Unmanned platforms – from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) – play an increasingly significant role in naval warfare. This is a worldwide trend. The US Navy (USN), like many other navies, has been using Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) for a long time, with growing number entering service to perform an ever-expanding number of missions, such as survey and mine countermeasures. The missions have been generally of short duration and confined to an area relatively close to the host platform. The USN’s plan now is to introduce a completely new generation of USVs over the next couple of years, with national industry participation gaining a substantial drive to design, develop and test a highly modular, reliable and survivable platform.
On 13 July, the USN awarded a contract worth US$35 million to L3HARRIS Technologies, Inc. for the development of a single Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV) prototype, with options to procure up to eight additional systems. This order could also include logistics packages, engineering support and technical data and other direct costs. The award follows a full and open competitive procurement process; the manufacturer was selected among five bidders. The MUSV programme calls for the introduction of a pier-launched, self-deploying, modular, open architecture surface vessel capable of autonomous navigation and mission execution. Taking the future digitized naval/maritime battlespace into consideration, MUSVs will support the Navy’s ability to produce, deploy and disburse intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in addition to Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities. Additionally, the system will provide and improve distributed situational awareness and sensing to the battle force.
“The award of Medium USV is the culmination of a great dialogue with industry to right-size the requirements for a capable, reliable and affordable [USV] that will employ a variety of modular payloads,” said Captain Pete Small, programme manager, Unmanned Maritime Systems (PMS 406), within the Program Executive Office, Unmanned and Small Combatants (PEO USC) at the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). “Leveraging new rapid prototyping authorities and mature commercial technology will allow us to quickly deliver a capable prototype to the Surface Development Squadron to conduct experimentation and learning in support of the Navy’s plans for a future fleet incorporating unmanned vessels,” he explained.
Work on the MUSV prototype will be performed in several places across the U.S. and is expected to be completed by 2023. The president’s 2021 budget request for the Navy includes additional funding for a second MUSV prototype in FY23. The acquisition strategy for the FY23 vessel is to be determined, however, for flexibility, the development contract contains options for additional USVs. Accelerating USV and payload development and warfighting integration will provide an inflection point in delivering a more distributed force in support of the National Defense Strategy.
As to L3HARRIS Technologies, it is interesting to note the following. The manufacturer with corporate headquarters in Melbourne, Florida, is ranked as a technology driver, providing autonomous systems and platforms for naval/maritime use. In April 2019, it was announced that the company succeeded with the successful demonstration of an Autonomous Surface Vehicle (ASV) for deploying, operating and recovering a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). In an industry first, the so-called C-WORKER 7 ASV deployed an inspection class ROV for vertical and horizontal subsea inspection.
The Goal is to Go Big
The USN plans to develop and procure three new types of unmanned platforms – Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs), MUSVs and Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs). LUSVs and MUSVs will add to the future mix of Large Surface Combatants (LCSs, which are cruisers and destroyers) and small surface combatants, including Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) and the new frigate, with a higher proportion of small than large, and more unmanned than manned, Naval Forces was told earlier this year. The unmanned vehicles are envisioned to be fully integrated into the tactical support grid that is designed to share and exchange information between manned and unmanned platforms to give the user and decision maker the ability to see the collated data and make informed decisions with it. While MUSVs play their cards as a way to distribute sensors to prove better situational awareness for strike groups, LUSVs will carry weapons that can be launched against targets afloat, aloft and ashore. The Navy envisions MUSVs to be relatively inexpensive platforms, 12 to 50m in length, that can accommodate various payloads for ISR, as well as EW. In clear contrast, LUSVs will be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships based on commercial ship designs, with ample capacity for carrying various modular payloads – particularly anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and strike payloads, meaning principally anti-ship and land-attack missiles. While the LUSV is obviously a bigger platform, it is markedly different in that it is anticipated to be a “shooter.” It would be based on a commercially available 55 to 90-m, 2,000-tonne offshore support vessel design, and would carry anti-ship and land-attack missiles. It is interesting to note that the Defense Department’s 2020 budget requests expanding sea power strike capacity through procurement of offensively armed USVs.
All three of these programmes are in the budget, and the Navy is just seeing the beginning of the drone fleet. Rear Admiral Casey Moton at the PEO USC told Naval Forces in November 2019: “We are working hard on both the large USV, which will be a distributed lethality platform with the missile capability, and the MUSV, which is going to be distributed sensing platform.” In looking at the new era of unmanned warfare in USN history, he concluded: “We are developing and procuring an entirely new class of naval vessel.”