The United States Navy operates or develops nearly a dozen different unmanned marine vehicles for use in maritime security operations. Some of the vehicles operate on the surface of the ocean and some below. Some are no bigger than torpedoes and must be launched from larger ships, while others are autonomous, robotic warships.
The pursuit of maritime unmanned systems is not new to the Navy. The Office of Naval Research recognized their potential decades ago, and smaller systems have been used in mine countermeasures for many years.
The Department of Defense has been experimenting for seven years with an unmanned transoceanic surface warship called Sea Hunter developed by Leidos
What is new in recent years is that emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence have expanded the scope of robotic operations at sea. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday has identified unmanned vehicles as a high-priority development area, along with digital networks and long-range fires.
The Navy issued a unmanned campaign setting in 2021, which highlighted how robotic warships could enable distributed maritime operations, the organizational building of the service for the future.
With the number of manned warships in the fleet apparently stuck at around 300 for the foreseeable future, unmanned systems may be the only way to achieve combat and presence goals within available budgets.
Although it will be a long time, if ever, before unmanned systems can offer the functionality of a manned submarine or destroyer, they can supplement the manned fleet by performing tasks that are too dangerous or routine. to justify the assignment of a manned warship.
For example, sending manned warships to the Baltic Sea or the Black Sea in an East-West war could endanger hundreds of sailors; unmanned systems may be able to perform necessary reconnaissance and strike missions without risking the life of the United States.
Until now, the Navy’s interest in maritime unmanned systems has primarily focused on their potential to enable new operational concepts. However, if the technology proves useful, larger systems such as Sea Hunter and Orca could open the door to a new paradigm for shipbuilding.
As I noted in a Forbes article earlier this week, shipbuilding today is a complicated and expensive business, even when run efficiently. It produces warships that typically cost over $1 billion each. Unmanned warships cost a small fraction of that amount to build and an equally small amount to operate.
It is therefore possible to be at the forefront of new approaches to shipbuilding, approaches that may gain momentum as the use of robotic systems at sea expands in the future.
Here are some ways that unmanned warships could revolutionize the way American warships are built and operated:
1. Simplified designs that remove the complexity imposed to make manned ships habitable and survivable. Many of the demanding specifications of today’s warships are driven by the need to accommodate a hundred sailors or more; eliminate sailors and design requirements become much less onerous, reducing costs to a point where survivability becomes a less critical feature.
2. Simplified engineering which compresses the time needed to go from concept to construction. With a much simpler design, the demands on engineers to translate specifications into systems are reduced accordingly, saving time and money.
3. Simplified construction because less expensive and demanding processes allow a return to mass production. Mass production on the Liberty Ship model does not exist in shipbuilding today, but it could return if specifications were suitably simplified and unit costs fell to a fraction of the cost of manned warships.
4. Simplified planning because reducing material requirements helps streamline supply chains. The construction of modern warships is typically supported by hundreds of subcontractors, but if survivability and other crew-related characteristics are eliminated, fewer specialist suppliers would be needed and integrators could rely more on commercial inputs.
5. Simplified innovation because less complicated designs facilitate the rapid insertion of advanced technologies such as machine learning and digital networks. Unmanned systems replace software with people, implying the ability to quickly reconfigure without necessarily requiring new hardware.
6. Simplified editing as threats evolve, often by moving new source code into reconfigurable software architectures from remote locations. In other words, design features that facilitate the introduction of new innovations could also significantly reduce the time and funding needed to modify warships in response to new operational challenges.
seven. Simplified sustainment due to less demanding designs and greater reliance on consumable/attritable systems. Unmanned systems would be much easier to repair and maintain than manned systems, and their offshore supply requirements would be negligible; for example, Sea Hunter can cross the Pacific in both directions on a single tank of fuel.
8. Simplified industrial bases as the ranks of sub-vendors narrow and integrators turn to dual-use or commercial technologies. As barriers to building warships would decrease, other integrators could enter the business, creating a more resilient industrial base.
These ideas are purely conceptual, reflecting the fact that the development of unmanned warships, especially high-performance multi-mission ships, is in its infancy. The Navy could successfully accelerate its development of unmanned warships at modest cost, perhaps producing breakthrough results within a few years.
That said, it will be a long time before the Navy can do without the processes it currently depends on to build manned warships. It may never happen. But unmanned systems open the door to building a bigger fleet at a lower cost.
Boeing and Leidos, mentioned above, contribute to my think tank. I am indebted to Maiya Clark of the Heritage Foundation for her remarks before a Lexington Institute task force that stimulated my thinking about the industrial implications of unmanned warships.