A Concept of Operations for the U.S. Navy’s Hybrid Fleet

By Captain George Galdorisi, U.S. Navy (ret.)

Generational Change for the U.S. Navy

In an address at a military-industry conference, then-Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, revealed the Navy’s goal to reach 500 ships by adding approximately 150 unmanned maritime vehicles to the Navy’s inventory. This concept added additional granularity to the Navy’s UNMANNED Campaign Framework and culminated in the issuance of the Chief of Naval Operations NAVPLAN and Force Design 2045, both of which call for 350 manned ships and 150 large unmanned maritime vehicles. 

Most recently, at the annual U.S. Naval Institute/Armed Forces and Communications and Electronic Association “West” Symposium, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Lisa Franchetti, reaffirmed the U.S. Navy’s commitment to a future force of 350 manned ships and 150 large unmanned maritime vehicles as an important initiative in the face of a rapidly growing Chinese Navy.1

While the composition of the future U.S. Navy crewed vessels is relatively well understood—based on ships being built and being planned—what those unmanned maritime vehicles will look like, let alone what they will do—remains opaque to most observers. This uncertainty slows progress on the aspirations detailed in the UNMANNED Campaign Framework.

Additionally, Congress demonstrated increasing reluctance to authorize the Navy’s planned investment of billions of dollars on unmanned surface vessels (USVs) until the Naval Service develops a concept-of-operations (CONOPS) for use. Fairly, Congress has a point. The Navy announced plans to procure large numbers of unmanned systems, especially large and medium unmanned surface vehicles without a CONOPS. Until the Navy can develop such a CONOPS, it is unlikely that a 500-ship fleet populated by 150 unmanned surface vehicles will reach fruition.

The Navy’s Commitment to Unmanned Surface Vehicles: A Bridge to the Navy-After-Next

Many, to include U.S. Congress, encouraged the Navy to increase the number of ships it fields but with little to no increase in funding to do so. This is further exacerbated by the increasing cost to build ships, the cost to man these vessels, and the high operational tempo of ship deployments. This issues compound into a sustainability crunch where the Navy is literally wearing these ships out more rapidly than planned to meet the increasing demands of U.S. Combatant Commanders. From the resultant vector of these issues, it is easy to see why the Navy has difficulty growing the number of manned surface vessels.2

However, the rapid growth of the technologies that make unmanned surface vehicles increasingly capable and affordable provide the Navy with a way forward to put more hulls in the water. This led to the Navy’s commitment to field a force comprised of 150 large and medium unmanned surface vehicles.3 That said, some have noted that the Navy’s UNMANNED Campaign Framework is high on aspiration but low on specifics.4 Said another way, this vision is good as far as it goes, but the Navy has endured withering criticism from a skeptical Congress that is not warm to the Service spending billions of dollars on USVs until the Navy can come up with a concept-of-operations for using them.

Congressional Concerns over the Navy’s Plans for Unmanned Surface Vehicles

Few Navy procurement initiatives have been the subject of as much scrutiny—from Congress as well as defense analysts—as the Service’s plans for unmanned surface vehicles. A Jane’s Defense report noted: “U.S. lawmakers have balked at the service’s efforts to shift money from legacy ship programs toward proposed unmanned ones—in part because the USN has yet to develop a track record in the development of unmanned systems.5

Another article in a defense publication reported Congressional concerns that stated, “The Navy has yet to produce a concept of operations or even a coherent public strategy to back up the investments they want to make. Further, Congress is wary of appropriating money for platforms that rely on technologies that haven’t been fully developed yet.”6

As the Navy looks to allay Congressional concerns and accelerate the fielding of unmanned maritime systems, the emphasis should be on no longer thinking of each unmanned maritime system as a “one-of,” but rather, to package these together as multiple-sized and function vehicles designed for specific missions.7

A Concept of Operations for Getting Unmanned Surface Vessels to the Fight

The concept of operations proposed is to marry various size unmanned surface, subsurface and aerial unmanned vehicles to perform missions that the U.S. Navy has—and will continue to have—as the Navy-After-Next evolves. Simply put, the Navy can use the evolving large, unmanned surface vehicle as a “truck” to move smaller USVs, UUVs and UAVs into the battle space in the contested littoral and expeditionary environment.

While there is a plethora of important Navy missions, the proposed integrated unmanned solution combination of unmanned platforms focuses on two aspects: intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and mine countermeasures (MCM). There are many large, medium, small, and ultra-small unmanned systems ready to be adopted for these missions.

Rather than speaking in hypotheticals as to how unmanned vehicles might be employed for these two missions, this article will offer concrete examples, using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) unmanned systems that have been employed in recent Navy and Marine Corps events. In each case, these systems not only demonstrated mission accomplishment, but also the hull, mechanical and electrical (HME) attributes and maturity that Congress demands.

While there are a wide range of medium unmanned surface vehicles (MUSVs) that can potentially meet the U.S. Navy’s needs, there are three unmanned surface vehicles that appear to be furthest along in the development cycle and that have been featured in numerous Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments and demonstrations.8 These MUSVs cover a wide range of sizes, hull types and capabilities:

  • The Textron Common Unmanned Surface Vessel (CUSV), now used by the Navy as the MCM-USV, features a single hull coupled with a modular and open architecture design.
  • The Maritime Tactical Systems Inc. (MARTAC), unmanned surface vehicles (USV) include the MANTAS T12 and the Devil Ray T18, T24 and T38 craft are catamarans that feature two hulls on both sides of the vessel. These USVs feature a modular and open architecture design.
  • The Leidos Sea Hunter, and its sister ship, Sea Hawk, are the largest of the three. The Sea Hunter is a 132-foot-long trimaran that features a central hull with two outriggers.

All three are viable candidates to be part of an integrated unmanned solution CONOPS. The MANTAS and Devil Ray craft are viable candidates for this CONOPS for several reasons. First, these vessels come in varied sizes with the same HME and command and control attributes. Second, Sea Hunter is too large to fit into the LUSVs the Navy is considering. Third, the CUSV is the MUSV of choice for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Mine-Countermeasures Mission Package, and all CUSVs scheduled to be procured are committed to this program.

The MANTAS and Devil Ray are COTS MUSVs that the Navy has wrung out in exercises, experiments, and demonstrations over the past several years, including operations with Navy Task Force 59.9 These have been married together to show Congress and others that the Navy does, indeed, have an effective way to use these platforms operationally.10

Most recently, and directly supporting the Navy’s “Hybrid Fleet” vision, Task Force 59 created a subordinate command, Task Group 59.1, focused specifically on manned-unmanned teaming operations. The Navy indicated that this means it will focus on the operational deployment of unmanned systems teamed with manned platforms to bolster maritime security across the Middle East region.11 Task Force 59 Commodore, Captain Colin Corridan, explained that in recent months Task Force 59 and Task Group 59.1 have been breaking new ground by evaluating unmanned vehicles for offensive operations. He noted the successful test firing of a Miniature Aerial Missile System weapons off an unmanned MARTAC T38 Devil Ray unmanned surface vehicle with direct hits against a training target each time.12

Kinetic use of USVs like the T38 Devil Ray are gaining traction but are likely some years away from becoming part of the arsenal of worldwide fleets. What is evolving today is the urgent need to shift the burden of performing the ISR and MCM missions from expensive and overdeployed manned platforms to plentiful and attritable unmanned vehicles. Part of an evolving operational concept for employing unmanned surface vehicles involves placing them in the environment where they can perform their missions of ISR and MCM.

If the U.S. Navy wants to sustain its manned capital ships in the lead up to war, the Navy needs to surge unmanned maritime vehicles into the contested battlespace. This paradigm shift ensures risk worthy vessels operate within the range of adversary anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) platforms, systems, sensors, and weapons. Small and medium USVs, UAVs and UUVs need a “truck” to deliver them near or even in the battlespace.13 The Navy envisions that truck to be the LUSV. LUSVs will be 200 feet to 300 feet in length and have full load displacements of 1,000 tons to 2,000 tons.14

Depending on the size that is ultimately procured, the LUSV can carry several T38 Devil Ray unmanned surface vehicles and deliver them, largely covertly, to a point near the intended area of operations. The T38 can then be sent independently to perform the ISR mission, or alternatively, can launch one or more T12 MANTAS USVs to perform the ISR mission. Building on work conducted by the Navy laboratory community and sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, the T38 or T12 will have the ability to launch unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct overhead ISR.15

A T38 Devil Ray operating alongside a U.S. Coast Guard vessel. (Photo via Dave Meron)

For the MCM mission, the LUSV can deliver several T38s equipped with mine-hunting and mine-clearing systems (all of which are COTS platforms tested extensively in Navy exercises). These vessels can then undertake the “dull, dirty and dangerous” work previously conducted by Sailors who had to operate in the minefield. Given the large mine inventory of peer and near-peer adversaries, this methodology may well be the only way to clear mines safely.

This scenario and CONOPS is built around an Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) that is underway in the Western Pacific. This ESG includes three LUSVs under supervisory control from a large amphibious ship. The then-Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, suggested this CONOPS in 2022 when he noted that he: “Wants to begin to deploy large and medium-sized unmanned vessels as part of carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups in 2027 or 2028, and earlier if I can.”16

Vignette for an Integrated Unmanned Solution Mission:

The ESG in the Western Pacific is on routine patrol five hundred nautical miles from the nearest landfall. An incident occurs in their operating area and the ESG is requested to: (1) obtain reconnaissance of a near-shore littoral area, associated bays and river accesses and (2) determine if the entrance to a specific bay has been mined to prevent ingress. The littoral coastline covers two hundred nautical miles. This area must be reconnoitered within twenty-four hours without the use of air assets.

Command staff dispatches three LUSVs for the request mission. Two LUSVs are each configured with four T38-ISR craft and the third LUSV is configured with four T38-MCM vessels. The three LUSV depart the strike group steaming together in a preset autonomous pattern to a waypoint that is central to the ISR scan area. At this waypoint, the LUSV will stop and dispatch the smaller T38 craft and then wait at this location for their return.

Two T38-ISR craft are launched from each of the two LUSVs carrying the ISR craft. The autonomous mission previously downloaded specifies a waypoint location along the coast for each of the four craft. Each of the four T38 craft will have a geographically confined ISR mission to cover.

Two T38-MCM craft are launched from the third LUSV. The autonomous mission previously downloaded has them transit independently along different routes to two independent waypoints just offshore of the suspected mine presence area where they will commence mine-like object detection operations. In this manner, each of the six craft will be transiting independently and autonomously to their next waypoint which will be the mission execution start point.

The objective is for each of the T38-ISR craft to complete their ISR scan and for the two T38-MCM craft to jointly scan the bottom and the water column for the presence of mine-like objects.

Even with the Expeditionary Strike Group well outside of littoral waters, the ESG Commander will have the results of the ISR and MCM scan of the shoreline littoral area after dispatching the LUSVs. The LUSVs then return to the ESG, ready for the next mission. 

Moving Forward with Effective Unmanned Surface Vehicle Deployment

As noted earlier, the Navy envisions large and medium unmanned vessels as part of carrier strike groups and expeditionary strike groups later this decade. The goal is to take an evolutionary approach and to scale up unmanned surface vessels in order to have large numbers of USVs available to commanders.17 This nested doll approach can accelerate this effort.

This is not a platform-specific solution, but rather a concept. When fleet operators see a capability with different size unmanned COTS platforms in the water working together and successfully performing the missions presented in this article, they will likely press industry to produce even more-capable platforms to perform these missions.

While evolutionary in nature, this disruptive capability delivered using emerging technologies can provide the U.S. Navy with near-term solutions to vexing operational challenges, while demonstrating to a skeptical Congress that the Navy does have a concept-of-operations to employ the unmanned systems it wants to procure.

Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator and national security professional. His 30-year career as a naval aviator culminated in 14 years of consecutive service as executive officer, commanding officer, commodore, and chief of staff. He enjoys writing, especially speculative fiction about the future of warfare. He is the author of 18 books, including four consecutive New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, published by the U.S. Naval Institute, is Algorithms of Armageddon: The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Future Wars.


1. Patrick Tucker and Lauren Williams, “Navy Robot Ships on a 15-year Path to Operating At Speed and Scale,” CNO says,” Defense One, February 13, 2024.

2. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Adds ‘Wholeness Balance Reviews’ to Budget Process to Consider Total Ownership Costs,” USNI News, January 18, 2018.

3. See, for example, Chief of Naval Operations NAVPLAN 2022 (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, July 2022), Sam Lagrone and Mallory Shelbourne, “CNO Gilday: ‘We Need a Naval Force of Over 500 Ships’” USNI News, February 18, 2022, and Sam Lagrone, “Navy’s Force Design 2045 Plans for 373 Ship Fleet, 150 Unmanned Vessels,” USNI News, July 26, 2022.

4. Department of the Navy UNMANNED Campaign Framework (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, March 2021). See, David Larter, “U.S. Navy’s New Unmanned Plan Has ‘Buzzwords and Platitudes’ But Few Answers,” Defense News, March 17, 2021.

5. Michael Fabey, “Unmanned market: U.S. Navy Looks to Tap Existing Technology to Jump Start Autonomous Fleet Plans,” Jane’s Navy International, March 16, 2021.

6. David Larter, “The Pentagon Wants to Forge Ahead with Robot Warships, But Congress Wants To Slow The Train,” Defense News, June 19, 2020.

7. Tim Galladuet, “Three Ways the Navy Can Surge Its Unmanned Surface Force,” Real Clear Defense, February 26, 2022. The author, the former Deputy Administrator of NOAA, emphasizes the importance of multiple vehicle integration, a key attribute behind this concept of operations.

8. Megan Eckstein, “U.S. Navy More Certain of Role for Medium Surface Drones Following Tests,” Defense News, January 12, 2023.

9. Aaron-Matthew Lariosa, “US Navy Highlights TF 59 Contributions to Fleet’s Unmanned Vision,” Naval News, January 23, 2023

10. U.H. “Jack” Rowley, “Integrating Unmanned Surface Vehicles into the Surface Fleet: The Case for a “Nesting Dolls” Approach,” Paper presented at the American Society of Naval Engineers 2021 Virtual Technology, Systems and Ships Symposium, January 26-28, 2021.

11. Agnes Helou, “Commander: Navy’s new Task Group 59.1 to Usher Unmanned Systems into Operational Realm,” Breaking Defense, January 19, 2024.

12. Rich Abott, “5th Fleet Unmanned Unit Starts New Hybrid Task Group,” Defense Daily, January 13, 2024.

13. Some of the Congressional criticism of the Navy’s plans for is unmanned surface vehicles is the fact that the Navy has (honestly) admitted that initially its large unmanned surface vehicles will actually be manned, albeit with a small crew. See, for example, Sam Lagrone, “Navy: Large USV Will Require Small Crews for the Next Several Years,” USNI News, August 3, 2021. Operating large unmanned surface vehicles as part of a carrier or expeditionary strike group could obviate the need for this crew, as sailors could be flown from CSG or ESG ships to the LUSV to perform needed functions, especially emergent repairs, and then return to their parent ship(s).

14. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress – CRS Report 45757.

15. See Vladimir Djapic et al, “Heterogeneous Autonomous Mobile Maritime Expeditionary Robots and Maritime Information Dominance,” Naval Engineers Journal, December 2014 for a description of how an unmanned surface vehicle can launch unmanned underwater vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles. 

16. Bradley Peniston, “Navy Chief Sees Robot Ships Alongside Aircraft Carriers Within Five Years,” Defense One, February 16, 2022. See also, Sam LaGrone, “CNO Gilday Taking a More ‘Realistic’ Approach to Unmanned Systems in the Fleet,” USNI News, February 16, 2022.

17. Justin Katz, “From 7 Classified ‘Spirals’ to Coming Robotic Ships: Gilday on Navy’s Unmanned Task Force,” Breaking Defense, February 17, 2022. See also, Megan Eckstein, “Unmanned or Minimally Manned Vessels Could Deploy Alongside Strike Groups as Soon as 2027,” Defense News, February 17, 2022.

Featured Image: A T38 Devil Ray unmanned system. (Photo via Dave Meron)

6 thoughts on “A Concept of Operations for the U.S. Navy’s Hybrid Fleet”

  1. We have been down this road before. CUSV/MANTAS/Devil Ray will have many uses, but they are not MUSVs per the definition being pursued by the USN. The Navy has hundreds of armed boats this size or bigger already and no one would ever count them in the battle force. There was plenty of debate in counting he PCs in the battle force. The Overlord ships/MUSV prototype displace significantly more than the PCs and will probably be a threshold size for the battle force.

    Additionally, LUSV is being defined for its strike and anti surface weapons payload. The modularity aspect has not mentioned deploying unmanned boats of size from an unmanned ship. That suggestion misses the practical complexity of retrieving and securing the boat, let alone refueling it.

    What is described here is really no more detailed a CONOPS than what he Navy has indicated in their programs of record. My basis for a fairly complete CONOPS was the OPC CONOPS document. ( https://www.information-safety.org/assets/CONOPS_RFPRelease.pdf ) I can’ say I have seen a similar document for Navy programs, just requirements and KPIs in RFI/RFP/SAR.

    For these smaller boats like CUSV, we have seen several example mattings of payload for potential missions. Hellfire, Remote Weapons Stations, and loitering munitions. I think one of the big misses is the ability for these boats to stay out there and drift or pursue a target longer than a helo. The exchange is in speed. Stick the MH-60R dipping sonar on these boats and possibly some sonobuoys so as o safely hunt SSKs in the littoral. I don’ think boats this size will have the power supply to do much jamming, spoofing, or seducing electronically for extended periods.

    The big concept the Navy may or may not be catching onto is that these ships could be the rearming and massing of long range fires solution that is so desperately needed. We no longer have to waste days putting manned combatants pier side to reload. Keep the AAW loadout with the VLS for fast 360 degree shooting from he radar / manned platform. Let the strike missile come up fast via MUSV/LUSV ferrying Mk 70 container launchers. They can be preloaded 4 cells at a time in port and then unloaded and reloaded as fast as any container in a container port. The integration into the ship can be done by a skeleton crew while exiting the port. They can hop off onto the pilot boat when hey are done. These ships should also be able to support limited remote self defense. SEWIP tied into SRBOC or NULKA. Potentially some remote weapons stations depending on threat level.

    One final note. In my personal opinion, it appears the author has consistently written pieces aimed at promoting Martac products and seems consistent wit the the Martac version of facts for the MUSV program which has previously made it to this publication.

  2. Galdorisi is one of the cutting edge thinkers on maritime autonomous systems. One of the key challenges facing these systems being adopted is simply that they are not capital ships and you can’t get promoted commanding them. They can be assigned missions to execute; there capabilities can allow for simplier ship design for capital ships so that external capabilities not on the ship can be controlled by that ship. Some navies are moving ahead with such a concept such as by Singapore.

  3. Autonomous naval vehicles are an expanding yet still emerging and niche part of the maritime sector that requires critical discourse to further develop. Very few people engage outside their own platforms let alone their own community. We’re all biased in our approach and while MARTAC is referenced in the article, it serves as a heuristic point of departure to inspire the development of the emerging CONOPS. Demonstrated and effective USVs should be rightfully referenced.

    Unmanned is coming, and it’s coming quick. The more articles that flesh out the concept of operations as well as comments like this allow the flow of critical dialog and ideas. The fact that the article states ideas that have already been stated before isn’t a reflection that this article lacks merit, but actually the opposite – the merit of the idea inspired a line of articles with many authors in agreement.

    The VLS magazine depth could be supplemented by autonomous rearming vessels. Rearming VLS in port is a massive undertaking let alone at sea. Will destroyers and Constellation class frigates develop the future capability for autonomous VLS delivery at sea? Maybe, but the VLS arriving at the location is only the tip of the iceberg. Loading it into the cell is a whole other story. Once again, thanks for your comment and the mental though exercise.

  4. George Galdorisi offers a very reasonable and well thought out approach to UV utilization–particularly in developing a UV truck that can move the smaller sensors into an operational theater. UVs are not effective if one cannot get them on station; and getting them on station in a conflict against a capable enemy is so much more difficult than flying Predator over Afghanistan where the enemy cannot destroy them. Getting them on station is a problem overlooked by many UV proponents… Galdorisi recognizes that.

  5. Unmanned Autonomous Vessels are here to stay. Whether it is LUSV, MUSV, SUSV, or any other variant. Combinations of these classes of vessels allow for situational awareness and corresponding distributed lethality. Interoperability with their aerial and subsea counterparts makes for a powerful deterrent. Utilizing assets that keep warfighters out of harm’s way is the ultimate goal. Vessels are expendable, people are not. Our adversaries are moving fast and cheap. The US is driven by the Military Industrial Complex which has benefits, but is costly and slow. Large quantities of smaller assets can change the outcome. Witness multiple examples in nature to see just how effective this can be . CONOPS will morph and reflect best solutions as they arise. One item we see first hand is most do not think “Autonmous”. They think manned CONOPS and then mentally remove personnel. Autonomous CONOPS can be much more than that. Technology is changing the world, we can either embrace it or fight it, but it is happening. Let’s do our best to keep things safe. Unmanned can help.

  6. It is not a stretch to say, in fact an imperative I’d say, to accelerate the deployment of USVs alongside our surface combatants. Deployments within a CSG or ESG, or with independent deployers, should not be thought of only for LUSVs, but for open ocean capable smaller USVs as well. USVs operating in this capacity will one day be just another tactical asset for the DDG Commanding Officer, for example, to employ; no different than today’s embarked helos. But the Fleet Commanders that certify our ships for deployment need to have these USV assets under their control starting now to begin using them throughout the work-up cycles, as both blue and red forces. Getting comfortable with USVs in this way will not only tease even better CONOPS but will accelerate adoption by the warfighters.

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