There has been no shortage of debate lately about the future size and shape of the U.S. Navy in an era of great power competition. Through the fog of competing priorities, fiscal constraints and a growing list of force architecture studies, one thing seems certain: The future Navy will include autonomous ships in some form.
These vessels (it’s not even clear they’ll be called “ships”) will not replace the Navy’s highly capable combatants, but they will extend their fighting horizons and deepen their magazines to increase combat power.
There is an urgent need to build trust before the Navy can safely and effectively integrate this emerging technology. While the debate rages in Washington, the Navy’s autonomous workhorse, Sea Hunter, is quietly approaching four years and 30,000 miles of underway experimentation and risk reduction. More than half of those miles have been sailed under autonomous self-control.
As with any new technology, lessons are learned along the way. Navy Assistant Secretary James Geurts put it best: To embrace innovation, we must “learn fast and act fast,” to “press the boundaries” and “expect failure” with appropriate judgement and measured risk.
Interestingly, many of the lessons with Sea Hunter have involved issues related to basic components like filters, switches and sensors that were not originally designed for autonomous operation. Meanwhile, the underlying autonomy has proven to be remarkably resilient and mature. The good news is that these lessons present solvable challenges. No magic is required.
Last year, the Navy sent Sea Hunter from San Diego, California, to Hawaii and back as part of a major fleet exercise. There were lessons learned along the way, but by the return transit, Sea Hunter made the entire 2,000-mile voyage untouched over nine days. This was a major success, and prompted the Navy to plan for a similar event in 2020. That exercise, unfortunately, had to be scaled back due to the impacts of COVID-19.
With $200 million and four years invested, the Navy is well down a learning curve that is building the trust necessary to underpin fleet integration of unmanned surface vessels, or USV. This head start is precious and must not be wasted. While USVs are not yet ready for complex roles in close proximity with maneuvering ships, they will soon be ready to fulfill independent missions. By taking a “crawl-walk-run” approach, the Navy can realize operational benefits in the near term while continuing to mature the technology and spiral in increasingly complex behaviors.
USV technology is maturing rapidly. Ironically, the main obstacles are not technological. Despite some in the Navy leaning forward, they’re largely cultural and programmatic. “Optional manning,” for example, might provide a level of comfort for developers, but the real effect is to increase cost, consume precious space and soften the imperative for pursuing fully autonomous capability.
Consider what the Global Hawk or Triton UAVs would look like today, and how many would exist, if the services had insisted they be “optionally manned.” Minimal or optional manning makes sense if weapons are involved, for security and maintenance, but surveillance and reconnaissance USVs will need to optimize every inch and every dollar so they can be fielded in sufficient numbers as the eyes and ears of the fleet.
The late Navy captain, Wayne Hughes, wrote that victory at sea often goes to the one who can “fire effectively first.” Unmanned surface vessels can help the fleet do just that. The U.S. Navy has a precious head start, and we should press that advantage by putting near-term capability to sea, while steadily maturing and incorporating more complex behaviors in stride. There’s no time to lose.
Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Nevin Carr currently serves as the Navy strategic account executive and vice president at Leidos. He previously held the position of chief of naval research in the service.