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31/01/24: Pentagon seeks unmanned surface vehicles to thwart Taiwan invasion

The United States military has advanced its efforts to develop numerous lethal maritime attack drones, seen as crucial in discouraging a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. On Monday, the Defense Innovation Unit issued a request for companies to propose designs for compact Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV) that align with the Pentagon's Replicator initiative, as confirmed by a defense official to USNI News on Tuesday.

DIU's PRIME (Production-Ready, Inexpensive, Maritime Expeditionary) initiative aims to procure drones in large quantities to address a specific operational requirement from the Navy. The focus is on acquiring small autonomous attack craft with the capability to swiftly "intercept" enemy vessels at high speeds.

“This is their effort to try to get some new kinetic, lethal USV[s] fielded that can be employed probably in a western Pacific context – maybe the Strait of Taiwan,” naval analyst Bryan Clark told USNI News on Tuesday.

“They want to go out to the commercial world and say, ‘Alright, what do you got in terms of kinetic, lethal USVs that can be produced at scale’.”

In the Pacific, the Navy has been discreetly testing a formidable drone concept referred to as "hellscape." This concept involves disrupting a potential amphibious invasion of Taiwan through a combination of loitering munitions and lethal attack drones. The autonomous and lethal swarm aims to disrupt a coordinated invasion, create confusion and chaos in the strait, and provide a window of time for the U.S. and Taiwan to deploy additional forces, as reported by USNI News last year.

The inspiration for this program partly comes from the cost-effective lethal surface drones developed by Ukraine, constructed using readily available components.

The PRIME USVs represent a departure from the larger and medium-sized USV demonstrators currently utilized by the Navy. These PRIME USVs have a reduced endurance level and a range spanning from 500 to 1000 nautical miles.

The specifications for the drones necessitate autonomous navigation through contested regions, lingering in designated areas, identifying surface threats, and subsequently accelerating to a minimum speed of 35 knots to intercept adversary vessels.

Furthermore, the drones should have the capability to collaborate in formations, executing intricate autonomous maneuvers that adjust to the dynamic and evasive movements of the targeted vessel, as outlined in the solicitation.

Though not explicitly stated in the solicitation, the nature of the small USVs sprint and intercept phases is akin to a suicide surface attack drone, such as those seen in Ukraine.

The solicitation listed nice-to-haves, like the ability to carry small unmanned aerial systems to either help spot enemy vessels or assist other missions and the capacity to support other sensors and weapons. The drones could deploy from well decks or boat davits and bestowed long-term in a standard shipping container. The solicitation covers the specialized software needed for the Collaborative Intercept Capability, which will allow the drones to autonomously swarm with other USVs to hunt their targets.

Although this solicitation marks the initial direct link to Replicator's initiatives for the Navy, as per the defense official, the Navy and industry have been engaging in experimentation, and in certain instances, actual deployment of Small Unmanned Surface Vehicles (SUSVs) for several years.

At the Surface Navy Association symposium this month, Naval Sea Systems Command presented a successful demonstration by the U.S. 4th Fleet. Textron's armed Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle hit a target in a kill chain demo. Saildrone and MARTAC USVs were also showcased in Task Force 59 and exercises like Digital Talon in the Middle East, where a MARTAC Devil Ray USV launched loitering munitions in November.

Texas drone company Saronic has also developed swarm boat concepts in line with the solicitation. In a concept video on its website, four USVs airdrop into a region and coordinate with two destroyers to detect and destroy an enemy landing craft.

Apart from the Navy, the Marine Corps is actively investigating armed Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) as part of Force Design 2030. Among the initial USV programs within the Marine Corps is the long-range USV (LRSUV), developed under the guidance of former commandant Gen. David Berger. Gen. Berger has suggested the concept of utilizing large amphibious ships as motherships for unmanned systems in the future.

Clark said that while the Replicator initiative called for thousands of drones, this first group of drones could still be effective in the dozens.

“Dozens of these unmanned surface vehicles, maybe a hundred of these unmanned surface vehicles, that’s a lot,” he said. “But it seems like that’s within the scope of what a commercial manufacturer could do within 18 months.

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