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08/11/23: Watch an uncrewed Navy ‘ghost boat’ fire live missiles

The small munitions hit floating targets as part of an exercise. Take a look.

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Oceans are now one step closer to being battlefields for robotic ships. This past week the US Navy announced that its task force focused on developing autonomous technology and artificial intelligence for the service successfully fired several small missiles at empty boats in the Middle East as part of a test, hitting the targets each time. It was a major step in the Navy’s efforts to build uncrewed surface vessels (or USVs, as they are also called) that can be used for smaller combat situations.

The tests, dubbed Exercise Digital Talon, took what essentially looked like a small speed boat fitted with a weapons system in open international waters in the Arabian Peninsula on Oct. 23. The ship, called a MARTAC T38 Devil Ray USV, took its orders from a human operator who was on shore.

The Digital Talon tests were carried out by Task Force 59, a Navy group focused on building out USV capabilities and integrating them with crewed ships, in conjunction with Special Operations Forces Central Command.

“During Digital Talon, we took a significant step forward and advanced our capability to the ‘next level’ beyond just maritime domain awareness, which has been a traditional focus with Task Force 59,” Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander US Naval Forces Central Command (or NAVCENT), said in a statement. “We have proven these unmanned platforms can enhance fleet lethality.”

Watch the tests for yourself here.

The vessel used in the test was fitted with a small missile launching apparatus called a Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System. The USV specifically fired a Switchblade 300 loitering munition, according to Switchblade maker AeroVironment. Loitering munitions function essentially like a drone with a camera, able to provide surveillance—but then operators have the option of having them hit a target like a missile. US special operations forces have increasingly used the Switchblade in recent years. Thanks to its versatility for surveillance and offense, the weapons were also sent to Ukraine as part of the American effort to arm Kyiv with an array of drones and powerful missile systems. The War Zone (which is owned by PopSci’s parent company, Recurrent Ventures) noted that the boat appears to have a Starlink satellite antenna module mounted on it.

This is not the first time the Navy has successfully fired a weapon from an uncrewed ship like this. In 2021, it successfully launched a SM-6 missile from the USV Ranger. That ship, essentially a repurposed supply vessel with advanced autonomous technology, let the Navy experiment with how automated systems and weapons platforms function when added to an existing vessel.

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