WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy and the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office are making the most of the remaining months of their partnership on the Ghost Fleet Overlord unmanned surface vessel program, taking lessons learned from two recent voyages across the Panama Canal and upping the ante by putting these vessels into fleet exercises and operations.
SCO purchased two large USVs in 2017 as part of a Pentagon-led effort to understand how large unmanned craft with weapons and sensors could expand the reach of the naval fleet. Since late 2019, SCO and the Navy have been working to learn from testing, with their efforts culminating in the October 2020 transit of Overlord ship Ranger across the Panama Canal – the first time any unmanned ship had crossed the locks of the canal – and a subsequent second canal crossing last month of the second Ghost Fleet ship, Nomad.
Luis Molina, the deputy director of SCO, told reporters on July 13 that the trips from the Gulf of Mexico to the California coast were planned as part of an escalating series of events to prove not only that the USVs worked but that they worked in operationally relevant ways for the fleet.
“The transit by both vessels aimed to demonstrate that the vessels could reliably operate at sea for a significant amount of time and that the inherent reliability of the vessels was suitable for that type of mission” that the Navy might send it on, he said.
Until SCO formally hands over the program management and ownership to the Navy – expected in January – SCO and the Navy will operate Ranger and Nomad at sea to verify that some recent improvements to the autonomy controls and hull, mechanical and electrical (HM&E) systems are working, and to refine ideas for how to operate these large USVs alongside manned warships.
Without naming specific exercises, Molina said “the intent is to utilize this time period to do fleet demonstration exercises and operational vignettes to continue to demonstrate in an operational context the utility of these vessels to augment manned combatant capabilities.”
“In order to get a scalability of capacity in a near-peer fight, we’re going to rely on unmanned systems to augment our shipboard systems and to extend our reach and our sensing of the environment, and so we aim to utilize this time period to demonstrate some payload operations and some sensing systems to be able to enhance the Navy mission sets,” he added, without naming payloads.
The Navy has previously said it wants its large USVs to launch missiles and other weapons, but lawmakers aren’t onboard with arming vessels whose autonomy and self-defense capability are still unproven. Until Congress approves arming the LUSVs, the Navy will focus on putting payloads on these Ghost Fleet vessels that are comparable to the sensors and communications packages that manned ships use, said Capt. Pete Small, the unmanned maritime systems program manager.
Defense News asked Small why it mattered to have these large USVs to experiment with alongside SCO, compared to the two medium-sized USVs and a slew of smaller unmanned craft that the Navy has developed on its own. He said size allows the larger unmanned surface vessels the endurance and to support the payloads needed.
Molina added that “the shipboard control systems are a little more complex, and so automating the functionality of those more complex systems and improving on the reliability to enable those longer-range missions is important. So the open-ocean navigation, the open-ocean [regulations for preventing collisions] management and path planning, the C4I systems that have a much longer reach than we’ve done traditionally, and that HM&E complexity – those are some of the things that are important to learn.”
As the Ghost Fleet Overlord program has progressed, Molina said some modifications have been made to the original two vessels, both of which were manned commercial ships designed with high levels of autonomy to be used by the oil and gas industry with a small crew aboard and were subsequently converted to fully autonomous unmanned ships. The decks were somewhat reconfigured to make it easier to install new payloads, new radars and sensors were added, and the autonomy that manages ship functions and the overall health of the vessel have been improved over time.
All these improvements are being incorporated into the construction of two additional Overlord vessels, which the Navy bought with its own money. Small said that by the end of fiscal 2022, SCO will have turned over the original two Overlord ships to the Navy and the second pair – which are in construction now and remain on schedule for an on-time delivery – will have completed acceptance trials and be delivered to the Surface Development Squadron-1 that’s overseeing Navy USV testing and fleet integration.
As the Navy continues down the path of buying large USVs for testing and eventually for operations, Small said the Navy and SCO team that has worked together for the last four years as a single team will remain in tact: many of the SCO personnel will transition over to a Navy team that will focus on developing and procuring the Medium USV and Large USV programs that follow this Overlord test program and another Navy-managed Sea Hunter medium USV test program.
“That’s a really powerful benefit, we have a really robust team of subject matter experts that have been working together for the last three or four years and are really tuned in to the status of the technology and the programs. … It’s really not a transition from an execution perspective, it’s the same people, it’s just transitioning over to Navy funding and program manager.”
The Pentagon announced last month that Nomad had traveled 4,421 nautical miles from the Gulf Coast to San Diego, with 98 percent of the voyage in autonomous mode. Like Ranger before it, Nomad was in manual mode during the canal transit itself.
Molina said that a skeleton crew was onboard during the transit for safety reasons. At an Unmanned Operations Center ashore in California, SCO technical experts were teaching SURFDEVRON sailors how to monitor the ships remotely and help plan missions in coordination with other fleet operators working with or in the vicinity of the unmanned vessels.
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.