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26/01/24: Op-Ed: International efforts accelerate the development of uncrewed maritime systems

The U.S. Navy has been developing uncrewed maritime systems for many years and recently, Navy officials have signaled a desire to hasten this development.

During the first two decades of the 21st century, due to the exigencies of land wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, uncrewed aerial systems and uncrewed ground systems saw an explosive growth in their development and use.

Today, in an era of great power competition, uncrewed maritime systems have begun to take center stage and are now on an accelerated development path.

Like their air and ground counterparts, these uncrewed maritime systems are valued because of their ability to reduce the risk to human life in high threat areas, to deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest, and to provide options to warfighters that derive from the inherent advantages of uncrewed technologies.

The U.S. Navy has been developing uncrewed maritime systems for many years and recently, Navy officials have signaled a desire to hasten this development. The Navy released its UMANNED Campaign Framework to describe how it intends to use uncrewed systems of all kinds in tomorrow’s wars.

Intention to field a ‘hybrid fleet’

Indeed, the U.S. Navy has signaled its intention to field a future “hybrid fleet” comprised of 500 vessels, including 350 crewed ships and 150 uncrewed maritime vessels.

This is a sea change in Navy force structure plans that is without precedent in recent memory and promises to have profound implications for the U.S. Navy through at least the middle of the century.

What has given impetus to these plans for the U.S. Navy – as well as for other navies – has been an ongoing series of exercises, experiments, and demonstrations where uncrewed maritime systems have performed an increasingly ambitious and complex series of missions, giving great confidence to those who see them as an important part of their fleets.

Column space does not allow for a full cataloging of all of these events that have occurred over the past several years. That said, two that stand out as exemplars for international cooperation in the development of uncrewed maritime systems are International Maritime Exercises and Autonomous Warrior. Both exercises advanced the science and the art of accelerating efforts to make these emerging technologies part of the force structure of a number of navies.

International Maritime Exercise, held under the auspices of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and Commander Task Force 59 (CTF-59) in the Arabian Gulf, focused on the integration of crewed and uncrewed vessels, and included operations with several regional partners.

Exploring capabilities

Navies and coast guards of these nations worked to fully explore the capabilities of unmanned systems such as the Saildrone, the MARTAC MANTAS and Devil Ray, and many other USVs from participating nations.

This is how the Commander U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, described the exercise: “Sixty nations are participating. Ten of those nations are bringing unmanned platforms. It is the largest unmanned exercise in the world…We’re taking off-the-shelf emerging technology in unmanned, coupling with artificial intelligence and machine learning, and moving at pace to bring new capabilities to the region.” 

What is noteworthy about CTF-59 operations in the Arabian Gulf is the fact that IMX was not a “one of.” Rather, crewed-uncrewed integration operations in the Arabian Gulf continue, with plans for more IMX exercises this year and beyond.

Soon after IMX, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) began Exercise Autonomous Warrior. This Royal Australian Navy-led exercise was built around a simulated, next generation naval battlespace. Its purpose was to test and evaluate uncrewed, robotic and autonomous systems in Jervis Bay, in the nearby East Australian Exercise Area, and the skies above.

Part of the impetus for AW was the Australian government’s Robotics Roadmap which called for the ADF to cross-leverage robotic systems and AI. The report noted: “Robotics can be the force multiplier needed to augment Australia’s highly valued human workforce and to enable persistent, wide-area operations in air, land, sea, subsurface, space and cyber domains.”

AW participants included Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and featured a total of thirty autonomous systems.

The uncrewed surface vehicles that were part of this two-week exercise were the Saildrone, MANTAS, and Devil Ray featured in IMX, the Atlas Elektronik ARCIMS, the Elbit Systems Australia SEAGULL, and the Ocius Bluebottle.

AW showed the value of common hull, mechanical and electrical systems (HME) that the U.S. Congress is keen to ensure that the U.S. Navy considers when it designs and procures uncrewed maritime systems. One demonstration featured the 12-foot MANTAS being carried by the 38-foot Devil Ray, something made possible due to their common HME systems.

Looking ahead this year and beyond, world navies are keen to bring both commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) uncrewed maritime systems, as well as other USVs in various stages of development, not only to demonstrate their own capabilities, but to also learn best practices by observing the operations of uncrewed maritime systems of other nations.

These efforts are virtually certain to accelerate the development of these USVs, and for the U.S. Navy, hasten the goal of a 500-ship Navy.

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 is a 40-year Coronado resident and enjoys writing, especially speculative fiction about the future of warfare. He is the author of 16 books, including four consecutive New York Times best sellers.

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