Uncrewed Maritime Systems Development Now Takes Center-Stage

By George Galdorisi

It will take years to unpack all the lessons learned from the ongoing war in Ukraine, however, one mission that has surfaced during this conflict that connects maritime warfare and uncrewed surface vehicles in the use of USVs armed with explosives to attack naval vessels. This is a tactic and concept of operations that has been discussed in numerous professional articles and even war-gamed, but until now has been hypothetical.

Today it is real. As described in reports of Ukraine’s attacks on Russian naval vessels in the Black Sea, armed USVs have been used with deadly effect.  Here is how one naval analyst described the momentous impact of using armed USVs to attack naval vessels and what that comports for the future of maritime warfare:

Ukraine’s attack on Sevastopol on October 29, 2022 will go down in history as the first major example of what many believe is a new era of drone warfare. USVs have evolved quickly over the past few years, but only now have they truly gone to war. The surface drones approached the port in the early morning. They raced toward their targets, piloted remotely from hundreds of miles away using onboard electro-optical devices. On their bows, impact fuses would detonate the warheads. Future wars may see increased use of weaponized surface drones.

Concurrently, in an era of great power competition, uncrewed maritime systems have begun to take center stage and are now on an accelerated development path. Like their air and ground counterparts, these uncrewed maritime systems are valued because of their ability to reduce the risk to human life in high threat areas, to deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest, and to provide options to warfighters that derive from the inherent advantages of uncrewed technologies.

To be clear, the advantages of accelerating the development of unmanned maritime systems have not been restricted to the United States. The U.S. Navy isn’t the only navy keenly interested in unmanned surface vehicles. Indeed, the past few years may well be remembered as a high-water mark for the insertion of USVs (and to some extent, UAVs used in conjunction with these USVs) into a number of international exercises, experiments, and demonstrations that have, literally, spanned the globe.

Over the course of these events, uncrewed maritime systems have performed an increasingly ambitious and complex series of missions, giving great confidence to those nations and navies who see them as an important part of their fleets. The highlights of these events show the keen interest of the navies of many nations in finding new missions for these systems.

International Maritime Exercise (IMX), held under the auspices of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and Commander Task Force 59 (CTF-59) in the Arabian Gulf, focused on the integration of crewed and uncrewed vessels and included operations with several regional partners.

Navies and coast guards of the nations and navies involved in IMX worked to fully explore the capabilities of uncrewed systems such as the Saildrone, the MARTAC MANTAS and Devil Ray, and many other USVs from participating nations. This is the first time that this many nations participated in an event of this type.

In the run up to International Maritime Exercise, the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. 5th Fleet, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, noted: “The Navy has been working with manufacturers to test new technologies, including firms such as Saildrone and MARTAC under a contractor-owned, contractor-operated model.”

What is noteworthy about CTF-59 operations in the Arabian Gulf is the fact that IMX was not a “one-of.” Rather, crewed-uncrewed integration operations in the Arabian Gulf continue. The U.S. Navy now has 20 USVs in or near the waters of the Arabian Gulf. Indeed, the United States and its allies want to ultimately have a force of 100 uncrewed surface vessels patrolling waters from the Red Sea into the Arabian Gulf

One U.S. USV company, MARTAC, was a primary participant in IMX. Their uncrewed surface vehicles, MANTAS and Devil Ray, were mainstays of this exercise. Here is how one defense analyst, writing in Inside the Navy, captured the essence of MARTAC’s participation in this major exercise:

MARTAC has a strong presence is 5th Fleet operating with Task Force 59, a Middle East-based task force working on the development of unmanned systems…Typical missions for MARTAC include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, port and harbor security and sensing capabilities, in addition to classified missions.

In another international exercise focused on missions for uncrewed maritime systems, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) hosted Exercise Autonomous Warrior (AW). Nations participating in this Royal Australian Navy-led exercise included Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and featured a total of thirty autonomous systems. The uncrewed surface vehicles that were part of this two-week exercise were the Saildrone, MANTAS, and Devil Ray featured in IMX, the Atlas Elektronik ARCIMS, the Elbit Systems Australia SEAGULL, and the Ocius Bluebottle.

Another event, the bi-annual Rim of the Pacific Exercise (the world’s largest international maritime exercise) was especially noteworthy as the U.S. Navy inserted four uncrewed surface vehicles in this major international exercise. The Rim of the Pacific exercise gave the event’s twenty-six participating nations an opportunity to see these USVs in action.

The RIMPAC Commander put special emphasis on the uncrewed vehicles participating in RIMPAC, as well as crewed-uncrewed integration:

What’s also new in this RIMPAC is a lot more integration of unmanned systems—on the surface, in the air, and under the surface. The four unmanned surface vehicles that the Navy brought to the exercise carried specialized payloads for anti-submarine warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, domain awareness and communications capability. So that’s all kind of new.

One of the important lessons learned regarding the operations of uncrewed surface vessels during RIMPAC was what was important to the sailors operating these four USVs. One official from the Navy’s program office for unmanned maritime systems noted that: One of the biggest pieces of feedback we’re getting is that they’re [sailors operating these USVs during RIMPAC] talking about payloads, they’re talking about capabilities. They’re not talking about autonomy. They’re not worried that [the USV is] going to ever run into something.

On the other side of the world, NATO exercises REPMUS and the follow-on Dynamic Messenger, provided an opportunity for NATO nations to evaluate uncrewed systems and their ability to coordinate on, above and under the sea.

Led by Portugal and conducted near the Troia Peninsula, these exercises focused on the integration of 120 autonomous assets into a single network. Several NATO commands: NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, NATO3345’s Allied Maritime Command, the NATO Center of Excellence, and NATO Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation were part of these exercises. This enabled partner nations to learn best-practices regarding how to shepherd uncrewed systems into their respective navies.

Later, the U.S. Navy-led exercise Digital Horizon, a three-week event in the Middle East, focused on employing artificial intelligence and 15 different uncrewed systems (12 USVs and 3 UAVs), many of which were operated in the region for the first time. The exercise, meant to be a continuation of IMX but on a significantly larger scale, was hosted by Task Force 59, and built on the work done during IMX.  Indeed, Digital Horizon was the largest international unmanned exercise ever held.

Digital Horizon brought together new, emerging uncrewed technologies and combined them with data analytics and artificial intelligence to enhance regional maritime security and strengthen deterrence. The exercise featured 17 companies that collectively brought 15 different types of uncrewed systems, ten of which operated with U.S. 5th Fleet for the first time. One of the objectives of Digital Horizon was to use uncrewed maritime vehicles to conduct intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions, including identifying objects in the water and spotting suspicious behavior.

From the perspective of the U.S. Navy, these exercises and initiatives are important and represent a significant course change as the Navy works to convince Congress that its plans for uncrewed systems are sound. Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable Carlos Del Toro, explained the Navy’s new “show, don’t tell,” philosophy built on an ongoing series of exercises, experiments and demonstrations, further indicating that he believes the Navy is: “On the same page as Congress.” According to Del Toro:

The Navy has a responsibility to be able to prove that the technology that Congress is going to invest in actually works and it meets what we need to address the threat. I think that’s the responsible thing to do…I don’t see it as a fight between Congress and the Department of Navy. I think we’re aligned in our thinking about what has to be done.

Looking ahead, world navies are keen to bring both commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) uncrewed maritime systems, as well as other USVs in various stages of development, to exercises, experiments, and demonstrations.  This will enable them to not only demonstrate their own capabilities, but to also learn best practices by observing the operations of unmanned maritime systems of other nations.

These efforts are virtually certain to accelerate the development of these USVs, and for the U.S. Navy, hasten the goal of a 500-ship Navy that is envisioned to have 350 crewed ships and 150 unmanned vessels.

George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator and national security professional. His 30-year career as a naval aviator culminated in 14 years of consecutive service as executive officer, commanding officer, commodore, and chief of staff. He is a 40-year Coronado resident and enjoys writing, especially speculative fiction about the future of warfare. He is the author of 18 books, including four consecutive New York Times bestsellers.

The featured photo: A Devil Ray MARTAC USV making a high-speed turn. Credit: MARTAC