WASHINGTON — Four unmanned ships are now operating out of Japan for the first time, as part of the U.S. Navy’s Integrated Battle Problem 23.2 exercise aimed at folding these unmanned vessels into routine fleet operations.
These unmanned surface vessels aren’t operating under special protocols or extra safety measures: the USV Division 1 commander told reporters they’re being used as fully operational tools, not experimental ones, to help manned ships conduct their missions in the Pacific as part of this exercise.
The medium-sized Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk and the larger Mariner and Ranger, which are prototypes for the Navy’s planned Large Unmanned Surface Vessel program of record later this decade, left Southern California earlier this summer to transit the Pacific for this exercise. They arrived in Yokosuka, the headquarters of U.S. 7th Fleet, this week.
Along the way, the USVs integrated with the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group during Large Scale Exercise 23, with other ships they passed along the way, and with Japan-based commands including Destroyer Squadrons 7 and 15, Task Force 76, and III Marine Expeditionary Force, USV Division 1 commander Cmdr. Jeremiah Daley told reporters Thursday evening.
During all these engagements, the USV Division 1 staff embarked with the ships and command staffs, much like a helicopter detachment or a law enforcement detachment would embark a ship and play a central role in operations. They immersed themselves in the mission planning process, offering up the USVs as a fully operational tool to help conduct missions — even though these USVs are prototypes that have never deployed this far from homeport before, and many of these operations are the firsts of their kind.
This has been a challenge, Daley acknowledged — but not necessarily because his vessels are unmanned.
“Even if we were a traditional ship that was new — that was manned — integrating and planning and utilizing something that’s new into already established tactics, techniques and procedures, it’s not an easy task to do,” he said.
During operations in Southern California, which have been considered developmental and training activities, USV Division 1 tried to integrate its vessels into manned combatants’ operations, but those shorter-duration collaborations were limited in scope.
“Nothing can replace being out in the field, so to speak, or out conducting real-world operations. You can try to simulate that in a more static environment, but you really truly don’t get that direct fleet feedback as fast or as efficiently unless you’re conducting real-world operations where planning needs to be much more concise and well thought through,” Daley said.
During this deployment across the ocean, he said the team stretched itself, shifting command and control of the vessels from the maritime operations center at Port Hueneme, California, to afloat command stations on ships nearby to ashore locations forward.
The USVs have been kept in fully autonomous mode as much as practical — though they’re always under manned control when coming in and out of ports, and Ranger and Mariner have had a master mariner on the bridge around the clock to monitor the autonomy software, which is still part of an ongoing development effort.
The geography itself has also stretched the division staff in ways they couldn’t replicate at home.
Daley said the vessels aren’t using different protocols or other procedures while operating out of Japan versus back home.
“All the same procedures are being followed. But the mindset is different,” he said. “When you have to operate in different regions other than very lovely Southern California, you have to start working through different problem sets,” he said.
The vessels simply don’t go to sea if there’s bad weather at home; a test event can be rescheduled. But once they left port to transit the Pacific Ocean, they had to keep going, despite it being typhoon season. Daley said his team leveraged the Joint Typhoon Warning Center and other fleet assets, just like any manned surface combatant — though the division was doing this all for the first time.
“We’ve gone further, by a significant quantity, than Hawaii,” where the USVs operated in the summer of 2022 for the Rim of the Pacific international exercise, the farthest from home they had strayed at that time, he said.
“The mindset of operating continuously for long periods of time — that also transitions into maintenance and logistics and the ability to project the use and sustained operations of USVs in ... an expeditionary or forward-deployed environment. We are learning a significant amount” from these ongoing operations that will be applied when the Navy kicks off a large USV program of record and begins to deploy them forward.
Daley did not describe the payloads the USVs were operating, as has been the case during RIMPAC and other USV exercises. But he noted they were playing a role in sensing on, above and below the sea; improving battle space awareness; increasing the accuracy of targeting solutions; closing kill chains faster and for longer than manned ships can; and supporting the delivery of offensive fires from longer distances, to keep manned ships away from enemy threats.
“We have a finite number of manned surface combatants. … The ability to turn one surface action group of three destroyers, add a certain number of USVs, and convert them into three surface action groups covering three or four or five times as much water space with the same number of manned surface combatants is a game-changer,” he said of the future role of these USVs.
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.