Robots On Water! US Navy Wants 250 ‘Sailor-Less Ships’ To Support Its Naval Fleet To Counter China In Its Backyard

Building and operating a hybrid fleet in the Indo-Pacific Region to meet the Chinese challenge are becoming essential goals for the US Navy.

In pursuing this goal, unmanned systems in the air, surface, and undersea are proving to be an important part of the navy fleet, if a just-released study by the US Naval Institute is any indication.

Unmanned systems are increasingly considered a trustworthy and sustainable part of the US naval force structure, “integrated at speed to provide lethal, survivable, and scalable effects in support of the future maritime mission.”

In fact, in the major exercises that the US Navy has participated recently, it has been pushing forward the concept of “a hybrid fleet” composed of manned and unmanned ships and aircraft.

These exercises are witnessing advancements across the entire spectrum of naval operations, from developmental and operational testing to experiments with a wide range of prototypes, up to real fleet deployments.

For instance, an MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operated by the 89th Attack Squadron, Ellsworth Air Force Base, SD, conducted “Operation Jackpot Hooligan III” during “Operation Neptune Strike 23.1” on February 23.

During the event, the UAV integrated with air and naval forces to execute a simulated long-range missile strike on a simulated adversarial ship.

The MQ-9 passed the target ship’s coordinates to an E-2D Hawkeye, attached to Carrier Airborne Command and Control Squadron (VAW) 121, which then passed the information to a strike force comprised of F/A-18s, attached to CVW-7, and Spanish AV-8B Harriers.

The E-2D successfully vectored the strike force to an area safe from simulated enemy air defenses. The strike force then began its’ attack utilizing the intelligence provided by the UAV.

It may be noted that during Neptune Strike 2023-1 (NEST 23.1), 31 ships, 135 aircraft, and 8,386 Sailors and Marines from 21 countries demonstrated deterrence and assurance through the execution of a broad spectrum of the sea, air, and land activities.

The ninth phase of NATO’s long-planned Project Neptune series of activities was held over nine days. It concluded on February 28.

NEPTUNE Strike drills
NEPTUNE Strike drills

Similarly, it is said that the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RimPac) exercise conducted in 2022 in the waters around the Hawaiian Islands was a standout success and was a window into how the future hybrid fleet might operate. 

Conducted between June and August, the RimPac exercise witnessed the deployment of four prototype unmanned surface vessels (USVs) – the trimarans Sea Hunter and Seahawk and two converted offshore supply vessels, the Nomad and Ranger.

The four USVs were said to have conducted various missions using different payloads — all the while controlled by either a small team deployed on board an Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer or, for the first time, from a land-based unmanned-vehicle operations center.

In May 2022, the US Navy established USV Division One (USVDiv1) unit on the country’s West Coast to be the fleet-based testing arm for USVs and their associated autonomy systems and payloads. It also operates the unmanned-vehicle operations center located at Port Hueneme, California. 

Besides, the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain established Task Force 59 (TF-59) last year, whose rapid pace of exercises and testing witnessed the use of 80 unmanned systems successfully. These were a diverse mix of unmanned gliders and small autonomous vessels, such as Sail-drones and MANTAS USVs.

As it is, the US Navy and marine forces extensively use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Targeting (ISR&T) capabilities.

Mantas USV

For example, the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D), a High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAS equipped with a maritime ISR&T sensor package that has operated for over ten years, providing more than 35,000 hours of critical maritime overwatch. There are also the likes of MQ-4C Triton and MQ-9A that execute “Early Operational Capability” (EOC) deployments.

It may be noted that the idea of making the navy hybrid by using unmanned systems has some economic considerations. Manned warships, including the carriers, are too expensive, and any loss to them pinches the national exchequer.

This is particularly so when adversaries like China are expanding the reach of their anti-access and area denial assets. And here, new and inexpensive autonomous technologies offer a way to supplement the existing sea-control force that relies on the carrier strike group.

It is argued that a fleet of primarily small, inexpensive, and largely uncrewed offensive platforms could operate forward as sensors, decoys, and missile shooters. They would absorb the opponent’s first salvo and engage the opponent’s sea-denial capabilities at the onset of a conflict. If, in the process, they get destroyed, the loss would be only minimal and hence acceptable.

It was against this background that in December 2020, US Tri-Service Maritime Strategy, “Advantage at Sea,” was published. It highlighted the importance of unmanned systems. 

US Navy Catamaran

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, was quoted to have said that while a much larger 500-ship US Navy would be necessary to contain Chinese expansionist ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, there was a need for “as many as 140 to 250 unmanned vessels,” which he called, “Sailor-less ships, robots on the water and under the water.”

Secretary of the US Navy Carlos Del Toro said, “Investments in unmanned naval systems will be key to meeting those threats. It’s important to ensure they’re fully integrated with our existing platforms.” Most importantly, in 2021, the Department of the Navy released its UNMANNED Campaign Framework.

The Framework said that “autonomous systems provide additional warfighting capability and capacity to augment our traditional combatant force, allowing the option to take on greater operational risk while maintaining a tactical and strategic advantage.”

Arguing that “unmanned systems will increase lethality, capacity, survivability, operational tempo, deterrence, and operational readiness,” it described the Navy’s vision as to “make unmanned systems a trusted and sustainable part of the naval force structure, integrated at speed to provide lethal, survivable, and scalable effects in support of the future maritime mission.”

In his introductory message to this Framework, US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, explained: “Unmanned Systems have and will continue to play a crucial part in future Distributed Maritime Operations, and there is a clear need to field affordable, lethal, scalable, and connected capabilities.

“A hybrid fleet will be necessary for the Navy to meet emerging security concerns. We need platforms to simultaneously deliver lethal and non-lethal effects in all domains across multiple axes. Unmanned systems will provide added capacity in our Future Fleet—in the air, on the surface, and under the water.”

In July 2022, the US Navy released “NAVPLAN 2022” and “Force Design 2045,” with both calling for a “hybrid fleet” of 373 manned ships and 150 large, unmanned surface and subsurface platforms.

In fact, “Force Design 2045” notes: “Unmanned surface and subsurface platforms to increase the fleet’s capacity for distribution; expand our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance advantage; add depth to our missile magazines; supplement logistics; and enhance fleet survivability.

“This transition will rebalance the fleet from exquisite, manpower-intensive platforms toward smaller, less expensive, yet lethal ones.”

Going by a study by the US Naval Institute released this month, the Navy intends to go all-in on unmanned maritime vehicles and field a hybrid force of manned and unmanned systems that has every chance to succeed with the bipartisan support it has got in the US Congress. 

“Over the past three years, beginning with the 2021 appropriations bill and extending to the just-enacted 2023 legislation, the total amount of funding for naval shipbuilding has increased each year at the congressional direction. One can argue that Congress is driving this increase and not the Navy, but in the final analysis, more investment is going into constructing the future fleet.

“In the 2021 budget, Congress appropriated $23.3 billion, compared with the requested amount of $19.9 billion. In 2022, Congress added $4.71 billion to the Navy’s $22.5 billion request. The just-enacted 2023 budget provides $31.9 billion for shipbuilding—a $4 billion increase.

“The funding being invested in naval shipbuilding is increasing dramatically. The fiscal year (FY) 2023 total is $12 billion, higher than the $19.9 billion the Navy requested three years ago. That equates to a 37.6 percent increase in funding for shipbuilding since 2021.”

In this increased budget, Congress explicitly mentions the importance of unmanned systems for the Navy.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy, on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at)
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: