Navy speeds up waterborne drones to bridge gap with China

In the face of a growing threat from China, the Navy envisions drone ships monitoring enemy forces across the vast Pacific Ocean, expanding the range of firepower, and keeping sailors out of harm’s way.

The Navy is accelerating the development of these robotic ships as an affordable way to keep pace with China’s growing fleet while pledging not to repeat the costly blunders of shipbuilding from recent years.

The four largest unmanned ships are being used together this summer during a multiple naval maneuver in the Pacific Ocean.

Other smaller waterborne drones are already being deployed by the Fifth Fleet in the waters off the Middle East.

The goal in the coming years is to see how research ships’ radar and sensors can be combined with artificial intelligence, and combined with conventional cruisers, destroyers, submarines and aircraft carriers, to create a networked fleet that is resilient as it spreads over greater distances and the Navy says is more difficult for enemies to destroy.

“It’s about moving technology forward, and confidence in capability,” said Commander. Jeremiah Daly, Commander of the Unmanned Surface Vehicle First Division in California.

James Holmes, a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, believes that the Navy believes technology can help with the three keys to military success — weapon range, exploration, command and control — at lower cost and fewer risks to personnel. .

All of these benefits, along with long-term durability in the harsh saltwater environment, he said, must be proven.

“We’re kind of in Jerry Maguire’s ‘show me the money zone’ with technology. It’s going to be undoubtedly helpful, but whether or not it’s a game changer,” said Holmes, who doesn’t speak for the Navy.

Before moving forward, the Navy must first win over a skeptical Congress after a series of shipbuilding disasters.

Her fast coastal combat ships had problems with propulsion, which led to early retirement. The ‘Advance Cannon System’ on his stealth destroyer was in a state of collapse due to Expensive ammo. Its latest aircraft carrier had elevator problems A new aircraft launch system.

Critics said the Navy was quick to cram too much new technology on those ships, leading to failures and mounting costs.

“We can’t throw all the resources on[automated ships]with a track record of 20 years of failed ship programs,” said Representative Eileen Luria of Virginia, a retired Navy officer.

Michael Stewart, director of the task force, said the Navy’s unmanned task force is taking a new approach, using the military equivalent of a venture capital model to accelerate new ideas, moving forward only after technologies have been demonstrated.

This summer, four large unmanned ships are operating alongside conventional ships during war games called RIMPAC.

These include the Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk, which are diesel powered vessels equipped with booms for stability in rough seas. The other two are Ranger and Nomad, which are based on oil rig refurbishment ships. They have large flat surfaces from which a missile was successfully launched last year.

While those larger ships are being tested in the Pacific, the Navy is already seeing promising results with smaller commercially available ships being evaluated by Task Force 59, which is part of Bahrain’s Fifth Fleet, Cmdr said. Timothy Hawkins, spokesman for the Fifth Fleet.

One vessel that has received attention is the Saildrone, which is a sail-powered vessel and solar-powered systems. Equipped with radar and cameras, the Saildrones are touted as being able to operate autonomously for months at a time without maintenance or resupply.

Building on the success of multinational exercises last winter, the Fifth Fleet said the US Navy and international partners intend to deploy 100 uncrewed ships by next summer.

Finally, Admiral Mike Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, envisions a mix of 150 large uncrewed surface ships and undersea vessels by 2045. That’s on top of more than 350 conventional combat ships.

The Navy’s spending proposal for the new fiscal year includes $433 million for surface ships without a crew and $284 million for underwater ships.

Gilday, the Navy’s chief officer, said those ships along with artificial intelligence have the potential to make the Navy’s fleet more efficient. But he said the Navy is doing research and development “in an evolutionary, thoughtful and informed manner.”

The biggest advantage of robotic ships is that they can be built at a fraction of the cost of conventional warships, said Lauren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, as the Navy struggles to keep up with China and Russia. The United States is already lagging behind China in ship numbers, and the gap is growing every year.

Congress is in no rush to fund new programs, said Brian Clark, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute. “Congress wants the Navy to have a good plan — and then aggressively pursue it,” Clark said.

On Capitol Hill, Luria said there might be room for ships without crew, perhaps in replacement of the missile capacity of ships that the Navy wants to retire. But there is a lot of research and development necessary to persuade Congress to invest heavily in ships without any seafarers.

“I don’t think the technology is mature enough now to make a wholesale investment,” said Luria, D-Virginia.

Senator Mazie Hirono, chair of the Navy’s subcommittee, said Gilday assured her that the Navy “recognizes not to move too quickly on unproven technology.”

“The Navy should get this right the first time and back up rigorous testing with prototypes before committing to a fleet purchase,” Hirono, D. Hawaii said.


Sharp reported from Portland, Maine. Associated Press writer Jennifer McDermott contributed to this report in Providence, Rhode Island.


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