The Navy’s testing its new robot ship division in the Pacific this summer
Every other year, the US military gathers forces at Honolulu to train for war in the Pacific. The exercise will include a formation entirely uncrewed robotic boats. Announced May 13, the newly created “Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One,” or USVDIV One, will let the Navy and the rest of the military practice how to fight war with and alongside giant sea drones. As the military prepares for a possible future war, it will do so alongside an entirely new type of machine.
“USVDIV One is a catalyst for innovation, as we employ unmanned surfaces capabilities in the Pacific Fleet,” stated Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener who presided over the ceremony establishing USVDIV One . “The implementation unmanned systems will improve decision speed and lethality to increase our warfighting advantage.”
The divisions include Sea Hunter , and Sea Hawk, sister ships that were built for DARPA’s anti-submarine warfare program. These boats were built for continuous operation and have sensors that can be pointed under the water to track any submarines hidden in the vastness.
Both Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk previously took part in an April 2021 military exercise, where they were used for scouting, reconnaissance, and intelligence gathering. C4ISRNET was told by the admiral in charge that one scenario required drones to extend sight of a warship in order to shoot a missile from long distance .”
The Rim of the Pacific exercise, which is held from Honolulu (or RIMPAC), has been a testing ground since its inception. It allows commanders and troops to work alongside new machines in order to determine if they can perform as expected in simulated combat environments. It was a 2014 exercise that revealed the unsuitability of the Marine Corps’ Legged Squad Support System robot for war, as it proved too loud in exercises to be seen as safe for combat.
It is likely that at RIMPAC Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk are used similarly. Sensors will be used to increase the range of perception for weapons based on other vehicles. Uncrewed vehicles have the advantage of being able to extend the fleet’s perception without exposing sailors to the same dangers as crewed vessels.
Besides the two Sea Hunter-style vessels, the uncrewed division includes Nomad and Ranger. Sea Hawk and Sea Hunter were intended to be uncrewed right from the beginning. Nomad and Ranger, however, are converted boats that are used to resupply offshore infrastructure such as oil rigs or wind farms. Ranger was used to fire a missile in previous exercises. This demonstrated that uncrewed vessels could contribute to firepower, scouting, and resupply.
Jerry Daley, commander of USVDIV-1, told a media roundtable that the four ships will be dispersed during RIMPAC, and will work with different commanders for both receiving and following orders and also the use of playoads, which will include sensors and could include other capabilities.
If the use of uncrewed vessels at RIMPAC is to act as a catalyst for a quicker, more deadly, and more capable Navy, it’s worth looking back to see how that vision and understanding haven’t yet been realized.
The Navy’s plan for fighting future wars at Sea is to bring more missiles to fight and make sure that those missiles hit their targets accurately. Uncrewed scouts such as the Sea Hunter can provide better information to target those weapons. Remotely operated boats such as Nomad and Ranger that can carry missiles and resupply crewed vessels equipped with missile tubes can be used to do so. However, if the Navy wants to increase its crewed fleets by adding more missile tubes without significantly increasing the cost or demands on sailor labor it will have to build and bring dedicated missile boat to action.
This is the idea behind the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel. This program eventually adapted the Nomad/Ranger from existing vessels. This came after the LUSV’s 2021 budget was drastically scaled back, and with it the promise of building a new ship hull-up for this purpose.
At RIMPAC, uncrewed vessels will allow the Navy explore how it uses them, and more importantly, it will give commanders the chance to see what additional such vehicles could bring to the field. RIMPAC will begin in June and run through August. The Navy will be able see if its robot ships offer a promise of the future or if it needs to rethink the vision of robots and humans fighting at sea.