SAN DIEGO — Uncrewed vessels with the ability to jam electronics, spy on faraway activities and even help coordinate the flow of fighting will play an increasingly important role in the service’s mission, according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday.

Work to realize such a concept, he said Feb. 16 at the West 2023 conference in San Diego, is already underway.

“Think about medium unmanned vessels that have [command-and-control] capabilities, that have [electronic warfare] capabilities, that can, perhaps, even have cyber capabilities,” said Gilday, who once led Fleet Cyber Command. “That kind of work is happening now.”

The Navy is investing in uncrewed systems — in the air, on the water and beneath the surface — to augment existing and near-future military might. A recent update to Gilday’s “Navigation Plan,” a strategic-vision-style document, included an outline of a fleet comprising about 373 manned ships and 150 uncrewed vessels, Defense News reported.

By dispatching uncrewed vessels into areas previously neglected, understaffed or thought too dangerous, the Navy can broaden its field of view and stay engaged for longer periods of time, Gilday told conference attendees.

“We’re getting to the point, probably within the next four or five years, where we’ll begin to deploy unmanned platforms with carrier strike groups” and amphibious ready groups, he said. “And the idea is that we need more ships, we need more. We need to distribute ourselves across the Pacific Ocean and across the globe.”

“We can do that faster and, we think, more effectively by having a combination of manned and unmanned,” Gilday said.

A renewed era of great power competition, with the the U.S. and China butting heads, is training the spotlight on naval supremacy, especially in the Indo-Pacific. The shift to the watery region comes after decades spent in the Middle East, where U.S. and likeminded forces waged counterinsurgency campaigns.

“The past 30 years, for most of that timeframe, has been a distinct post-Cold War period. But things are different now,” Gilday said. “The strategic environment has fundamentally changed. And we, too, must change with it.”

The Navy’s pursuit of uncrewed viability is highlighted by Task Force 59, led by Capt. Michael Brasseur. The group at the end of last year wrapped Digital Horizon, a three-week experiment in Bahrain that focused on artificial intelligence and related tech.

The event included 15 so-called advanced systems, 10 of which operated in the Middle East for the first time, and a handful of private industry players. Brasseur, the commodore, told Defense News “uncrewed assets” are a means “to get a bunch of eyes out on the water, collect the data” and then more precisely “deploy our manned assets.”

Earlier in the year, at the Rim of the Pacific exercise, more than two-dozen uncrewed systems were put to the test.

“We began taking unmanned and we began taking AI capabilities, and we began putting them against a real-world problem,” Gilday said. “And that real world problem was a maritime domain awareness: How do we understand what’s moving on the surface of the ocean?”

“If it’s illegal arms or people that are being trafficked from Iran to to Yemen, if it’s weapons that are going into the Red Sea,” he added, “we can’t see that unless we have some type of sensor coverage.”

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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