Navy Will Stand Up Lethal Drone Unit Later this Year, First Replicator USVs Picked

February 14, 2024 8:42 PM
Cooperative, autonomous drone concept using Saronic USVs. Saronic Image

SAN DIEGO – The Navy will establish a second unmanned surface vessel squadron in the next few months, as the Pentagon accelerates unmanned systems development to tackle an expansionist China in the Western Pacific, a service official announced Wednesday.

The second Unmanned Surface Vessel Division will formally stand up in May, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Sam Paparo told an audience at the WEST 2024 conference, co-hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and AFCEA.

“This is not a contractor-owned, contractor-operated capability, but this is [a] uniformed capability that we’ll be able to own, operate unmanned capabilities that can be employed within particular spaces,” Paparo said.

The second squadron will focus on small USVs, building on the medium and large USVs that the Unmanned Surface Vessel Division ONE (USVDIV-1) has been experimenting with for the last two years, USNI News understands.

Last year, the Navy experimented with its medium and large USVs to operationalize test platforms with real units as the Pacific Fleet refines concepts for using unmanned systems.

Those concepts are set to inform the emerging “hellscape” concept that would use swarms of unmanned platforms to thwart a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, USNI News previously reported.

“There are battlespaces where it may not be necessary to contest air and maritime superiority one for one,” Paparo said Wednesday, “but simply to deny its use to an enemy that wants to use that battlespace for its own purposes.”

“A principled highly effective concept of operations of sea denial, with unmanned undersea vessels, with smart undersea capabilities, with surface capabilities and aerial capabilities is the ability to meet some of the principles … which is don’t send a human being to do something dangerous that a machine can do better, faster, and more cheaply,” he added.

Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, on Feb. 17, 2022. USNI News Photo

The goal is to quickly deploy small USV research and development prototypes and continuously integrate them into fleet operations on a more permanent basis, USNI News understands. The missions for the small USVs could range from sensing to kinetic capabilities.

To that end, the Defense Innovation Unit last month issued a solicitation calling on industry to present pitches for small lethal surface drones that would tie into the Defense Department’s Replicator Initiative. When announcing Replicator in August, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kath Hicks gave DIU an 18- to 24-month timeline to find mature systems to answer the operational problem of countering the Chinese military in the Pacific.

On Wednesday at WEST, a DIU official announced that Hicks and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Chris Grady selected the first tranche of vehicles for what the Pentagon is calling Replicator 1.

“There is likely some frustration that that hasn’t been publicly announced,” said Capt. Alex Campbell, DIU’s maritime director.
“Please understand that that is very deliberate. There is a very important but frankly, critical conceal and reveal strategy.”

The lethal surface drones – spiritually related to Ukraine’s explosive USVs scrapped together from off-the-shelf sensors and recreational watercraft engines – would combine with loitering munitions to disrupt the tempo of a mass Chinese amphibious invasion.

In addition to the platforms, DIU is creating the software and network links that will allow the drones to operate in unison with enough autonomy to hunt and find their targets but keep a human in the loop when it comes to the final order to kill.

The cost of the Replicator initiative is unclear, but DIU is utilizing so-called other transaction authorities to pay for the effort. On Wednesday, Campbell said early funds would come from a Pentagon reprogramming request that Congress must approve.

The unmanned surface vessel Ranger transits the Pacific Ocean during Integrated Battle Problem (IBP) 23.2, Sep. 15, 2023. US Navy Photo

Paparo said the Navy will “quietly” experiment with new USV capabilities and argued for secrecy surrounding the platforms.

“We don’t want to expose it to an adversary that would emplace a counter to that capability,” he said.

“Our most exquisite capabilities – if i’m doing my job – you won’t be knowing about it,” Paparo added.

Ahead of the new USV squadron formation in May, the Navy in early March will conduct Integrated Battle Problem 24.1, which USNI News understands will focus on the smaller USVs.

The Navy formally stood up the first USV squadron – USVDIV-1 – in May of 2022 to experiment with medium and large USVs. Since then, the Navy sent four ships to the Indo-Pacific last year for the PACFLEET-directed Integrated Battle Problem 23.2. Ghost Fleet Overlord prototype USVs Mariner and Ranger and Medium USVs Sea Hunter and Seahawk sailed more than 46,000 nautical miles and tested continuous navigation in transits that took them across the vast region.

Paparo said the Navy’s unmanned efforts in other theaters, like Task Force 59 in the Middle East and U.S. 4th Fleet’s use of unmanned platforms to counter drug runners, work in tandem with the efforts in the Pacific.

“We do have a very rich program of integrating USVs, UUVs, and UAVs,” Paparo said. “We have concepts for their employment. And the work in Task Force 59 and the work in [U.S.] Fourth Fleet aren’t competing principles of that, but are all complimentary battle labs that contribute to a concept of unmanned and autonomous operations that will in fact augment and compliment our ability to employ those capabilities when the unforgiving hour comes.”

Mallory Shelbourne and Sam LaGrone

Mallory Shelbourne and Sam LaGrone are USNI News staff writers.

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