The USN’s commitment to a future fleet comprised of as many as 150 unmanned maritime systems did not instantly materialize, and it is worth examining this journey. This is due to the fact that the ADF and RAN will likely have to socialize such a change in the composition of Australia’s Navy over time and in much the same way.
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Here is how the U.S. Navy finally arrived at this major decision. The U.S. Navy’s commitment to—and dependence on—unmanned systems was seen several years ago in the Navy’s official Force Structure Assessment, as well as in a series of “Future Fleet Architecture Studies.” In each of these studies: one by the Chief of Naval Operations Staff, one by the MITRE Corporation, and one by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the proposed Navy future fleet architecture had large numbers of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems as part of the Navy force structure.
Soon thereafter, these goals regarding populating the Navy Fleet with large numbers of unmanned vehicles were described in the Congressional Research Service Report, Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress, which describes plans for a 355-ship Navy, as well as a “Battle Force 2045,” for achieving a fleet of more than 500 manned and unmanned ships by 2045.
Issued in December 2020, America’s Tri-Service Maritime Strategy, Advantage at Sea was demonstrated a commitment to unmanned systems. The same month that Advantage at Sea was published, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, suggested that a much larger 500-ship U.S. Navy would be necessary to contain Chinese expansionist ambitions. In a direct reference to the importance of unmanned systems in reaching this goal, General Milley noted: “Part of the move to pursue a 500-ship fleet rests upon the hope for as many as 140 to 250 unmanned vessels,” which he called, “Sailorless ships, robots on the water and under the water,” would be part of the U.S. Navy inventory.
It appears that the U.S. Navy is committed to making unmanned systems of various types and capabilities an important part of the Navy Fleet in the near-, mid- and especially long-term. During his Congressional testimony in support of his nomination for the post of Secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro said: “Investments in unmanned naval systems will be key to meeting those threats. It’s important to ensure that they’re fully integrated with all of our existing platforms.” Subsequently, the Strategic Guidance issued by the Secretary of the Navy in October 2021 calls out unmanned systems as: “A technological breakthroughs that will define future conflict.”
Also that year, the Department of the Navy released its UNMANNED Campaign Framework. In his introductory message introducing this Framework, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, explained:
“Unmanned Systems have and will continue to play a key part in future Distributed Maritime Operations and there is a clear need to field affordable, lethal, scalable, and connected capabilities. A hybrid fleet will be necessary for the Navy to meet emerging security concerns. We need platforms to deliver lethal and non-lethal effects simultaneously in all domains across multiple axes. UxS will provide added capacity in our Future Fleet—in the air, on the surface, and under the water.”
Most agree that the culminating event in the U.S. Navy’s journey to build a hybrid fleet occurred in July 2022 with the issuance of the Chief of Naval Operations NAVPLAN 2022, and Force Design 2045, which both call for a “hybrid fleet” 373 manned ships, and 150 large unmanned surface and subsurface platforms. These official U.S. Navy documents provided the clearest indication yet of the Navy’s plans for a future fleet populated by large numbers of unmanned maritime systems.
Admiral Gilday put a stake in the ground and made a huge bet that represented a sea change in Navy force structure plans that is without precedent in recent memory. This new direction promises to have profound implications for the U.S. Navy through at least the middle of the century. Specially regarding unmanned maritime vehicles, Force Design 2045 notes: “Unmanned surface and subsurface platforms to increase the fleet’s capacity for distribution; expand our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance advantage; add depth to our missile magazines; supplement logistics; and enhance fleet survivability. This transition will rebalance the fleet away from exquisite, manpower intensive platforms toward smaller, less-expensive, yet lethal ones.”
To support these goals regarding large numbers of unmanned maritime platforms populating the U.S. Navy established an Unmanned Task Force in August 2021 to provide stewardship for Navy-wide efforts to accelerate efforts regarding unmanned systems. Task Force leader, Michael Stewart, described the focus of this effort:
“With operational needs in mind, the task force uses a venture capital-like method to identify investments that could pay off: the process scans technology across the military and commercial markets; identifies which could be applied to warfighter challenges; hunts for potential barriers to implementation; picks technologies for further experimentation; and, in the end, selects a handful of items to receive small investments.
“I wanted to make sure that whatever the requirement was, you could trace it right back to the National Defense Strategy, the Joint Warfighting Concept, the CNO Navigation Plan and the Commandant’s Planning Guidance. We wanted to make sure we were solving a problem the warfighter actually cared about.”
From all indications that we have today, it seems that for the U.S. Navy, the intent is to go all-in on unmanned maritime vehicles and field a hybrid force of manned and unmanned systems. Importantly, the intent is to have these unmanned systems work in conjunction with manned platforms and achieve the goal of manned-unmanned teaming. Indeed, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday described this concept of operations (CONOPS) 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.”
What the ADF and RAN Will Likely Be Keen to Learn
While Australia is watching the USN on its journey to introduce more unmanned maritime vehicles into its fleet and ultimately field a hybrid force, it is important to understand that Australia does have its own overarching plan to thoughtfully insert uncrewed systems into the Australian Defence Force. This plan is embodied in two capstone documents: Robotics, Autonomous Systems and Artificial Intelligence (RAS-AI) Strategy 2040 and the Robotics, Autonomous Systems and Artificial Intelligence (RAS-AI) Campaign Plan 2025 which sets out the challenges and opportunities that these technologies present for the ADF and RAN.
While moving forward with the purpose and intent of these documents, the Australian Defence Force can likely glean useful lessons from the U.S. Navy’s journey to populate its fleet with large numbers of unmanned maritime vehicles. Here are some signposts that will likely indicate how this journey is materializing:
(1) Watch how the U.S. Congress reacts to U.S Navy requests for funding for unmanned maritime vehicles. At the moment as a skeptical Congress has challenged the Navy to come up with a concept of operations (CONOPS) for how it intends to use these platforms.
(2) See if the U.S. Navy changes direction on its commitment to unmanned maritime vehicles. The journey of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is instructive. When the LCS program was conceived decades ago the threat landscape was vastly different than it is today, and the number of LCS in the U.S. Navy inventory is but a fraction of what was originally intended.
(3) Watch how industry reacts to the U.S. Navy’s desire to acquire a substantial number of unmanned maritime vehicles. It is one thing for a defense contractor to tool up to produce more of the same class of ship such as the DDG 51, but quite another to build an entire new line of hulls.
(4) See how a CONOPS evolves for the use of unmanned maritime vehicles. Will they sail completely independently or be part of U.S. Navy carrier or expeditionary strike groups. That will be a huge factor in how these platforms ultimately evolve. One evolving CONOPS involves having large USVs serve as a “truck” to transport medium and small USVs into the battle space.
(5) Watch how the CONOPS progresses for how the U.S. Navy actually uses unmanned maritime vehicles. What missions will they perform? How will the mix of large, medium and small USVs work together? These signposts for how the ADF and RAN might employ these platforms.
(6) As the U.S. Navy’s development and fielding of USVs evolves, observe whether these platforms are really uncrewed or not. Given the ongoing maintenance needs of naval vessels operating in harsh ocean environment, technology will likely have to evolve to make these USVs truly uncrewed.
(7) Crewed naval vessels have multiple ways to communicate with each other. It is not a trivial thing to evolve methods to command and control unmanned maritime vehicles. The ADF and RAN will want to watch carefully how the U.S. Navy evolves a command and control methodology for its evolving USV fleet.
(8) Given the long acquisition process common for most naval vessels, watch how the U.S. Navy decides to field unmanned maritime vehicles. There are current initiatives to move to a different paradigm such as contractor-owned, contractor-operated (COCO) in order to speed the fielding of these systems.
Navies Learning Together and Sharing Best Practices
These are only some of the signposts that the ADF and RAN will want to observe as they watch the U.S. Navy begin its journey to evolve a hybrid fleet in the decades ahead. This will likely not be a “linear” journey but will move forward with fits and starts, as is common with any new and emerging technology.
It is worth remembering that Australia and the United States, while bound by a defense treaty as well as cultural, economic and other factors, have substantially different security needs. That said, as both nations and navies seek to leverage the possibilities presented by unmanned maritime systems, “looking over the fence” to see what one’s neighbor is doing can be mutually beneficial for both.
This article was first published by APDR in February 2023 and is republished with the permission of the author.
The featured photo shows MARTAC’s Devil Ray USV autonomous system participating in the 2022 Australian Autonomous Warrior Exercise.