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US Navy’s ‘Ghost Fleet’ Reaches Japan Amid Growing Tensions With China; Experts Call It ‘Rare Visit’

In what has been touted as a rare visit, the latest drone boats from the US Navy, the USV Mariner, and the LUSV Ranger, made a port call at Yokosuka in the Kanagawa Prefecture recently. Yokosuka is the headquarters of the US Seventh Fleet.

Of the two unmanned surface vehicles, which form the backbone of the US Navy’s Ghost Fleet Overlord, the Mariner was reportedly seen with a dark blue exterior on the lower half of the hull, while the Ranger was seen with a gray hull.

The arrival of these drone boats in Japan comes after the second multi-domain unmanned capabilities exercise for the US Pacific Fleet, based in Hawaii, which started on May 1, 2023.

The exercise, known as Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem (UxS IBP) 23.1, was a tactical warfighting rehearsal event aimed at testing and developing fleet-centric concepts and capabilities.

Later, in August, four unmanned surface fleets of the US Navy — the Mariner, Ranger, Sea Hunter, and Seahawk — were spotted sailing to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The increased participation of these drone boats in military drills demonstrates their utility in future warfighting and their strategic importance.

The United States has a host of military bases and a considerable military presence in Japan. US Navy’s aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, remains the country’s sole forward-deployed carrier and is stationed in Yokosuka. However, despite a significant overall naval presence, drone boats appearing is not an everyday event.

The USVs of the US Navy are a part of Ghost Fleet Overlord, a program for prototyping multi-mission unmanned vessels that was started in 2018. Ghost Fleet Overlord is a program of the Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office being executed in partnership with the US Navy.

According to reports, these vessels have a cargo-carrying capability of two 20-foot and four 40-foot containers. Still, the containers frequently have extra systems and sensors crucial to the vessel’s operation.

The two drone boats also have an Aegis combat system from Lockheed Martin and can connect with other Aegis ships in the fleet. The US Navy has test-fired SM-6 interceptor missiles from these drone boats. The Ranger was the first vessel delivered to the Navy under the program, while the Mariner was the third and was inducted in August 2022.

Earlier, US Navy officials stated last year that even though the service now refuels the USVs with people inside, it intends to conduct a refueling test in 2023 to assess how well it can operate without a human in the loop.

“Now we can take two of our USVs and go out and do multi-vessel [operations] and control and not necessarily have to take a DDG off of actual fleet operations to go to that,” Rear Adm. Casey Moton, the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, told reporters.

drone boat
US Navy Drone Boat

The arrival of these USVs in Japan was hailed as a relatively rare and intriguing development by military watchers, especially amid rising regional tensions. The news also corresponds with Taiwan disclosing that about 103 Chinese warplanes flew towards the island on September 18, at a new daily high. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) also urged Beijing to stop “military harassment.”

It is believed that any conflict fought over Taiwan would inadvertently drag Japan due to its proximity to Taipei. To bolster its capability at sea against adversaries like China, the US Navy is working on a plan that requires the service to field manned-unmanned sea systems over the next decade, which would release weapons and fire missiles without onboard human engagement.

USVs Would Be Vital In A Conflict Against China

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 reality, the US Navy has been promoting the idea of “a hybrid fleet” made up of manned and unmanned ships and planes throughout recent major exercises in which it has taken part. The USVs produced under the Ghost Fleet Overlord program have been deployed in drills like the RIMPAC 2022.

In May 2022, the US Navy established the 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.

Deploying unmanned technologies to hybridize the Navy has some financial implications. The national exchequer feels the pinch of losing manned vessels, particularly the carriers because they are too expensive. However, the USVs are easier to operate and way cheaper to build than manned frigates and carriers.

USN’s Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV) and Ghost Fleet Overlord are components of broader ideas like Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), developed to compete with China in the western Pacific.

With the deployment of these USVs, large destroyers and frigates can be freed up for larger, more complex missions by using moderately sized semi-autonomous platforms for regular naval tasks like anti-submarine warfare (ASW), amphibious landing, littoral combat support, and limited land-attack, anti-ship, and air defense capabilities.

The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) long-range anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) missiles undoubtedly constitute a significant threat to the US military by prohibiting it from ever approaching Chinese coastlines. Therefore, the US strategy would likely hinge on dispersing, coming, and striking China inside its A2/AD bubble. The use of USVs would make that function easier.

Even more broadly, USVs are anticipated to function by ideas from other services like the Expeditionary Advanced Base of Operations (EABO) and USMC Force Design-2030.

Small, agile, and hard-to-detect Marine units on islands of friendly countries like Japan and the Philippines could be entrusted with undertaking anti-shipping fire on the Chinese Navy’s armadas in the East and South China Seas. The arrival of these USVs in Japan, thus, would be keenly watched.

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