Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… on Monday, the U.S. Navy made history with the first Pacific crossing of a pair of its drone ships, as the two vessels were dispatched to Japan amidst rising tensions with China. This week, we’ll be analyzing 1) the arrival of the U.S. surface drones in Japan, 2) how the U.S. Navy is looking to leverage drone technologies across multiple domains, and 3) what the current role of autonomous systems are in U.S. Naval operations and beyond.
Quote of the Week
“We’ll counter the [People’s Liberation Army’s] mass with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, and harder to beat.”
– Kathleen Hicks, Deputy Secretary of Defense
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Now, it’s time to turn our attention toward what has been happening in the Pacific, and how the U.S. Navy and other Indo-Pacific navies are employing autonomous platforms as tensions continue to rise with Beijing.
U.S. Navy Unmanned Vessels Become First to Cross the Pacific
This week, a pair of U.S. Navy prototype unmanned surface vessels were sent across Pacific waters amidst growing tensions between Beijing and Western nations and rising concerns about Chinese expansion.
On Monday, the USV Mariner and the LUSV Ranger, two drone boats that have been nicknamed the U.S. Navy’s “ghost fleet,” arrived at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, home of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, The Japan Timesreported.
The drones were dispatched as part of a long-range deployment that has now been in the works for several weeks, since the vessels left their home port in Southern California last month. Although designed for autonomous action, small crews were carried aboard the prototype vessels as their arrival at Yokosuka marked the first Pacific crossing of autonomous surface vessels of their kind.
The U.S. Navy’s Drone Wars
Monday’s Pacific crossing of Mariner and Ranger is only the latest development in a broader effort by the U.S. Navy to expand its multidomain capabilities with the implementation of unmanned platforms.
Last October, budget documents revealed that the U.S. Navy was advancing with its development of drone swarm technologies that will comprise thousands of small drones capable of overpowering anti-aircraft defenses.
The increased focus on unmanned platforms follows demonstrations of their capabilities during the conflict in Ukraine, where relatively simple drone technologies, often available on the consumer level, have been successfully used in everything from attacks on armored vehicles to guided artillery fire and reconnaissance.
Building on such capabilities, the U.S. Navy hopes to be able to successfully leverage new methods of controlling entire swarms of drones with a single unit.
Zachary Kallenborn, a policy fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, told MIT News that drone swarms controlled in such a way “can be conceivably applied to virtually any mission,” possessing a wide range of potential uses across multiple platforms.
Given their range of uses, last month the Pentagon also announced its new Replicator program, which aims to deploy a network of cost-effective autonomous systems within the next 24 months.
Drones by Air and by Sea
Currently, the U.S. Navy is in possession of five prototype unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, which operate under its Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One. Capable of leveraging both surface and subsurface combat capabilities, Mariner and Ranger are also equipped for reconnaissance and surveillance, amidst a range of other capabilities.
Previously, the two USVs were incorporated as part of a series of training operations in the Pacific, assisting the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group in exercises aimed at helping optimize its maritime domain awareness.
Similarly, the U.S. Navy also employed both air and surface drones during the UNITAS 2023 naval exercises that occurred earlier this year in Latin America. Currently, along with Mariner and Ranger, the Navy has additional drone ships that include the Sea Hunter, a 132-foot trimaran capable of speeds close to 27 knots, as well as its sister vessel the Seahawk.
Presently, the Navy’s FY2024 budget includes funding for the development of additional Large Unmanned Surface Vessels (LUSVs), with the first vessel of this kind likely to be ready for deployment by 2025 and at a cost of $315 million, with an additional pair of LUSVs expected to be completed by 2026.
The use of unmanned systems, particularly for Indo-Pacific naval deployments, offer numerous benefits that include cost reductions when compared with the use of traditional manned vessels, in addition to their safe use in risk-prone circumstances where human casualties are more likely to occur.
Currently, several other navies have begun to adopt unmanned vehicles as well, including both China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. The U.S. currently possesses an operational advantage with its drone technologies due in part to the significant challenges presented by China’s growing military capabilities.
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