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05/06/24: A concept of operations for the U.S. Navy’s hybrid fleet

Generational Change for the U.S. Navy.

In an address at a military-industry conference, then-Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, revealed the Navy’s goal to reach 500 ships by adding approximately 150 unmanned maritime vehicles to the Navy’s inventory. This concept added additional granularity to the Navy’s UNMANNED Campaign Framework and culminated in the issuance of the Chief of Naval Operations NAVPLAN and Force Design 2045, both of which call for 350 manned ships and 150 large unmanned maritime vehicles. 

Most recently, at the annual U.S. Naval Institute/Armed Forces and Communications and Electronic Association “West” Symposium, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Lisa Franchetti, reaffirmed the U.S. Navy’s commitment to a future force of 350 manned ships and 150 large unmanned maritime vehicles as an important initiative in the face of a rapidly growing Chinese Navy.1

While the composition of the future U.S. Navy crewed vessels is relatively well understood—based on ships being built and being planned—what those unmanned maritime vehicles will look like, let alone what they will do—remains opaque to most observers. This uncertainty slows progress on the aspirations detailed in the UNMANNED Campaign Framework.

Additionally, Congress demonstrated increasing reluctance to authorize the Navy’s planned investment of billions of dollars on unmanned surface vessels (USVs) until the Naval Service develops a concept-of-operations (CONOPS) for use. Fairly, Congress has a point. The Navy announced plans to procure large numbers of unmanned systems, especially large and medium unmanned surface vehicles without a CONOPS. Until the Navy can develop such a CONOPS, it is unlikely that a 500-ship fleet populated by 150 unmanned surface vehicles will reach fruition.

The Navy’s Commitment to Unmanned Surface Vehicles: A Bridge to the Navy-After-Next

Many, to include U.S. Congress, encouraged the Navy to increase the number of ships it fields but with little to no increase in funding to do so. This is further exacerbated by the increasing cost to build ships, the cost to man these vessels, and the high operational tempo of ship deployments. This issues compound into a sustainability crunch where the Navy is literally wearing these ships out more rapidly than planned to meet the increasing demands of U.S. Combatant Commanders. From the resultant vector of these issues, it is easy to see why the Navy has difficulty growing the number of manned surface vessels.2

However, the rapid growth of the technologies that make unmanned surface vehicles increasingly capable and affordable provide the Navy with a way forward to put more hulls in the water. This led to the Navy’s commitment to field a force comprised of 150 large and medium unmanned surface vehicles.3 That said, some have noted that the Navy’s UNMANNED Campaign Framework is high on aspiration but low on specifics.4 Said another way, this vision is good as far as it goes, but the Navy has endured withering criticism from a skeptical Congress that is not warm to the Service spending billions of dollars on USVs until the Navy can come up with a concept-of-operations for using them.

Congressional Concerns over the Navy’s Plans for Unmanned Surface Vehicles

Few Navy procurement initiatives have been the subject of as much scrutiny—from Congress as well as defense analysts—as the Service’s plans for unmanned surface vehicles. A Jane’s Defense report noted: “U.S. lawmakers have balked at the service’s efforts to shift money from legacy ship programs toward proposed unmanned ones—in part because the USN has yet to develop a track record in the development of unmanned systems.5

Another article in a defense publication reported Congressional concerns that stated, “The Navy has yet to produce a concept of operations or even a coherent public strategy to back up the investments they want to make. Further, Congress is wary of appropriating money for platforms that rely on technologies that haven’t been fully developed yet.”6

As the Navy looks to allay Congressional concerns and accelerate the fielding of unmanned maritime systems, the emphasis should be on no longer thinking of each unmanned maritime system as a “one-of,” but rather, to package these together as multiple-sized and function vehicles designed for specific missions.7

A Concept of Operations for Getting Unmanned Surface Vessels to the Fight

The concept of operations proposed is to marry various size unmanned surface, subsurface and aerial unmanned vehicles to perform missions that the U.S. Navy has—and will continue to have—as the Navy-After-Next evolves. Simply put, the Navy can use the evolving large, unmanned surface vehicle as a “truck” to move smaller USVs, UUVs and UAVs into the battle space in the contested littoral and expeditionary environment.

While there is a plethora of important Navy missions, the proposed integrated unmanned solution combination of unmanned platforms focuses on two aspects: intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and mine countermeasures (MCM). There are many large, medium, small, and ultra-small unmanned systems ready to be adopted for these missions.

Rather than speaking in hypotheticals as to how unmanned vehicles might be employed for these two missions, this article will offer concrete examples, using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) unmanned systems that have been employed in recent Navy and Marine Corps events. In each case, these systems not only demonstrated mission accomplishment, but also the hull, mechanical and electrical (HME) attributes and maturity that Congress demands.

While there are a wide range of medium unmanned surface vehicles (MUSVs) that can potentially meet the U.S. Navy’s needs, there are three unmanned surface vehicles that appear to be furthest along in the development cycle and that have been featured in numerous Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments and demonstrations.8 These MUSVs cover a wide range of sizes, hull types and capabilities:

  • The Textron Common Unmanned Surface Vessel (CUSV), now used by the Navy as the MCM-USV, features a single hull coupled with a modular and open architecture design.

  • The Maritime Tactical Systems Inc. (MARTAC), unmanned surface vehicles (USV) include the MANTAS T12 and the Devil Ray T18T24 and T38 craft are catamarans that feature two hulls on both sides of the vessel. These USVs feature a modular and open architecture design.

  • The Leidos Sea Hunter, and its sister ship, Sea Hawk, are the largest of the three. The Sea Hunter is a 132-foot-long trimaran that features a central hull with two outriggers.

All three are viable candidates to be part of an integrated unmanned solution CONOPS. The MANTAS and Devil Ray craft are viable candidates for this CONOPS for several reasons. First, these vessels come in varied sizes with the same HME and command and control attributes. Second, Sea Hunter is too large to fit into the LUSVs the Navy is considering. Third, the CUSV is the MUSV of choice for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Mine-Countermeasures Mission Package, and all CUSVs scheduled to be procured are committed to this program.

The MANTAS and Devil Ray are COTS MUSVs that the Navy has wrung out in exercises, experiments, and demonstrations over the past several years, including operations with Navy Task Force 59.9 These have been married together to show Congress and others that the Navy does, indeed, have an effective way to use these platforms operationally.10

Most recently, and directly supporting the Navy’s “Hybrid Fleet” vision, Task Force 59 created a subordinate command, Task Group 59.1, focused specifically on manned-unmanned teaming operations. The Navy indicated that this means it will focus on the operational deployment of unmanned systems teamed with manned platforms to bolster maritime security across the Middle East region.11 Task Force 59 Commodore, Captain Colin Corridan, explained that in recent months Task Force 59 and Task Group 59.1 have been breaking new ground by evaluating unmanned vehicles for offensive operations. He noted the successful test firing of a Miniature Aerial Missile System weapons off an unmanned MARTAC T38 Devil Ray unmanned surface vehicle with direct hits against a training target each time.12

Kinetic use of USVs like the T38 Devil Ray are gaining traction but are likely some years away from becoming part of the arsenal of worldwide fleets. What is evolving today is the urgent need to shift the burden of performing the ISR and MCM missions from expensive and overdeployed manned platforms to plentiful and attritable unmanned vehicles. Part of an evolving operational concept for employing unmanned surface vehicles involves placing them in the environment where they can perform their missions of ISR and MCM.

If the U.S. Navy wants to sustain its manned capital ships in the lead up to war, the Navy needs to surge unmanned maritime vehicles into the contested battlespace. This paradigm shift ensures risk worthy vessels operate within the range of adversary anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) platforms, systems, sensors, and weapons. Small and medium USVs, UAVs and UUVs need a “truck” to deliver them near or even in the battlespace.13 The Navy envisions that truck to be the LUSV. LUSVs will be 200 feet to 300 feet in length and have full load displacements of 1,000 tons to 2,000 tons.14

Depending on the size that is ultimately procured, the LUSV can carry several T38 Devil Ray unmanned surface vehicles and deliver them, largely covertly, to a point near the intended area of operations. The T38 can then be sent independently to perform the ISR mission, or alternatively, can launch one or more T12 MANTAS USVs to perform the ISR mission. Building on work conducted by the Navy laboratory community and sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, the T38 or T12 will have the ability to launch unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct overhead ISR.15

For the MCM mission, the LUSV can deliver several T38s equipped with mine-hunting and mine-clearing systems (all of which are COTS platforms tested extensively in Navy exercises). These vessels can then undertake the “dull, dirty and dangerous” work previously conducted by Sailors who had to operate in the minefield. Given the large mine inventory of peer and near-peer adversaries, this methodology may well be the only way to clear mines safely.

This scenario and CONOPS is built around an Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) that is underway in the Western Pacific. This ESG includes three LUSVs under supervisory control from a large amphibious ship. The then-Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, suggested this CONOPS in 2022 when he noted that he: “Wants to begin to deploy large and medium-sized unmanned vessels as part of carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups in 2027 or 2028, and earlier if I can.”16

Vignette for an Integrated Unmanned Solution Mission:

The ESG in the Western Pacific is on routine patrol five hundred nautical miles from the nearest landfall. An incident occurs in their operating area and the ESG is requested to: (1) obtain reconnaissance of a near-shore littoral area, associated bays and river accesses and (2) determine if the entrance to a specific bay has been mined to prevent ingress. The littoral coastline covers two hundred nautical miles. This area must be reconnoitered within twenty-four hours without the use of air assets.

Command staff dispatches three LUSVs for the request mission. Two LUSVs are each configured with four T38-ISR craft and the third LUSV is configured with four T38-MCM vessels. The three LUSV depart the strike group steaming together in a preset autonomous pattern to a waypoint that is central to the ISR scan area. At this waypoint, the LUSV will stop and dispatch the smaller T38 craft and then wait at this location for their return.

Two T38-ISR craft are launched from each of the two LUSVs carrying the ISR craft. The autonomous mission previously downloaded specifies a waypoint location along the coast for each of the four craft. Each of the four T38 craft will have a geographically confined ISR mission to cover.

Two T38-MCM craft are launched from the third LUSV. The autonomous mission previously downloaded has them transit independently along different routes to two independent waypoints just offshore of the suspected mine presence area where they will commence mine-like object detection operations. In this manner, each of the six craft will be transiting independently and autonomously to their next waypoint which will be the mission execution start point.

The objective is for each of the T38-ISR craft to complete their ISR scan and for the two T38-MCM craft to jointly scan the bottom and the water column for the presence of mine-like objects.

Even with the Expeditionary Strike Group well outside of littoral waters, the ESG Commander will have the results of the ISR and MCM scan of the shoreline littoral area after dispatching the LUSVs. The LUSVs then return to the ESG, ready for the next mission. 

Moving Forward with Effective Unmanned Surface Vehicle Deployment

As noted earlier, the Navy envisions large and medium unmanned vessels as part of carrier strike groups and expeditionary strike groups later this decade. The goal is to take an evolutionary approach and to scale up unmanned surface vessels in order to have large numbers of USVs available to commanders.17 This nested doll approach can accelerate this effort.

This is not a platform-specific solution, but rather a concept. When fleet operators see a capability with different size unmanned COTS platforms in the water working together and successfully performing the missions presented in this article, they will likely press industry to produce even more-capable platforms to perform these missions.

While evolutionary in nature, this disruptive capability delivered using emerging technologies can provide the U.S. Navy with near-term solutions to vexing operational challenges, while demonstrating to a skeptical Congress that the Navy does have a concept-of-operations to employ the unmanned systems it wants to procure.

Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator and national security professional. His 30-year career as a naval aviator culminated in 14 years of consecutive service as executive officer, commanding officer, commodore, and chief of staff. He enjoys writing, especially speculative fiction about the future of warfare. He is the author of 18 books, including four consecutive New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, published by the U.S. Naval Institute, is Algorithms of Armageddon: The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Future Wars.



1. Patrick Tucker and Lauren Williams, “Navy Robot Ships on a 15-year Path to Operating At Speed and Scale,” CNO says,” Defense One, February 13, 2024.

2. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Adds ‘Wholeness Balance Reviews’ to Budget Process to Consider Total Ownership Costs,” USNI News, January 18, 2018.

3. See, for example, Chief of Naval Operations NAVPLAN 2022 (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, July 2022), Sam Lagrone and Mallory Shelbourne, “CNO Gilday: ‘We Need a Naval Force of Over 500 Ships’” USNI News, February 18, 2022, and Sam Lagrone, “Navy’s Force Design 2045 Plans for 373 Ship Fleet, 150 Unmanned Vessels,” USNI News, July 26, 2022.

4. Department of the Navy UNMANNED Campaign Framework (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, March 2021). See, David Larter, “U.S. Navy’s New Unmanned Plan Has ‘Buzzwords and Platitudes’ But Few Answers,” Defense News, March 17, 2021.

5. Michael Fabey, “Unmanned market: U.S. Navy Looks to Tap Existing Technology to Jump Start Autonomous Fleet Plans,” Jane’s Navy International, March 16, 2021.

6. David Larter, “The Pentagon Wants to Forge Ahead with Robot Warships, But Congress Wants To Slow The Train,” Defense News, June 19, 2020.

7. Tim Galladuet, “Three Ways the Navy Can Surge Its Unmanned Surface Force,” Real Clear Defense, February 26, 2022. The author, the former Deputy Administrator of NOAA, emphasizes the importance of multiple vehicle integration, a key attribute behind this concept of operations.

8. Megan Eckstein, “U.S. Navy More Certain of Role for Medium Surface Drones Following Tests,” Defense News, January 12, 2023.

9. Aaron-Matthew Lariosa, “US Navy Highlights TF 59 Contributions to Fleet’s Unmanned Vision,” Naval News, January 23, 2023

10. U.H. “Jack” Rowley, “Integrating Unmanned Surface Vehicles into the Surface Fleet: The Case for a “Nesting Dolls” Approach,” Paper presented at the American Society of Naval Engineers 2021 Virtual Technology, Systems and Ships Symposium, January 26-28, 2021.

11. Agnes Helou, “Commander: Navy’s new Task Group 59.1 to Usher Unmanned Systems into Operational Realm,” Breaking Defense, January 19, 2024.

12. Rich Abott, “5th Fleet Unmanned Unit Starts New Hybrid Task Group,” Defense Daily, January 13, 2024.

13. Some of the Congressional criticism of the Navy’s plans for is unmanned surface vehicles is the fact that the Navy has (honestly) admitted that initially its large unmanned surface vehicles will actually be manned, albeit with a small crew. See, for example, Sam Lagrone, “Navy: Large USV Will Require Small Crews for the Next Several Years,” USNI News, August 3, 2021. Operating large unmanned surface vehicles as part of a carrier or expeditionary strike group could obviate the need for this crew, as sailors could be flown from CSG or ESG ships to the LUSV to perform needed functions, especially emergent repairs, and then return to their parent ship(s).

14. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress – CRS Report 45757.

15. See Vladimir Djapic et al, “Heterogeneous Autonomous Mobile Maritime Expeditionary Robots and Maritime Information Dominance,” Naval Engineers Journal, December 2014 for a description of how an unmanned surface vehicle can launch unmanned underwater vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles. 

16. Bradley Peniston, “Navy Chief Sees Robot Ships Alongside Aircraft Carriers Within Five Years,” Defense One, February 16, 2022. See also, Sam LaGrone, “CNO Gilday Taking a More ‘Realistic’ Approach to Unmanned Systems in the Fleet,” USNI News, February 16, 2022.

17. Justin Katz, “From 7 Classified ‘Spirals’ to Coming Robotic Ships: Gilday on Navy’s Unmanned Task Force,” Breaking Defense, February 17, 2022. See also, Megan Eckstein, “Unmanned or Minimally Manned Vessels Could Deploy Alongside Strike Groups as Soon as 2027,” Defense News, February 17, 2022.

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