On Tuesday, Rear Adm. Robert Gaucher, director of maritime headquarters with the US Pacific Fleet, said the Navy was planning an "unmanned fleet battle problem" to test just how much the service can rely on unmanned vehicles to perform a mission.
"We're shooting for early 2021 to be able to run a fleet battle problem that is centered on unmanned," Gaucher said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's annual defense show, Military.com reported. "It will ... be on the sea, above the sea and under the sea as we get to demonstrating how we can align to the [US Indo-Pacific Command] directives to use experimentation to drive lethality."
According to US Naval Institute (USNI) News, fleet battle problems are “scenarios where an operational unit is given a training mission designed to test a commander and the crew on an aspect of high-end naval warfare. The goal is to see how well trained and deployed sailors handle the challenge cooked up by the exercise planners.“
However, these drills typically feature carrier strike groups, which include an aircraft carrier, its air wing and several escort ships. To run them featuring unmanned vehicles will be a new kind of test in itself, but one that Navy leaders hope will bridge that gap toward unmanned ships one day adopting the same responsibilities as manned vessels.
“I want to create dilemmas for the adversary and I want to increase lethality,” Gaucher said. “I want to be able to put an unmanned surface ship inside the adversary’s denied areas. If I lose it, I’m losing a much less expensive ship and I’m not losing American lives, but I’m still creating a problem - whether I’m making them shoot it and I’m finding out where they are … or I’m making them waste a weapon on it or I’m getting a couple of shots off before I lose it.”
According to USNI News, some of the Navy’s various unmanned vehicles include the Sea Hunter surface vehicle, the MQ-4 Triton surveillance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Swordfish and Kingfish unmanned underwater explosive ordnance disposal vehicles and the Iver3 underwater monitoring vessel. The Navy has also deployed its MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned autonomous helicopter to the Pacific aboard the littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords and has other unmanned vehicles in the works, such as the MQ-25 Stingray carrier-based UAV, but they are still years from being deployed.
Still others, like the X-47 Pegasus unmanned combat air vehicle, which is also intended to operate from aircraft carriers, remain in the experimental stage. The “loyal wingman” program, designed to provide an autonomous companion in air combat to fighters like the F-35 stealth aircraft, could potentially find use in the Navy, which flies a version of the F-35 specialized for carrier operations, but that program is early in its developmental stages, and the Navy has expressed no specific interest in what remains an Air Force-driven program.
Marine Brig. Gen. Eric Austin from Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia noted at the event that adopting so many unmanned assets is “a pretty big cultural change” for the service, but said he is confident that will change as the technology proves itself.
"Some are further ahead than others, but I think as we see increasing [technology readiness levels], increasing capabilities, it makes it easier,” he said.