Surface Forces: Use of Unmanned Ships Grows

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February 1, 2024: The U.S. Navy has sent more crewless ships to sea. Recent fleet exercises in the Pacific featured the use of four new USVs (Unmanned Surface Vessels) for what the navy calls Ghost Fleet Overload. During the exercises the four USVs travelled 82,000 kilometers. This meant to test the accuracy, reliability, and durability of the USVs navigation systems. A shore-based facility and another aboard a destroyer at sea controlled and monitored the USVs.

The navy is monitoring three aspects of the UAVS to see what changes or improvements are needed. First, the autonomous systems on the vessels are monitored. Then there are the command-and-control communications links, and finally how the hull, mechanical and engineering systems operate.

It was discovered that the USVs could operate for about two weeks at a time without human intervention to troubleshoot in one of the three system categories. As a precaution some civilian mariners were aboard each USV to shut down any system that malfunctioned. These onboard personnel had to shut down autonomous systems on these USVs 13 times as a precaution and for safety reasons. Only six of those shutdowns were about how well the autonomous systems were controlling the ship. The other shutdowns because of rough seas or suspicion that one off the hip systems was about to malfunction. These shutdowns occurred about once every five or six weeks. The navy is also working on how to carry about repairs while the USVs are at sea.

Meanwhile, since 2023 the Navy has wanted its Persian Gulf allies to cooperate in using more USVs to increase security in the Gulf, especially the entrance at the Strait of Hormuz. There is certainly a need for more security because in 2023 Iran used commandos landed by helicopter to seize two oil tankers and hold them hostage off the Iranian coast. The larcenous Iranians have also been known to hijack USVs. To better monitor Iranian mischief, the Americans have already deployed fifty USVs in the Gulf and want its Gulf allies to add more of their own. The American USVs are unarmed models like the DriX and Saildrone. Both have long endurance and lots of sensors.

The Americans have been developing new USVs and putting them to work in the Gulf for over a decade. For example, in 2009 the U.S. Navy developed a new USV from scratch as a USV, rather than the previous method that used existing small boats adapting to be operated under remote control or autonomously. An example of this was the flat-bottomed AMN 1 which operates in shallow coastal waters and rivers. The navy developed navigation software for tricky situations, like using a laser-based lidar that could detect a bridge as something it can go under, and not an obstacle to be avoided or go around. AMN 1 was equipped with most of the equipment that current USVs have been successful with.

Over a decade ago USVs like the Israeli Protector and the American Spartan Scout were being used to patrol coastal and port areas like the Gaza coast, waters around the Lebanese border and the Iraqi coast. These USVs were basically 4–8-ton, 11-meter speed boats equipped with radar, GPS and video cameras, and armed with remotely controlled 12.7mm machine-guns that had night vision and a laser rangefinder. There is also a public address system to give orders to boats that should not be there. These USVs were used for over a decade. They can be controlled from an operator ashore, or in a nearby ship, usually out to the horizon or at least 10-20 kilometers distant. They can stay out 8-48 hours at a time, depending on how much high-speed movement is used. The one big shortcoming is that they are built for speed, not rough seas. When the weather turns bad, and the waves get higher, they have to be brought in.

Spartan Scout was particularly useful when it got its first tryout in the Persian Gulf during late 2003. There were lots of small boats moving about, some of them up to no good. An Arab linguist on the mothership was able to interrogate suspicious boats the Spartan Scout ran down. The civilian sailors were somewhat taken aback when they were interrogated by this Arab speaking boat that had no one aboard. The Spartan Scout was developed primarily to work with some naval vessels that operated mainly along coasts, but soon every ship now wanted one or more of them, just for port security, and especially in areas like the Persian Gulf.

With all that in mind it seems like a good idea to use more USVs in the Gulf. Not all the Gulf Arabs are eager to do this and would rather invest in more manned warships. Iranians consider such warships targets for their attacks. The Americans point out that the USVs operate 24/7 and in all sorts of bad weather. They transmit video and radar data back to a land or sea based control center, providing wide coverage of who is doing what throughout the Gulf. The Iranians consider this harassment while the Arabs and their Western allies consider that reaction a sign that all those USVs are getting the job done.

 

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