U.S. Navy builds new surface attack drone ships

The image of a ASW drone ship Sea Hunter, which is not the new LUSV/MUSV.

The U.S. Navy is building two new large drone ships to coordinate synchronized attacks, perform command and control across fleets of Unmanned Surface Vessels and conduct high-risk maritime missions such as anti-submarine operations, mine countermeasures, surface warfare, and forward-deployed surveillance.

The new vessels, now in early stages of conceptual development, are intended to perform both manned and unmanned operations while networked to a smaller fleet of multi-mission USVs, Capt. Pete Small, Program Manager, Unmanned Maritime Systems, Naval Sea Systems Command, told reporters at the Surface Naval Association Symposium.

“We are integrating Large USVs (LUSV) and Medium USVs (MUSV) into the architecture, as a large part of a future surface combatant force. We are developing a single integrated combat system shared across the entire combat portfolio,” Small said.

While the U.S. Navy is now exploring arming maritime drones with weapons, Small explained that the initial focus for the new larger surface drones will be autonomy, endurance, precision navigation, and command and control.

There are not yet hull designs under construction or specific configurations, but the U.S. Navy has begun a dialogue with industry to explore technical options and requirements for the new vessels. The service has released a formal RFI – request for information – to industry for the MUSV.

The new ships will operate in tandem with the Navy’s now-in-development fleet of small boat USVs to include the Unmanned Influence Sweep Systems and the emerging Mine Countermeasures USV – among others.

Larger USVs, it would appear, could bring the promise of greater forward-deployed command and control, along with an increased ability to integrate a range of otherwise separated functions. For instance, it seems entirely plausible that a new LUSV could combine submarine hunting with mine-countermeasures, command and control and surface attack. As a forwardly positioned vessel, it could enable deeper draft manned ships to operate at safer standoff ranges. Also, by pushing the limits of technology, larger surface drones could potentially bring unprecedented amounts of endurance. Not only would they not need to constrain mission dwell time by a need to return human crews, but larger drones could potentially carry more fuel, supplies, and ammunition.

Development of the new drones is woven into an existing Navy program called Unmanned Maritime Autonomy Architecture, a coordinated technology push to advance autonomy and create new interface control documents, Small said.

In order to capitalize upon a built-in ability to house larger, more complex payloads, the new LUSV and MUSV are, by design, being engineered with a set of common standards and defined interfaces to accommodate new weapons, software and technologies as they emerge. The strategy, using interoperable protocol and hardware architecture, can not only reduce the hardware footprint but help create the technical infrastructure necessary for continued modernization.