The US Navy is building a Ghost Fleet comprising unmanned surface combatants. In 2019, it announced that ten new unmanned corvette-sized ships measuring 200-300 feet length and displacing about 2,000 tons will be ordered over the next five years. These could be armed with different payloads such as the SM-2/SM-6 air defense missiles/Long Range Anti-Ship Missile/ Naval Strike Missile or anti-submarine weapons. Furthermore, the vessels could be deployed ahead of the fleet and serve as traditional ‘scouts’ or ‘pickets’ to warn/counter incoming threats.
In the buildup of the Ghost Fleet, in October 2020, two Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSV), the Ranger and the Nomad, sailed from the Gulf of Mexico through the Panama Canal to the West Coast of the United States in “human-controlled modes”. Last month, the Nomad once again sailed 4,000 miles with 98% of the trip in autonomous mode. There are plans to acquire two LUSVs each year till 2024 and $2.7 billion has been budgeted for this programme.
Meanwhile, the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-DARPA’s Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) programme has been progressing well. These ocean-going Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessels (ACTUV) are “revolutionary prototype vehicles” and can travel autonomously over long distances. Two 145-ton “trimaran type” vessels, Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk, under the MDUSV-ACTUV programme are now based with the Surface Development Squadron (SURFDVRON)-1 in California. In the coming times seven medium and large USV prototypes will be assigned to SURFDVRON for experimentation and to demonstrate USV technology to “advance the Navy’s ability to conduct extended unmanned surface vehicle operations via a remote control interface”.
The above developments are indicators of the growing importance of autonomous naval platforms in the US’ force structure formulations and operation planning; for instance in April 2021, the U.S. Pacific Fleet exercise “Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21 (IBP21)”, “multi-domain unmanned platforms” such as UAVs, USVs and UUVs operated along with manned platforms and executed combat operations “designed to support the Pacific Fleet objectives in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Earlier in March 2021, the Department of Navy published “Unmanned Campaign Framework”, a blueprint for future work in this domain. It contains concepts, strategies, and execution Plan of Action and Milestones (POA&M) for integration of such platforms across the navy as also to “determine how unmanned systems will fit into the future fleet and maximize the value that they will provide for national security”.
At the politico-strategic level, the Framework notes that “Great Power Competition” has arrived on the global scene which necessitates shift from “ traditional force structure in the face of new war fighting demands”. Therefore the US Navy must develop “detailed technology maturation and acquisition roadmaps to enable us to innovate quickly to provide solutions for hard-to-solve problems of current and future conflicts”. According to the Framework, the US is concerned about the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” posed by Russia and China, and for that the US’ military strategy aims to deny China “sustained air and sea dominance”.
The strategy also calls out China’s attempts to steal both military and commercial technology to seek dominance in “artificial intelligence and bio-genetics”. Although China has vehemently denied such accusations, yet from time to time there are reports of security breaches and people are suspected/arrested/prosecuted on charges of thefts or plans to sell such technology to China. For these security reasons, Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) has kept the unmanned surface vessels programmes and names of the firms developing these as secret.
The “Unmanned Campaign Framework” also makes reference to “Strengthening Global Partnerships to Leverage and Share Innovation”. Further, innovative Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) operational concepts are encouraged. These should be part of strategic planning and employment in joint operations involving unmanned systems with allies as envisaged under the October 2018 “Maritime Unmanned Systems Initiative, Declaration of Intent”, signed by defense ministers from 17 Nations as also the “NATO Maritime Unmanned Systems Initiative” for “international collaboration and innovation delivered at pace”.
The Framework also encourages new partners for deepening interoperability through training for common missions. A high ranking Indian naval delegation recently visited the US and were shown around several underwater warfare facilities at San Diego. Apparently, these facilities are linked to the recent Indian purchase of 24 MH-60 Romeo anti-submarine helicopters and the earlier purchase of 10 P8-I anti-submarine warfare aircraft. However, it is not known if the Indian delegation was given briefing on the ongoing US unmanned platforms that are based in San Diego.
Be that as it may, India-US defence cooperation framework encourages interoperability between their militaries and the enabling agreement support defence technology transfers. The top Indian Navy leadership has acknowledged the criticality of unmanned platforms and has noted that the force has a roadmap for acquiring unmanned platforms. Could the US’ Ghost Fleet be a useful model to explore for the Indian Navy?
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.