold at this point. Make it unmanned and disposable, or manned and defensible.

    • Duane

      You’re conflating and confusing very different things. Changing out LCS mission modules changes the primary mission of the ship. Optionally manned ships perform the same mission but under differing conditions (manned when in a low risk environment, unmanned when in a high risk environment).

      Changing out the LCS mission module is still a very quick dockside operation, taking less than 3 days to complete. The Navy does not intend to do that frequently, not because of the hardware, but because of the peopleware and the need to preserve crew continuity.

      For purposes of switching to and from unmanned operations, crew continuity is not an issue.

      There is a huge amount to be institutionally learned by all the services when it comes to integrating unmanned and optionally manned systems and platforms. The “book” has yet to be written.

      And as to your question, why optionally manned? The obvious answer is dealing with a variable risk environment. In military history until the development now of unmanned systems, and a high risk mission was required, commanders had to ask for volunteers for a “suicide mission”. Optionally manned systems enable a force commander to avoid sending human fighters out on suicide missions. The result will be fewer dead heroes, and quite possibly a more effective mission outcome.

      • TransformerSWO

        “Optionally manned” means several other things. It means all the expense, space, and weight needed to support manning – and therefore limitations on speed and maneuverability. It also includes this brand new assumption that the United States isn’t willing to risk lives to pursue its national security goals. This kind of risk aversion is seen by our most likely opponents as indicative of lack of commitment and guts, and a growing, misguided belief that we can sanitize war and kill our enemies with push-button warfare. As has been understood for millennia but forgotten in recent decades, you can kill your enemies but fail to defeat them. Only your enemy decides when he is beaten, and he is beaten when he realizes that you can impose your will on him. Sending our Terminators across the world to remotely kill them without risking anything important won’t convince him that he is beaten – unless we’re ready to kill them ALL.

        • Duane

          As General Patton famously lectured his troops:

          “Your duty is not to die for your country. Your duty is to make the other son of a b*tch die for HIS country.”

          This is no longer the 19th century where dying a hero was the objective. The Red Army and the Imperial Japanese Army & Navy proved how futile it was to line up and die for the State or the Emperor. In fact we learned to stop fighting that way during our Civil War.

          • True that in a hot war it’s better to lose an unmanned system than lose a crew. But what if the USN spends 99.9% of its time in either peacetime or ‘grey zone’ conditions? Would Somali pirates be intimidated by an unmanned vessel or would they open fire just for sport? (It’s the latter.) Was China intimidated by the U.S. USV they captured in the South China Sea? (No). Everybody can be more brazen against robots, even a superpower’s drones.

            Firing on a crewed vessel tests U.S. national resolve (and the adversary knows it) because there is American “skin in the game,” while a robot is not resolve. Crews deter while robots can’t. Yet you are right about the folly of just tossing GI’s out there to die. So I have two theories on this “optionally manned” concept.

            Theory #1. Informing the adversary that a system is optionally manned will maintain ambiguity in their mind whether they are shooting a mere robot or drawing blood and awakening a sleeping giant. “Optional” maintains deterrence.

            Theory #2: introducing automation to any workforce is disruptive, so this is a half-measure to ease the process. There needs to be crew space to monitor, test and adjust unmanned systems.

          • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

            Without a com link it’s all autonomous and that will not end well.

          • Retired

            But in the mighty battle aluminum foiled flimsy do nothing foux warship the LCS, your duty WILL BE to die for your country. But the question here is will the fleet admiral be a man to his word and led the mighty LCS fleet into battle or will he continue to hide in his safe place saying “sheesh, sheesh, sheesh?”

      • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

        Seen the drone swarm by the Chinese that has several thousand? And that was for visual effect. So much for writing books, it’s very doable

  • John Locke

    One small conventional EMP rocket turns those things into very expensive bobbers.

    • Duane

      BS … DOD has hardened all critical electronics against EMP for decades.

      • John Locke


        • Duane

          You think it’s funny?

          • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

            No he is a realist. Unless the system is tested to 200 V/m and up its vulnerable.

          • John Locke

            Yes I do. I won’t explain why because the bad guys don’t need to know but you are very mistaken in your assertion.

  • Donald Carey

    Lets hope the Navy hasn’t repeated the drone fiasco and that there aren’t any foreign made components that could have nasty surprises in them…