Cold Water Poured On Navy’s Unmanned Surface Vessel Ambitions By Veteran Lawmaker

The Iran’s capture of two U.S. Navy unmanned surface vessels has spurred questions about the service’s unmanned future.

byHoward Altman|
Sea Hunter unmanned ship


Now is not the time for the Navy to invest heavily in unmanned surface vessels (USV), U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, a Navy veteran and influential vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday. And the recent capture by the Iranian Navy of two U.S. Navy Saildrone Explorer USVs in the Red Sea did not bode well for the future of such vessels, she added during the Defense One’s State of Defense virtual conference Wednesday.

“I definitely think that there is a place in the future to have some amount of unmanned surface vessels that provide some capability,” Luria said. “But I think that our fleet is a manned and crewed fleet, and it should and will stay that way for the foreseeable future.”

On Saturday, June 18, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works christened the U.S. Navy’s newest guided-missile destroyer, the future USS John Basilone. (General Dynamics Bath Iron Works photo).

Luria, a retired Navy commander who served at sea on six ships as a nuclear-trained Surface Warfare Officer, said that she agrees with investing in research and development to find ways to use unmanned technology at sea. But for now, and in the foreseeable future, that technology is not ready to handle “the maintenance challenges of operating at sea and transiting long distances.”

And that doesn’t even take into account what she said is “the Navy's reticence to even go from a fully manned to a smart ship concept.”

“We kind of always test these things out and go back to saying we need more people. And until there's a significant mindset shift there, I don't really see that happening.”

Another hurdle to a fleet of USVs is that the need “really hasn't been clearly articulated in my mind to Congress. What is the purpose of these unmanned ships? Unmanned aerial vehicles - UAVs  - have been providing a great service for many years and add additional capacity. Unmanned Underwater Vehicles - UUVs - they have a purpose. But the unmanned surface vessels? It's really unclear.”

Luria, who has long warned about the reduction in the Navy’s vertical launch system (VLS) cell capacity in the coming years, has already asked for a study to examine whether the Expeditionary Fast Transport class of ships might be used for that purpose.

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va) is asking if vessels like this Expeditionary Fast Transport ship USNS Burlington can be used to supplement the Navy's Vertical Launch Systems cell capacity. (U.S. Navy photo by Brian Suriani/released)

But given the great concern over the increasing belligerence of China and its rapidly increasing warship production, she wondered aloud if unmanned surface vessels might be used to offset the anticipated loss of 1,686 VLS cells between now and 2027 and nearly 2,000 by 2035. 

“Is it more firepower?” she asked about a future role for unmanned surface ships. “Is this like an adjunct arsenal?”

Using USVs to augment the arsenals of manned ships, as well as help distribute weapons over a greater area, has been a hot topic as of late.

While the Navy has already been testing USVs in recent exercises like the Rim of The Pacific and in the 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility, a situation that developed earlier this month in the Red Sea raises questions about the reliability of USVs in contested waters.

“We just saw an unmanned vessel become disabled the other day. Some other Navy ships - PCs [Patrol Coastal Ships] which are slated for decommissioning - had to go out and essentially rescue it because Iranian vessels were trying to capture this unmanned surface vessel. So I think there are a lot of things we have to work through and determine if there really is a big place for unmanned surface vessels.”

You can read more about what happened to those USVs in our coverage here.

As embarrassing as that incident might have been for the sea service, there were plans in place in case something like that happened, the Navy’s top officer said at an earlier session at the Defense One virtual conference.

“Well, we did have a response plan,” said Adm. Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations. “We actually put it into effect when the Iranians grabbed those two Saildrones.”

Gilday didn’t offer specifics but said that the Navy is aware of the difficulties of operating USVs.

“It is a challenge today and it is going to be a challenge for us, I will say, into the future and we have to pay attention,” he said. “We are a learning organization and we are learning from what happened over the past month in the Middle East and we'll be applying that as we design and grow the unmanned surface force.”

Despite Luria’s statements, which came after he spoke, Gilday said the Navy was trying to find the best and quickest ways to grow the USV fleet.

A Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel sails in the Gulf of Aqaba off Jordan’s coast, on Dec. 12, during exercise Digital Horizon. Credit: U.S. Army

“We're trying to move fairly quickly and to learn in this critical decade. So that we can apply what we learn very quickly. And take technologies that work and double down on them and those technologies that don't work into sundown.”

The work that’s taking place in the Middle East is also “informing how we're going to move forward with larger unmanned efforts.”

Foreshadowing the suggestion that Luria would later raise about a future role for USVs, Gilday said that large USVs “could potentially be a missile truck in the future.”

Medium USVs, he added, could “potentially have electronic warfare or some type of command control feature to it.”

The lessons of USVs like Saildrone are helping the Navy understand how to apply those principles to larger vessels, said Gilday.

This unmanned surface vehicle (USV) served as a mine counter-measure platform. (USN photo)

“Security is another aspect of this, whether these vessels would initially be minimally manned, whether they would be part of a Surface Action Group, a Carrier Strike Group, or armed so they wouldn't be out there alone and unafraid.”

At the same time, the Navy is “driving down technical risk and we’re learning a lot with respect to platform management tools, software and AI integration. We're also refining our concept of operations. It's not perfect, but we're trying to move here fairly quickly.”

Gilday has suggested that the Navy will need about 150 unmanned vessels in the future to help beef up its fleet size in the face of China's massive expanding Navy, but questions clearly remain about the efficacy of such a plan which clearly sounds convenient, but is still far from being proven as viable.

There's a lot riding on this issue and we will keep a close eye on future USV developments.

Contact the author: