We have now passed the 18-month point of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While it will take years to unpack all of the lessons learned from this conflict, some things have already become clear.
Topping that list is the use of uncrewed systems in this conflict. The media has been all but saturated with stories regarding Ukraine and Russia’s use of uncrewed aerial systems to perform intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as both nations’ use of armed uncrewed aerial systems to attack enemy positions.
Of equal importance, and something new, has been Ukraine’s use of uncrewed surface vehicles to attack Russian naval vessels beginning with the October 2022 attack on a Russian warship in the port of Sevastopol, and continuing this year with attacks against Russian military vessels and cargo ships.
New form of warfare
This is a new form of warfare which has tremendous implications for military affairs worldwide.
To understand why the use of these uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) is so new, it is worth dialing back several decades to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where uncrewed aerial systems and uncrewed ground systems were developed and deployed to meet urgent operational needs. Uncrewed surface vehicles were not needed in those conflicts so their development lagged.
Now, world navies are catching up and considering ways that uncrewed surface systems can be used to perform a plethora of important naval missions beyond their use as kamikaze boats in the conflict in Ukraine.
Like their air and ground counterparts, these uncrewed surface 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.
Is the U.S. deploying uncrewed systems?
As citizens and taxpayers, it is fair to ask whether the U.S. military is working to develop and deploy these uncrewed maritime systems to support U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations.
The answer is yes.
Well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Navy and Marine Corps have been proactive in evaluating uncrewed surface systems in a large number of exercises, experiments and demonstrations.
It is worth noting that the U.S. Navy categorizes uncrewed surface systems into three categories: large, medium and small
The Navy’s plans
The Navy has plans to design and field large uncrewed maritime systems ranging in size from 200 to 300 feet over the next few years. That said, these have not yet been fielded.
Small uncrewed maritime systems, while useful, due to their size, cannot carry a large number of systems, sensors, or weapons.
What this means is that over the past several years it is medium uncrewed surface systems that have been evaluated by the Navy and the Marine Corps, as well as by other allied and friendly navies.
Indeed, they have been used extensively in a large number of exercises, experiments and demonstrations and will likely be the “workhorses” that will be used for several important Navy and Marine Corps missions such as ISR, mine-countermeasures, and combat logistics.
Top three uncrewed options
While there are a wide range of medium uncrewed surface vehicles (MUSVs) that can potentially meet the U.S. Navy’s needs, there are three that appear to be furthest along in the development cycle and which have been featured in numerous Navy and Marine Corps events. These MUSVs cover a range of sizes, hull types and capabilities. They are:
- The Vigor Industrial Sea Hunter is the largest of the three. The Sea Hunter is a 132-foot-long trimaran (a central hull with two outriggers).
- The Textron monohull Common Uncrewed Surface Vessel (CUSV) features a modular, open architecture design.
- The Maritime Tactical Systems Inc. (MARTAC) family of catamaran hull, uncrewed surface vehicles that includes the MANTAS T12 and the Devil Ray T24 and T38 craft.
While it is far too early to determine which medium uncrewed surface vehicles will be carried by the Navy’s planned fleet of large uncrewed surface systems, some clarity is beginning to emerge.
MANTAS and Devil Ray appear most viable
The MANTAS and Devil Ray craft appear to be the most viable candidates for a number of reasons. First, they come in different sizes with the same hull, mechanical and electrical (HME) attributes. Second, the Sea Hunter is simply too large to fit into the LUSVs the Navy is considering. Third, the CUSV is the MUSV of choice for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Mine-Countermeasures Mission Package, and all CUSVs scheduled to be procured are committed to this program.
Column space doesn’t allow for a full description of all of the Navy and the Marine Corps events where uncrewed surface systems were featured. That said, one of the most prominent was the Advanced Naval Technology Exercise where the MANTAS T12 snuck into the “enemy” harbor (in this case, the Del Mar boat basin in Southern California) to scout enemy positions.
Marines and uncrewed surface system
On the Marine Corps side of the equation, the Marines used the same uncrewed surface system in the Bold Alligator Series of exercises, as well as others such as Dawn Blitz and Steel Knight, where they performed intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance of enemy positions and linked this information back to higher headquarters in real-time.
More recently, the Navy’s Integrated Battle Problem series of exercises used the T38 Devil Ray to perform intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance tasks, as well as mine countermeasures missions.
U.S. uncrewed surface systems have also been deployed worldwide in a large number of international exercises such as the International Maritime Exercise in the Arabian Gulf, Autonomous Warrior in Australia, and the NATO Robotics Experimentation event led by Portugal and conducted near the Troia Peninsula.
To provide just one example of the scope of this experimentation, earlier this year, the Navy conducted Integrated Battle Problem 2023 that featured nine uncrewed surface vehicles, including those mentioned earlier in this article.
It is likely an understatement to say that the Department of the Navy is committed to an accelerated development path for uncrewed surface systems so that they can complement the Navy fleet and perform missions that keep Sailors and Marines out of harm’s way. This is a good news story as the United States faces peer competitors that threaten anti-access/area denial systems that threaten crewed ships and their crews.
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 16 books, including four consecutive New York Times best sellers.