The Navy has operated smaller drones, such as the Scan Eagle and RQ-21, from its warships for years.
The MQ-8B, an unmanned helicopter, has been in service for over a decade and the MQ-8C entered service in 2019. They operate primarily from guided missile frigates and littoral combat ships to perform targeting and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. assignments.
The most anticipated asset, however, is the MQ-25 air-to-air refueling drone, which will be the first on-board drone in service.
An MQ-25 refueled an F/A-18 in-flight for the first time in June 2021 and conducted off-air testing aboard the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush — his first trial period aboard the aircraft carrier – in December.
The MQ-25 is designed to carry 15,000 pounds of fuel – enough for two aircraft – approximately 500 nautical miles, allowing it to extend the operating range of an F/A-18 by 300 miles. The drone will free up manpower and support the refueling mission of the F/A-18s that have been assigned to this role.
The extended range will also help the Navy counter long-range anti-ship missile threat. Navy officials said the MQ-25 could undertake ISR and strike missions in the future.
The Navy plans to acquire 72 MQ-25s and hopes to operate them on aircraft carriers by 2025.
The Navy also wants to develop and procure three types of unmanned surface and underwater vehiclesLarge Unmanned Surface Vehicle (LUSV), Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV) and Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (XLUUV).
According to commercial designs, LSUVs are expected to be 200 to 300 feet long and displace 1,000 to 2,000 tons when fully loaded, putting them on par with a corvette. They are meant to be low-cost, high-endurance ships that can be reconfigured for strike and anti-ship missions, with between 16 and 32 cells for vertical-launched missiles.
MUSVs are to be of a similar design but smaller in size, ranging from 45 to 190 feet long and displacing around 500 tons – about the same as a patrol boat. They are intended for ISR and electronic warfare.
LUSVs and MUSVs can sometimes require small crews as their technology and operating concepts are developed.
The XLUUVs will be over 84 inches in diameter, making them too large to deploy from a submarine. The Navy said the XLUUV “will accommodate a variety of large payloads”, but its size, range and endurance mean it will need to be launched from a pier at a forward operating site.
In 2020, six contracts totaling more than $41 million were awarded for industrial studies on the LUSV, while L3 Technologies has received a $34.9 million contract to build one MUSV prototype, with an option for eight more.
In 2019, Boeing was chosen to build five XLUUVs based on its Echo Traveler. With a standard length of 51 feet, the Echo Voyager can accommodate a payload section of 14 feet or 34 feet. It has a range of 6,500 nautical miles.
Move fast, fail fast
Despite the complexity and large number of systems, the Navy is making progress in developing and integrating unmanned vehicles and the components necessary for their operation into the fleet.
The navy is preparing to outfit four aircraft carriers with upgrades related to Project Overmatch, the naval contribution to the US Army’s Joint All Domain Command and Control program. The Overmatch project is intended to link the sensors of surface ships and Navy aircraft, giving them a common operating picture.
In February, the Navy concluded the International maritime exercise 2022. Led by U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, it was the largest maritime exercise in the Middle East – with 50 ships from more than 60 countries – and the the largest unmanned exercise in historywith 10 countries operating over 80 unmanned vehicles.
Performance issues have pushed lawmakers mistrustful of the navy’s unmanned systems, but Gilday said the unmanned task force is intended to accelerate their development, allowing the navy to ramp up the effort over the next few years.
“What we’re trying to do is go really fast and – almost like Google’s approach – fail fast if we need to,” Gilday said. “It’s a lightweight workgroup, but we put some of the best minds in the unmanned field against those problem sets.”
Benjamin Brimelow is a reporter for Business Insider.