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US Secretary of defense Mark Esper recently announced that the navy will seek a future fleet of 500 ships. While this includes an increase of many smaller ships ranging from destroyers to frigates and littoral combat vessels – and perhaps even a reduction in the amount of Nimitz and Ford Class carriers – the increase will mostly come from 140 to 240 new unmanned vehicles and vessels.

Most of the resulting debates and chatter have been about the relative importance of the carrier or the ability to have that many ships when the navy seems to keep shrinking, little discussion includes the numerous unmanned vessels and vehicles that will create the increase and the impact this will have on American operations.

Virginia Class

The Virginia class submarines aren’t unmanned ships run by artificial intelligence. But they are a huge part of the new naval force. Secretary of Defense Esper called for increasing production from 1 to 3 ships a year. Their stealth makes them some of the most survivable ships in the fleet. They can insert special forces, conduct surveillance, and most importantly – in a potential conflict with Russia or China – they can control critical access points and launch a barrage of missiles without losing much or any of their stealth signature.

The cruise missile tubes are also being tested to launch unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV). Operated from two laptops in the submarine, they can perform counter-mine patrol, sonar or other intelligence as well as surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. They give already hard to detect, deep penetrating submarines a way to infiltrate even deeper at less risk to submarine crews. Unlike the F35s, which are notorious gas guzzlers and thus invite juicy refueling planes as targets, the Virginia class submarines have a life as long as the ship’s nuclear reactor (40 years!), and their only logistical restraint would be the food needed for the sailors onboard.

Should the US face a conflict with Russia or China where the latter rely on missile and drone swarms to deny American entry into the conflict, the submarines would use their impressive skills to breach the swarm. With assistance from their UUVs, they could collect sensitive data on anti-aircraft missile batteries, drone launches, advanced warning on any launch, and transmit the precise targeting data to unmanned or long-range aircraft (see below.)  In short, they would significantly degrade the enemy’s ability to launch missiles and the danger to US aircraft in a relatively short amount of time.

Sea Hunter

In describing Battle Force 2045 Esper specifically mentioned the Sea Hunter prototype. It’s a 132 feet long anti-submarine, counter mine system operating at a small fraction of the cost of a destroyer: $15,000-$20,000 per day compared to $700,000 per day. In short, the Sea Hunter operating in an Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) environment would cost less money and risk fewer soldiers while freeing up other assets to focus on other threats.

The Navy plans for multiple classes of sea vessels based on size (SUSVs, MUSVs, XLSVs). The Navy wants them to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships that can accommodate various payloads particularly ISR and electronic warfare systems. The prototype contracts are only now being awarded so its tough to describe what they can do. But we have multiple examples of future tech run amok including the technical issues that plague the Ford Class Carrier and F35.

For example, the Zumwalt class destroyer was designed as a revolutionary new littoral combat warship, the exact kind of ship the navy plans to increase in the future force plan. The Zumwalt class ships were designed to be modular, lightly manned, and survivable which again match the promises of the new unmanned vehicles. But it delivered on none of them. The specialized main gun required prohibitively expensive shells of almost a million per round, the ship had design flaws, delays, and mission modifications that required expensive and poorly fitted upgrades to the point that the ships cost 26 billion for three vessels. This is far from the low cost, high tech wonder weapons the Secretary of Defense is promising.

Drones

Drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are nothing new. They have been used extensively in the War on Terror since they have the advantage of longer range and being able to provide continuous in theater surveillance.

Models vary in both size, armament and weather they are fully autonomous or can be piloted remotely. Future drones like the Skyborg are expected to be cheaper than fighter jets but advanced enough to survive long-term on the battlefield. It could have AI that ranges from simple coding to manage flight all the way to complex battle tasks such as acting as a wing man for manned aircraft.

The Valkyrie will be a combination of the U2 reconnaissance plane and B52 long range bomber. It will cost about 2 million per drone, which a fraction of the 100 million cost of the F35 and is less than cost of the cost just the missiles on an F35. The Valkyrie can penetrate enemy airspace and – using information from the uuvs of the Virginia class sub – it can target missile sites or communication centers. Or it can transmit the data back to F35s, which in turn act as a quarterback for a vast array of traditional fighting platforms.

What Does the Focus on Unmanned Tech Mean for the Future of the Navy?

The focus on unmanned technologies means that the navy is actually spending less money on procurement for a bigger and more capable fleet, averaging about 15% less than previous budget requests. They have weapons systems in development that will provide low cost, survivable, lethal, and efficacious weapon platforms that can counter advancing Russian and Chinese aggression at little cost. However there are still valid concerns that the military could become overly reliant on wonder weapons and end up with expensive and useless failures.