RIMPAC 2024: US Navy Draws Lessons On “UAV Warfare” From Ukraine To Counter China In Pacific

The US Navy is expanding naval operations by incorporating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into its fleet. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) recently conducted extensive drone operations as part of the 2024 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. 

“Hardest Hitting” Su-34 Fighter Remains Russia’s Top Warplane Despite ‘Staggering Loses’ – Expert

The drone operation, held from June 19-24, was part of the world’s largest international maritime exercise that underscored the increasing significance of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in modern naval warfare, especially in light of the ongoing Ukraine war.

RIMPAC 2024 featured fleet experiment initiatives under the Trident Warrior 2024 umbrella, sponsored by the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command.

These initiatives aimed to incorporate real-world warfighter feedback early in the acquisition process by exposing the fleet to emerging capabilities. The emphasis on UAV experimentation played a crucial role in this endeavor, emphasizing the Navy’s dedication to swiftly advancing new technologies.

According to the US Navy, the USS Curtis Wilbur successfully launched and recovered six unmanned aerial systems (UAS) during the exercise.

UAS PHOTOEX on USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54)
Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), from Skyways and PteroDynamics, sit on the flight deck of the Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), Jun. 25, 2024. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jesse Monford)

Photos released by the service indicated the involvement of Skyways V2.6 UASs and PteroDynamics X-P4 UASs in the exercise.

The unmanned aircraft were aboard the USS Curtis Wilbur to support the Just In Time Delivery (JITD) logistics effort. These aircraft are designed to autonomously deliver medical supplies and critical parts between ships and from ship to shore.

A US Navy official said, “The JITD team intends to demonstrate simulated long-range deliveries of critical parts and supplies via autonomous shipboard takeoffs and landings while aboard Curtis Wilbur.”

“The Navy continues to drive rapid experimentation and implementation of new technologies,” said Cmdr. Yilei Liu, commanding officer of USS Curtis Wilbur.

“While easy to configure and ready to deploy, it is vital to evaluate these technologies in different environmental conditions to define and scope the operating envelopes of these highly capable platforms,” Wilbur added.

Why Is The US Navy Intensifying Its Use Of UAVs In Naval Operations?

The continued experimentation with UAVs during RIMPAC 2024 demonstrated the US Navy’s proactive approach to incorporating cutting-edge innovations in maritime warfare.

The effort gained heightened significance in light of recent demonstrations of drone effectiveness in the Ukraine conflict, where unmanned aerial vehicles have played pivotal roles in surveillance, guiding artillery, and tracking enemy forces.

Purchased By NASA, Canadian Roshel Senator Armored Vehicles ‘Bite The Dust’ In Russia-Ukraine War: Media

Moreover, the deployment of remote-controlled speed boats by Ukraine, armed with explosives, contributed to the sinking of large Russian naval vessels since late 2022, showcasing the evolving landscape of naval engagements.

Similarly, Yemeni-backed Houthi rebels have utilized drones in the Red Sea, albeit with limited success against commercial shipping. These developments have not gone unnoticed by the Pentagon.

Pentagon Spokesman Eric Pahon said that the US was incorporating insights from these conflicts into strategies to counter China’s expanding naval capabilities in the Pacific.

UAS Launches from USS Curtis Wilbur
Photo By Petty Officer 1st Class Jesse Monford | A PteroDynamics X-P4 Unmanned Aerial System sits on the flight deck of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) Jul. 19, 2024.

For instance, in August 2023, the Pentagon launched an initiative called Replicator. The program aimed to rapidly deploy hundreds of cost-effective air and sea drones in 18-24 months — a move seen as a response to China’s growing military prowess.

Despite years of deliberation within the US Navy regarding the future role of unmanned vessels in maritime operations, Replicator marked a decisive step towards integrating these technologies into the fleet.

US Officials emphasized the strategic importance of these drones — funded primarily through reallocated Pentagon resources — in addressing the challenges posed by China’s naval expansion in the Asia-Pacific region.

The initiative included a January 2024 solicitation for private companies to supply small sea drones to the Navy. Production capacity is set at 120 vessels annually, and deployment is scheduled to commence in April 2025.

Exasperated By Starlink-Controlled Drone Boats, Russia “Develops” Antidote To Check Ukraine’s USVs

However, this change signals a move away from the traditional use of manned aviation for important supply deliveries, as the US Navy is now turning to autonomous systems for cost savings and operational adaptability.

“Due to the high costs associated with manned flight operations and the lack of manned asset availability, a significant number of naval operations are delayed while waiting for critical supplies,” said Edward Gesser, a program engineer with the JITD program from Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division – Webster Outlying Field.

During the recent exercise, US officials highlighted the transformative potential of embedding autonomy within naval operations. They envision autonomous platforms capable of executing complex and hazardous missions with heightened efficiency and minimal risk to personnel.

This strategic evolution seeks to redefine the operational dynamics in contested environments, empowering autonomous systems to provide defensive and offensive capabilities.