US Navy Announces ‘Major Breakthrough’ To Confront Beijing In The South China Sea

The US Navy will deploy drones operating in the air, underwater, and on the surface by 2021 to incorporate unmanned technology into combat situations. The US Navy has accentuated the importance of the unmanned system for maritime operations in case conflict breaks out with China.

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“We’re shooting for early 2021 to be able to run a fleet battle problem that is centered on unmanned,” said Rear Adm. Robert Gaucher, director of maritime headquarters with U.S. Pacific Fleet at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s annual defence show.

“It will … be on the sea, above the sea and under the sea as we get to demonstrate how we can align to the [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] directives to use experimentation to drive lethality,” he said.

Gaucher added that the US Navy regularly runs fleet battle problems — which test deploying forces for high-end warfare — in the Pacific and Atlantic which are typically carried out by carrier strike groups. Incorporating new drone technologies into the battle problem will be a big shift for the service, which plans to invest billions in new unmanned systems.

Navy wants US$2 billion to build 10 large unmanned surface vessels over the next five years. However, Congress has raised some doubts over it and has even moved to block the Navy from buying large unmanned vessels. 

X-47B Drone Launch from carrier USS George H.W. Bush. Credit: US Navy.

“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,” stated Gaucher.

The Navy had been slowly deploying the unmanned systems and is gradually testing the capabilities. It had earlier carried out testing of unmanned systems. Like last year, it sent its 132-foot-long self-driving ship, Sea Hunter, from San Diego to Hawaii and back again.

It became the first ship to successfully autonomously navigate from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and back without a single crew member on board. “The Sea Hunter program is leading the world in unmanned, fully autonomous naval ship design and production,” said Gerry Fasano, Leidos Defense Group President.

“The recent long-range mission is the first of its kind and demonstrates to the U.S. Navy that autonomy technology is ready to move from the developmental and experimental stages to advanced mission testing.”

Another experiment was conducted when the Navy’s long-range unmanned surface vessel from Norfolk, Virginia, to North Carolina. Marine Brig. Gen. Eric Austin, director of the capabilities development directorate at Combat Development and Integration in Quantico, Virginia, said that it was “able to strike targets using kinetic weapons in the Cherry Point range complex.”

Gaucher said the Navy is still in the planning stage for its unmanned battle fleet problem, but the exercise is likely to include a command-and-control aspect, sensors and payloads.

The US and China are at loggerheads in the South China Sea. The US had sent warships and aircraft carriers into the South China Sea with increasing frequency, even as the US Navy was struggling to deal with multiple COVID-19 outbreaks.

China claims that its counter efforts are in response to all the “military provocations”. China had also reported conducted exercises with the warships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.