WASHINGTON — HII has combined its expertise in building ships and unmanned vessels to create a launch and recovery system that will allow the U.S. Navy’s amphibious fleet to serve as unmanned motherships.

Amphibious ships will grow more lethal as unmanned technology further matures, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger has said at multiple conferences in recent months. The adversary won’t be able to see into ships’ internal well decks, he has said, leaving it to guess what weapons or platforms lie within.

HII builds amphibious vessels at its Ingalls Shipyard and makes unmanned vessels through its newly renamed Mission Technologies division. And now the American shipbuilder has a prototype system that will pair the two, thanks to an internal research and development project that was successfully demonstrated on a surrogate boat in the Pascagoula River on June 8, a company news release said Monday.

The system is essentially a smart cradle: Sailors and Marines can load a large unmanned underwater vehicle into the cradle from inside the well deck, deploy it out the back of the flooded well deck, release the UUV for its mission, and then coordinate with the drone for its recapture at the end of the mission.

Last week’s demonstration paired Pharos with the company’s Proteus large-diameter UUV and a small craft that towed the system behind it in the river. HII spokesman Danny Hernandez told Defense News the Pharos system was designed around the existing winch system already in the amphibious ships’ well decks and would not require new equipment or shipboard integration if the Navy and Marine Corps were to adopt it for their amphibious ships.

The well decks typically launch and recover amphibious assault vehicles and ground gear transported via surface connectors. The Navy previously collaborated with NASA to prove the ships could also recover and store spacecraft.

The Corps is thinking more broadly about how to employ these ships, and it has discussed launching anti-ship missiles and other weapons from the ship deck while moving from one location to another. The idea of operating unmanned systems from amphibs continues the evolution of Marines merely heading to the fight on amphibious ships to taking a more active role in battle while en route.

“HII is committed to advancing the future of distributed maritime operations and demonstrating our capability to support unmanned vehicles on amphibious ships,” Kari Wilkinson, president of Ingalls Shipbuilding, which hosted and served as a partner in the demonstration, said in a company news release. “I am very proud of our team’s initiative to strengthen the flexibility of the ships we build by anticipating the challenges and opportunities that exist for our customers.”

The news release noted Pharos could someday be used to launch and recover a range of unmanned surface and undersea vehicles, and the company is actively working to modify the system to accommodate other UUVs.

HII’s Advanced Technology Group, which pulls from expertise throughout the defense company, executed this project with collaboration from the University of New Orleans, the Navy and shipbuilder Metal Shark.

The company will conduct a live demonstration with the fleet in the next year, according to the news release.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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