What We Know About the U.S. Navy’s Drone Fleet of the Future

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The Navy of the future will have two kinds of drone ships to extend the reach of its manned vessels, making the fleet more capable than ever. A new report lays out this vision and says that at least one of the two types of unmanned ship will be equipped to carry weapons. The report comes as the service’s unmanned test ship, Sea Hunter, has reportedly gone from a public to secret program.

According to Defense News, the U.S. Navy will field medium and large unmanned surface combatants to accompany manned warships at sea. The medium-size drone ships will be floating sensors, capable of sailing ahead of the fleet to detect threats early. The larger drone ships would have offensive capabilities as well.

For example, the Navy could mount Mk.41 vertical-launch missile silos on such a ship, giving it the ability to launch land-attack cruise missiles or anti-ship missiles. Placing offensive missiles on an unmanned ship would provide the Navy with greater flexibility in engaging enemy targets, flanking enemy forces, and then launching missiles from unexpected directions.

The overarching principle behind the unmanned warships is to use them to overwhelm an enemy at sea, stretching and breaking an adversary’s ability to keep track of all the U.S. Navy can throw at it. In any future conflict the Navy will press opponents with tactical aircraft, submarines, surface ships, and even space surveillance. It will be hard enough for the enemy to keep track of manned surface combatants. When every cruiser and destroyer is controlling one or two unmanned combatants—each of which is feeding it vital information and presents a threat—the enemy’s worries increase dramatically.

At the same time, drone ships act as force multipliers. They can increase a fleet’s sensor detection range. For example, the ship could sail as much as 100 to 200 nautical miles ahead of a carrier task force, providing early warning of high-speed anti-ship missiles. An unmanned warship can sail into dangerous territory a manned warship might find too risky. The ships could also perform so-called “economy of force” tasks, keeping an eye on relatively low-threat areas while the manned ships do something else.

All of this comes as the Navy’s experimental drone ship, the Sea Hunter, has reportedly gone from a very public development program to a classified secret program. We know that Sea Hunter is 132 feet long and displaces 140 tons. A trimaran, it is capable of traveling at up to 27 knots while carrying 20,000 pounds of cargo. Two years ago, the Navy proudly touted Sea Hunter and boasted the ship would travel up and down the West Coast testing the unmanned-ship concept. Recently National Defense reported that Sea Hunter was now a secret program under the control of the Office of Naval Research. As such, the Navy would no longer comment on Sea Hunter’s progress.

The Navy is serious about the unmanned concept. Although budget issues make the service’s goal of a 355-ship fleet far from a sure thing, it could conceivably get at least some of a large fleet’s capability by using inexpensive unmanned surface ships to augment expensive manned ships. A day will come in the not-so-distant future when some of America’s warships will sail without a single sailor on them.

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