The U.S. Navy is operating or developing nearly a dozen different unmanned sea vehicles for use in maritime security operations. Some of the vehicles operate on the ocean’s surface, and others beneath it. Some are no bigger than torpedoes and must be launched by larger vessels, while others are autonomous, robotic warships.
Pursuit of unmanned sea systems is not a new endeavor for the Navy. The Office of Naval Research recognized their potential decades ago, and smaller systems have been used in mine countermeasures for many years.
The defense department has been experimenting for seven years with a transoceanic, unmanned surface warship called Sea Hunter developed by Leidos LDOS . Boeing BA has recently begun delivering an extra-large unmanned submarine dubbed Orca that can operate at unprecedented depths. Both vehicles are capable of performing multiple warfighting missions.
What’s new in recent years is that emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence have expanded the scope for robotic operations at sea. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday has identified unmanned vehicles as a high-priority development area, along with digital networking and extended-range fires.
The Navy released an unmanned campaign framework in 2021 that emphasized how robotic warships could enable distributed maritime operations, the service’s driving organizational construct for the future.
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With the number of manned warships in the fleet seemingly stuck around 300 for the foreseeable future, unmanned systems may be the only way to meet warfighting and presence objectives within available budgets.
Although it will be a long time, if ever, before unmanned systems can deliver the functionality of a crewed submarine or destroyer, they can complement the manned fleet by performing tasks too dangerous or routine to justify assigning a manned warship.
For instance, sending manned warships into the Baltic or Black Seas in an East-West war could place hundreds of sailors at risk; unmanned systems may be able to perform the necessary reconnaissance and strike missions without risking U.S. lives.
Thus far, the Navy’s interest in unmanned sea systems has focused mainly on their potential to enable new operational concepts. However, if the technology proves useful, larger systems such as Sea Hunter and Orca might open the door to a new paradigm for naval shipbuilding.
As I noted in a Forbes article earlier this week, naval shipbuilding today is a complicated and costly enterprise even when managed efficiently. It produces warships typically costing over a billion dollars each. Unmanned warships cost a small fraction of that amount to build, and a similarly low amount to operate.
The possibility thus exists to pioneer new approaches to naval shipbuilding, approaches that can grow in scope as the use of robotic systems at sea expands in the future.
Here are a few ways in which unmanned warships might revolutionize the way U.S. warships are built and operated:
1. Simplified designs that eliminate the complexity imposed when making manned vessels habitable and survivable. Many of the demanding specifications for current warships are driven by the need to accommodate a hundred or more sailors; eliminate the sailors, and the design requirements become much less demanding—reducing cost to a point where survivability becomes a less critical feature.
2. Simplified engineering that compresses the time needed to transition from concept to construction. With a much simpler design, the demands on engineers to translate specifications into systems is correspondingly reduced, saving time and money.
3. Simplified construction as less costly and demanding processes enable a return to serial production. Serial production on the Liberty Ship model doesn’t exist in naval shipbuilding today, but it could return if specifications were suitably simplified and unit costs fell to a fraction of what manned warships cost.
4. Simplified planning as reduced material requirements permit streamlining of supply chains. Modern warship construction typically is supported by hundreds of subcontractors, but if survivability and other features associated with manning are eliminated, fewer specialized suppliers would be needed and integrators could rely more on commercial inputs.
5. Simplified innovation as less complicated designs facilitate the rapid insertion of advanced technology such as machine learning and digital networking. Unmanned systems substitute software for people, which implies a capacity for fast reconfiguration without necessarily requiring new hardware.
6. Simplified modification as threats evolve, often by porting new source code into software reconfigurable architectures from remote locations. In other words, the design features that facilitate introduction of new innovations also could greatly reduce the time and funding needed to modify warships in response to new operational challenges.
7. Simplified sustainment owing to less demanding designs and greater reliance on expendable/attritable systems. Unmanned systems should be much easier to repair and maintain than manned systems, and their supply requirements at sea would be negligible; for instance, Sea Hunter can traverse the Pacific in both directions on a single tank of fuel.
8. Simplified industrial bases as the ranks of sub-tier suppliers shrink and integrators shift to reliance on dual-use or commercial technologies. Because the barriers to building warships would diminish, additional integrators might enter the business, creating a more resilient industrial base.
These ideas are purely conceptual, reflecting the fact that development of unmanned warships—especially highly capable, multi-mission ships—is in its infancy. The Navy could fruitfully accelerate its development of unmanned warships at modest cost, perhaps producing revolutionary results within a few years.
Having said that, it will be a long time before the Navy can dispense with the processes it currently depends on to build manned warships. That may never happen. But unmanned systems open the door to building a bigger fleet at lower cost.
Boeing and Leidos, mentioned above, contribute to my think tank. I am indebted to Maiya Clark of the Heritage Foundation for offering remarks at a Lexington Institute working group that stimulated my thinking on the industrial-base implications of unmanned warships.