According to an article published by USNI News written by Megan Eckstein and published on June 25, 2018, the USN plans to field unmanned vessels to supplement its future surface combatant.
The Navy’s Future Surface Combatant will likely include both an unmanned and an optionally unmanned surface vessel as part of a growing family of systems, as the Navy works through how manned/unmanned teaming can provide the biggest benefits at various phases of warfare.
Officials previously described the Future Surface Combatant program as having a large, small and unmanned variant – like a cruiser or destroyer, a Littoral Combat Ship or a frigate, and something akin to the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessel that the Office of Naval Research (ONR) is working on.
Increasingly, though, officials have begun talking about unmanned and optionally unmanned vessels as separate platforms.
Cmdr. Kyle Gantt, branch head for destroyers and future ships, said last week at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ annual Technology, Systems and Ships conference that several big-picture questions drove the separation of unmanned and optionally unmanned vessels.
First, if an unmanned system is weaponized, how does the Navy assure it maintains command and control in a contested and possibly communications-denied environment, to stay within the rules of engagement?
And what would the role of an unmanned vessel be in Phase 0 operations, where the Navy’s primary mission is presence – which requires people to be there?
“How do I employ these systems in a way that I get the sea control, the deterrent, the traditional Navy missions that I’m there to execute?” Gantt said, saying that optionally unmanned vessels appeared to be the solution. During Phase 0 presence missions, the vessels would be fully crewed and would have all the berthing, mess halls and other facilities to support a crew.
“The optionally unmanned part gets to, now I’m into Phase 2 and the conditions aren’t set in the environment to put manned platforms, but I have a mission that is worth the risk, worth the risk of the asset – I can remove the people and sail it and use that vessel in an unmanned capacity for lethal effects in a place where I would be unprepared to do that with a manned vessel. So that’s how we came to optionally unmanned. It plays very well in our wargames, having an armed system that can serve as an adjunct magazine to a manned (ship).”
Gantt said unmanned surface vessels may be more susceptible to being captured or boarded than an unmanned underwater vehicle or an unmanned aerial vehicle, and that vulnerability puts some limitations on what the Navy would want purely unmanned USVs to do – primarily relegating them to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and counter-ISR missions that require the persistence of an unmanned vessel.
“What are you willing to put at risk?” Gantt said of the systems on an unmanned vessel.
“The aerial system, it’s moving pretty fast, it’s pretty hard to capture. The UUV is pretty hard to find. So you get a lot of benefit from those,” whereas the Navy will have to balance what systems it would want to field on strictly unmanned USVs.
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