The Navy’s testing its new robot ship division in the Pacific this summer

The US military meets in Honolulu every other year to train for battle in the Pacific. This year's exercise will involve a totally unmanned robot boat formation. The newly formed "Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One," or USVDIV One, was announced on May 13 and would allow the Navy and the rest of the military to rehearse fighting war with and alongside enormous sea drones. As the military prepares for a possible future battle, it will be accompanied by a whole new type of machine.

“USVDIV One will be a catalyst for innovation as we employ unmanned surface capabilities in the Pacific Fleet,” said Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener, who presided over the ceremony creating USVDIV One. “The implementation of unmanned systems will increase decision speed and lethality to enhance our warfighting advantage.” 

Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk, sister ships created for DARPA's anti-submarine warfare program, are among the division's particular warships. These boats were built to operate for lengthy periods of time, with sensors pointing beneath the water to locate and track submarines lurking in the expanse of the ocean.

Both the Sea Hunter and the Sea Hawk were utilized for scouting, surveillance, and information collection during a military drill in April 2021. "One scenario in the exercise required drones to extend the sight of a warship to shoot a missile from long range,” the admiral in charge of that exercise told C4ISRNET.

The Rim of the Pacific exercise, or RIMPAC, has long been a testing ground for new concepts, with commanders and troops working alongside new machines in simulated combat scenarios to determine whether they would operate as anticipated. A 2014 drill highlighted the Marine Corps' Legged Squad Support System robot's unsuitability for battle, as it proved too noisy in training to be considered safe for warfare.

Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk are anticipated to be deployed in a similar way during RIMPAC, with sensors utilized to increase the range of awareness for current weapons based on other vehicles. Uncrewed vehicles have the advantage of expanding the fleet's vision without increasing the risk of sailors in the same manner that a crewed and inhabited vessel would.

The uncrewed division will feature Nomad and Ranger, in addition to the two Sea Hunter-style ships. While the Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk were built from the ground up to be uncrewed, the Nomad and Ranger were modified from boats that were used to restock offshore infrastructure such as oil rigs and wind farms. Ranger has been utilized to launch a missile in past exercises, indicating that uncrewed ships may contribute to weaponry as well as scouting and resupply.

The four ships will be distributed throughout RIMPAC, according to Jerry Daley, commander of USVDIV-1, and will cooperate with multiple commanders for both receiving and obeying commands, as well as the usage of playoads, which will have sensors and potentially include additional capabilities.

If the employment of uncrewed ships at RIMPAC is to serve as a catalyst for a quicker, deadlier, and more competent Navy, it's worth pausing to consider how that vision and understanding hasn't yet materialized.

Ultimately, the Navy intends to fight future sea battles by delivering more missiles to the battlefield and ensuring that those missiles hit their targets precisely. Uncrewed scouts like the Sea Hunter can provide more accurate targeting information. Remotely controlled boats like the Nomad and Ranger can carry missiles and fire them under human command, or refill crewed ships with missile tubes. However, if the Navy truly wants to add more missile tubes to its existing crewed fleets without significantly raising the cost or demands on sailor labor, it will need to develop and deploy specialized missile boats.

This was the idea behind the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel program, which resulted in the Nomad and Ranger being converted from existing boats. This happened when the LUSV's budget for 2021 was slashed dramatically, along with the promise of a new ship hull-up for this purpose.

The uncrewed ships will allow the Navy to experiment with how it deploys the ships during RIMPAC, and it will also provide commanders a chance to see what more such vehicles may possibly contribute in the field. The RIMPAC exercise will take place from June through August. The Navy will be able to use it to determine if the robot ships it already possesses give a glimpse of the future it hopes to achieve, or whether the entire idea of robots and people fighting alongside each other at sea needs to be rethought.
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