Unmanning a Twenty-Second Century Navy

February 29, 2020
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Sea Power Projected by an Unmanned Fleet Controlled from the Shore

While maritime power is all but certain to remain a critical tool in upholding America’s national interests into the foreseeable future, both Naval and Congressional leaders are grappling with the size, shape, and type of force that will best fit America’s needs. 

The U.S. Navy's fiscal year 2021 budget just called for the smallest shipbuilding plan in six years and for retiring the first four Littoral Combat Ships that were built along with other legacy platforms. Overall the plan requests 44 ships through 2025 instead of the 55 projected last year. At first glance, it appears to go in contrast to lawmakers' call for a 355-ship force, and some are already calling this plan dead on arrival

But near-term force reduction and budget recalibration are desperately needed to move the Navy towards the new era of warfare.  Looking at the future of the Navy not only in the coming years or even decades but over the next century will help lawmakers see the big picture.

In the immediate future, U.S. naval power will prioritize a combination of manned and unmanned platforms working in concert, with the latter acting as support to the former more often than not. But a fleet in the second half of the century could be predominantly, perhaps even exclusively unmanned platforms controlled from as far as half a world away.

Even now, America’s great power competitors, namely China and Russia, are growing and adapting their military capabilities at a rapid pace. The trajectory of warfare developments that includes advanced missile systems, powerful naval vessels, and cutting-edge mines is not lost on U.S. Department of Defense officials. U.S. Naval leaders have already made it clear that the maritime force the nation needs going forward must not only be larger but also must be more capable and distributed than ever before.

The current proposed solution for a larger and more distributed maritime force is to expand a fleet architecture comprised of both manned and unmanned surface, undersea, and air platforms. The stated goal for these new unmanned vessels, vehicles, and drones is for them to be capable of traveling thousands of miles unaided to extend the range and variety of operational capabilities of manned assets. The Navy envisions that the various platforms will consist of everything from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) payloads and electronic warfare systems to anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and strike payloads.

In fact, operations and experiments with prototypes, contracts, and construction of future unmanned vessels are already underway. In the air, the Navy just deployed two MQ-4C Tritons – unmanned maritime surveillance planes – to Gaum for operations in the Pacific. Additionally, quick headway is being made on the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned refueling and surveillance drone for carrier air wings and is even beginning to install Unmanned Aviation Warfare Centers (UAWCs) on its carriers to operate the drone and those that will follow. For the surface Navy, the autonomous Sea Hunter is already being used in experiments and fleet exercises. And last year, the Navy awarded Boeing a contract to build four 51-foot Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs). These are all pieces of what the Navy hopes to build into an intricate web of sea power. 

But much of the larger shape and scope of this future unmanned fleet is still conceptual. Take, for instance, the way the Navy portrays the future designed large unmanned surface vessel (LUSV). The Navy’s vision is that the LUSV will be used as an external missile magazine that will increase the number of missiles available to be launched by Sailors on a manned surface unit.  However, a new study from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) disagrees with the concept predominately because the authors can’t see how the LUSVs would be used outside of a shooting conflict or war.

Instead, the CSBA study argues for a manned corvette (DDC) with 15-24 personnel that would be used in peacetime for training, engagements, security, and deterrence operations. The study further argues that the DDC could be optionally unmanned to be used in crisis or war in a similar manner to what the Navy describes the role of the LUSV will be.

However, if technological trends stay on their current upward trajectory, by the turn of the twenty-second century, adversarial capabilities will have advanced so drastically that both current seemingly forward-thinking and futuristic platforms and concepts will be obsolete. We must look beyond the future horizon line of partial unmanned fleets to that of the more distant future where manned vessels are few, and the unmanned varieties rule the seas.

While future variants of today’s manned aircraft carriers and attack and ballistic missile submarines will still have a role for decades to come, in the latter half of the century the focal point of the Navy will be an unmanned fleet of surface, undersea, and air platforms that are controlled from shore. Included in this forthcoming architecture will be a robust command and control system, distributed on land in hidden bunkers and in facilities that keep tabs on the ghost fleet and control their weapon and sensor payloads remotely.

For an example of how this force will be used, consider peacetime deterrence operations focused on China. Instead of the current laydown in the Indo-Pacific centered on costly carrier and expeditionary strike groups, one approach could consist of a hundred unmanned units of various sizes, with a mix of weapon payloads and sensors dispersed around the first and second island chains. With easier signature management for deception purposes, and because traditional manned asset constraints - such as replenishments for food – would be eliminated, the adversary’s ability to predict force movement will be degraded, if not missing altogether.

Also, it would be virtually impossible for China’s forces to target enough of the unmanned platforms to make a significant impact in the early stages of a battle. Even if Beijing made the decision to attack, this force architecture is relatively expendable – no loss of American lives – and buys time for a surge of other unmanned and advanced manned platforms, like a swarm of submarines, to enter the theater.

And by controlling these forces from shore, China’s leadership, unable to easily target the maritime brain centers, would likely further feel uncomfortable with making any sudden geopolitical moves that upset the status quo. In effect, the ghost fleet concept controlled from shore will enable America to maintain its principal national defense strategy – deterrence in peacetime – by a combined show of scattered forces that create strategic ambiguity of success for the adversary. 

Some strategists argue that an unmanned force such as this makes tempting targets for our adversaries and presents opportunities for unneeded escalation or miscalculation at sea. But recent examples seem to demonstrate the contrary, insofar as the United States has already proven that it can show restraint towards adversaries when its unmanned assets are interfered with. Look at the U.S. government’s measured response to the military surveillance drone shot down by Iran over the Strait of Hormuz or the unmanned underwater survey glider seized by Chinese naval personnel in 2016.

The U.S. government would welcome handling incidents such as these where no lives are lost rather than immediately having our manned ships sunk, thus projecting us into a costly major conflict. It is worth bearing in mind, in this context, the comments made in a December 2018 speech at the Military Industry List summit by China’s Rear Adm. Luo Yuan, indicating that China could solve tensions in the South China Sea by sinking two U.S. aircraft carriers, claiming 10,000 American lives. Such a catastrophic scenario is much less of a threat with a predominantly unmanned fleet.

Achieving a fully operational unmanned fleet controlled from the shore by the twenty-second century is an ambitious goal that will take time, money, and continued technological advancement. But the concept is critical for America to remain the pre-eminent world power. As we continue to modernize today’s fleet, we must make strategic moves that will positively move towards this future concept of maritime warfare.


Lieutenant Commander Matthew Dalton, U.S. Navy, is the Federal Executive Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  He has conducted intelligence and cyberspace operations focused on multiple theaters throughout the world.  The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



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