Unmanned Systems

High-Tech Unmanned Surface Vessels Will Change Amphibious Warfare


The Pentagon is developing high-tech, removable “kits” for use with unmanned surface boats or vehicles that are designed to change amphibious warfare by offering new capabilities such as  delivering combat-relevant supplies, firing weapons, refueling ships, searching for enemy submarines and dispersing attacking forces to minimize risk from enemy fire.

A key advantage of using remotely-controlled drone ships is that, quite naturally, they can save sailors and marines from being exposed to enemy fire during an attack operation.

The project, now advancing through a Science & Technology effort led by the Pentagon’s once-secret Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), brings the possibility of using drones to  improve amphibious assault tactics and procedures, Dr. William Roper, Director of the SCO, said at a briefing. The SCO is a special DoD-level effort to integrate, harness, and leverage near-term emerging technology for faster delivery to combatant commanders.

 Different mission kits are being developed for a variety of mission applications, allowing unmanned ships to perform a wide range of tasks currently performed by manned vessels. The kits are exchangeable so that ships can be operated as both manned and unmanned systems, Roper added.

 “This can greatly help expeditionary logistics for a ship that is standing off from the shore. Instead of having to use an amphib manned by a lot of people, you have an unmanned boat supply boat,” he said.

Much of this involves merging new platforms, weapons and technologies with existing systems in a manner that both improves capability while circumventing a lengthy and often bureaucratic formal acquisition process, Roper explained.

 Fast-moving Unmanned Surface Vessels could indeed lower risk and increase efficiency for a large number of missions, to include Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), countermine operations, search and rescue, electronic warfare, supply and weapons transport and amphibious assaults.

Higher tech enemy sensors and longer range surface and land-fired weapons have drastically increased the vulnerability of approaching amphibious assault operations, making them more susceptible to enemy fire; as a result, the Navy and Marines have been evolving amphibious tactics to include more dis-aggregated approaches designed to spread out an approaching force – making it more difficult for enemy weapons to attack an advancing assault.
 “Instead of having to land as a single unit, they can now break out. There is safety in numbers and they can re-distribute,” Roper explained.  

When it comes to offensive surface operations, unmanned boats could form a swarm of small attack craft designed to overwhelm and destroy enemy ships with gunfire, explosives or even small missiles.

Roper explained that this strategic and tactical trajectory is greatly enhanced by the possible use of USVs. The Navy’s current inventory includes ship-to-shore amphibious craft called Landing Craft Air Cushions, LCACs, and Landing Craft Utility Vehicles, LCUs; these platforms, now being upgraded by newer transport boats able to move faster and carry more payload (such as Abrams tanks), are manned and therefore involve the use of a crew. LCACs require a crew of 13 and LCACs use a crew of 5. New high-tech LCAC replacements, called Ship-to-Shore Connectors, are already being developed and delivered to the Navy by Textron.

 Meanwhile, the Navy is also developing refueling Unmanned Surface Vehicles that are launched and recovered from a host ship. A refueling and data transfer system that is remote from the host ship and in proximity to the USV operating area will allow a substantially greater portion of a Navy USVs’ endurance to be spent on performing key missions. Manned ships can therefore zero-in on high-priority missions while leaving USVs to take care of non-mission activities associated with refueling, including transiting to and from the host ship and being deployed and recovered on the host ship.

This initiative represents a portion of the execution or operational manifestation of a 2007 service roadmap called “The Navy Unmanned Surface Vehicle Master Plan,” which calls for the eventual combat deployment of a broad range of USVs  for countermine missions, surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, Special Operations support and electronic warfare.

About the Author

Kris Osborn is a former editor of Defense Systems.

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