NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – A quartet of experimental unmanned surface vessels will set sail for Hawaii this summer for a test of a new unit focused on ramping up the Navy’s use of drones to bolster the surface fleet’s lethality.
RIMPAC 2022 will be a high-profile mission for Unmanned Surface Vessel Division 1, which includes the trimarans USV Sea Hunter and USV Seahawk along with two Ghost Fleet support vessels Nomad and Ranger.
USVDIV-1 was formally established May 13 at Port Hueneme, Calif., under San Diego-based Surface Development Squadron 1, with the primary mission to “accelerate the delivery of credible and reliable unmanned systems in conjunction with increasingly capable manned platforms into the fleet,” Cmdr. Jerry Daley, who took the reins as its first commanding officer, said in a Navy statement.
Members of the new unit have eyes on the biennial RIMPAC – set to run from late June into early August with 27 partner nations, 42 ships, five submarines, more than 170 aircraft and nearly 25,000 participants – as the next fleet activity to help determine and define how the capabilities of the medium-sized surface drones might augment the manned and unmanned fleet.
“All four ships will be dispersed, and we’ll be working with different task force commanders during all three phases of the Rim of the Pacific exercise, both from a command-and-control standpoint and also exercising our capabilities from a payload standpoint,” Daley said Monday during a media roundtable at SURFDEVRON’s headquarters in San Diego to discuss the new unit.Daley said his staff already has integrated with San Diego-based U.S. 3rd Fleet staff, who are in charge of RIMPAC.
“Part of our charter is figuring how we integrate with a manned force,” he said, speaking from his Port Hueneme, Calif., command.
Experimentation conducted during RIMPAC will enable USVDIV-1 to collect data to learn more about the vessels’ requirements, he noted, and ultimately help understand more about “how we integrate with the fleet moving forward for USV,” Daley said.
USVDIV-1 will be focused “exclusively” on working with USVs, said Capt. Jeff Heames, who became SURFDEVRON-1 commodore in March 2021 and last week handed over command to Capt. Shea Thompson. The new unit will advance the work that SURFDEVRON-1 has so far done and ramping up experimentation and testing with the surface fleet and providing input to the Navy’s unmanned program office.
“USVDIV-1 will be a catalyst for innovation as we employ unmanned surface capabilities in the Pacific Fleet,” Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, Naval Surface Force commander, said in a Navy statement about the new unit. “The implementation of unmanned systems will increase decision speed and lethality to enhance our warfighting advantage.”
With its base at Port Hueneme, USVDIV-1 can tap and share testing and evaluation facilities used by the Navy’s unmanned undersea vehicles with Submarine Development Squadron 5, officials said. The Navy has completed and issued the concept of operations for medium and large USVs, and the CONOPS will likely be updated annually as the new unit progresses on experimentation and evaluation, officials said.
Growing the USV fleet
The Navy envisions a hybrid fleet with unmanned vessels acting as an adjunct “shooter” outfitted with a magazine or providing sensors to augment manned ships with a surface action group (SAG). In such scenarios, the human would provide the command-and-control for a SAG with adjunct sensors and magazines in USVs organized around an amphibious ship or littoral combat ship, for example.
“We’re at the ground floor of discovering what we think we can do and what we think we need,” Heames said.
“If we have more USVs, we can do more experiments and we can operate with more fleet activities and we can gather more data on performance… [By doing so] we can begin to scale our learning and get faster understanding in terms of what payloads we think are most viable, in terms of how much more safe we can be, how much we can sense our environment, in terms of the sensors that we’re using.”
The pace of experimentation and testing will quicken with the recent addition of the two OSVs, obtained in March via the Navy’s Strategic Capabilities Office’s Ghost Fleet Overlord program. Those OSVs went through a retrofit that enable autonomous operations and equipping of experimental payloads.
“We expect to get three additional USVs in the next couple of years,” Heames said. Two will come from the Ghost Fleet Overlord program “and the third is being purposed-built as a prototype, from the ground up.”
“We’re growing – so that means more opportunities to take these things to sea, more opportunities to learn about how we need to operate with them with our manned Navy,” he said. “And now that we have a USV Division – command entirely focused on USVs – we think that opportunity is going to grow for us to learn more about how USVs are going to fit into the manned fleet.”
“I see some tremendous opportunity to increase the lethality of our surface forces, with some of the payloads… the operating modes that we are exploring,” he added.
By the end of 2022, Daley said he expects to have about 100 people in the unit. The plan is to increase the size of the unit with about 175 sailors by the end of 2023, he added.
Sailors will come from a variety of rates, including operation specialists, quartermasters, hull maintenance technicians, machinist’s mates, enginemen, and information and electronic technicians. The division’s surface warfare officers, he said, “will be controlling and working through both the autonomy and the operationalization of how the unmanned ships will interact with the fleet.”
Testing unique prototypes
Over the past year, SURFDEVRON had been focused on “taking the vessels to sea and understanding the why behind the decisions the vessels make, the autonomy decisions that are being made – from a maneuver perspective[…] especially in the context of operating with our manned fleet,” Heames said.
“The focus was, learning how you can work together, where you would need to control one vessel or have situational awareness of what’s happening in an environment. So that’s been a real focus of effort. We’ve made some progress in that. I think the biggest progress is in understanding the data and having a pipeline to receive the data, a mechanism to store it and some professionals to do the data analytics and understand how we performed, so we can make adjustments on the next activity going out to sea.”
“We’re going to continue to do that, certainly for the next year. The big advantage is we can do more of it, with different vessels,” he said. “We also have different autonomy functions that we’re looking to advance,” so a USV at sea with instruments that sense the environment, such as radar or electro-optic sensors “understands what it’s looking at.”
That information then goes into an algorithm or system “that will make a decision on that information,” he said, but much remains to be learned when the USVs go to sea. How good are those sensors? Are there ways we need to fuse the data to better understand it?”
Each USV will be “unique” prototypes, equipped with different suites of sensors, Heames said. The plan is to put the vessels in different environments, factoring variables like weather or operations with ships or without ships, “and then go back and do the homework on which ones are performing better and make adjustments to it.”
With the capability of vessels operating in autonomous mode, where it can make decisions on its own, Heames noted, “it’s very important for us to understand why it makes certain decisions over others. So the data pipeline and the analytics decisions, either during or[…] very quickly after the fact, are critical so we can understand and make adjustments.”
He added: “We are absolutely oriented toward continuing experiments and working with the program office to better understand what the capabilities are that we need.”
Thompson takes SURFDEVRON-1 command five years after he first began working on Sea Hunter in 2017. “The progress that’s been made… is readily apparent,” he said. When he first landed eyes on the USV, “I was excited. I saw the potential of what an unmanned surface vessel can bring to enhancing the lethality of the fleet.”
Back then, remotely operating the vessel with payloads was a big step, “and “and the concepts have matured,” he said. “That was a big win back in 2017. Now we’re way past that,” with improved autonomous piloting a big advancement.
Thompson said his first exposure to USVs was during a 2017 exercise when he got to operate Sea Hunter remotely while aboard USS Sampson (DDG-102).
“I’m sitting there on the joystick, remotely controlling a surface vessel,” he said. “I may have been the first uniformed guy to actually do it. So as I come back here, I’m even more excited about what the future holds.”