Category Archives: Drones/Unmanned

The Strategic Impact Of Military Drone Proliferation On Indo-Pacific Maritime Security

By Commander A. P. Amila Prasanga, Sri Lanka Navy


The rapid proliferation of military drones in the Indo-Pacific region has become a crucial feature of contemporary maritime security dynamics. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, have revolutionized the way naval operations are conducted, presenting both challenges and opportunities for regional security. Understanding the strategic impact of this technological advancement is essential for shaping effective policies, strategies, and operational concepts in the Indo-Pacific region.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the deployment and utilization of military drones across the Indo-Pacific region. Various countries in the region have invested heavily in developing and acquiring these unmanned systems, aiming to bolster their defense capabilities and gain a competitive edge in the maritime domain. This proliferation has resulted in a diverse range of drone technologies and capabilities being deployed in the region, transforming the strategic landscape.

The strategic implications of military drone proliferation in the Indo-Pacific region cannot be underestimated. Drones have reshaped traditional naval operations, offering advanced surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike capabilities. Their ability to operate in contested areas, gather real-time intelligence, and project power with minimal risk to human lives has fundamentally altered the dynamics of maritime security. Understanding the strategic impact of drone proliferation is vital for assessing regional power balances, potential conflicts, and cooperative security efforts.

This comprehensive analysis aims to unveil the strategic impact of military drone proliferation on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region. Through a combination of in-depth research and empirical analysis, this paper seeks to achieve several objectives. First, it assesses the current landscape of military drone proliferation in the Indo-Pacific, including the types of drones deployed and the countries involved. Second, it explores the strategic implications of drone proliferation on maritime security, investigating shifts in naval doctrines, force projection strategies, and asymmetric warfare dynamics. Furthermore, the study examines the challenges and opportunities for Indo-Pacific navies in integrating drones into their operational frameworks. Finally, it provides actionable recommendations for policymakers and military leaders to effectively respond to the strategic impact of drone proliferation. By shedding light on the complex interplay between drone technology and maritime security, this study aims to contribute to a better understanding of the evolving regional security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific.

Overview of Military Drones in the Indo-Pacific Region

The Indo-Pacific region has witnessed a significant diversification in the types and capabilities of military drones deployed by various countries. These UAS encompass a wide range of platforms, including reconnaissance drones, combat drones, and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). These drones possess varying capabilities such as long-range surveillance, real-time data gathering, target identification, precision strikes, and electronic warfare capabilities. Some advanced drones even feature autonomous capabilities and stealth technology, further enhancing their effectiveness in the maritime domain.

Several major countries in the Indo-Pacific region have been actively engaged in the proliferation of military drones. These include regional powers such as China, the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. Each country has its unique motivations for drone development and deployment. China, for instance, has focused on expanding its regional influence and protecting its maritime interests, while the United States has aimed to maintain its naval supremacy and support its allies. India, Japan, and Australia have sought to enhance their maritime capabilities and bolster their strategic postures in the region.

The deployment of military drones in maritime operations in the Indo-Pacific region has witnessed notable trends and patterns. Countries have increasingly utilized drones for surveillance and reconnaissance missions to gather intelligence, monitor maritime activities, and safeguard territorial waters. Additionally, drones have been employed for maritime domain awareness, border surveillance, anti-piracy operations, and maritime interdiction. The integration of drones into naval task forces and their coordination with other assets, such as surface vessels and submarines, has become more prevalent. Furthermore, there is an increasing emphasis on the development of swarming capabilities, enabling multiple drones to operate collaboratively and autonomously, which has the potential to significantly impact future maritime operations.

Understanding the types, capabilities, and motivations behind military drone proliferation in the Indo-Pacific region is essential to comprehend the evolving dynamics of maritime security. Analyzing current trends and patterns of drone deployment provides valuable insights into the changing strategies and capabilities of regional actors. This knowledge serves as a foundation for assessing the strategic implications and potential challenges posed by the increased utilization of military drones in the Indo-Pacific maritime domain.

Strategic Implications of Drone Proliferation on Maritime Security

The proliferation of military drones in the Indo-Pacific region has necessitated significant shifts in naval doctrines and operational concepts. Traditional naval strategies are being reevaluated and modified to incorporate the capabilities offered by drones. This includes the development of new concepts of operations (CONOPS) that maximize the advantages of drones in intelligence gathering, surveillance, and strike missions. Navies are increasingly integrating drones into their operational frameworks, redefining the roles and responsibilities of naval assets and personnel.

One of the most significant strategic implications of drone proliferation is the enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities they provide. Drones equipped with advanced sensors and imaging systems can gather real-time data, monitor maritime activities, and detect potential threats with a high level of precision. This enables naval forces to maintain a comprehensive situational awareness, identify potential risks, and make informed decisions in a timely manner. The integration of drones into ISR operations has significantly expanded the coverage and effectiveness of maritime surveillance, enhancing overall maritime security.

The integration of drones in maritime security has also impacted traditional naval assets and force projection strategies. Naval forces are adapting to the changing strategic landscape by incorporating drones as force multipliers, allowing for more efficient and flexible operations. Drones can extend the reach of naval assets, provide a persistent presence in contested areas, and contribute to deterrence efforts. This shift in force projection strategies has led to a reevaluation of the size, composition, and capabilities of naval fleets. 

The proliferation of military drones in the Indo-Pacific region presents both challenges and opportunities for naval force modernization. While drones offer numerous advantages, their integration into naval operations also brings forth challenges. These include technological limitations, training requirements for drone operators, cybersecurity concerns, and legal and ethical considerations. Additionally, the rapid advancement of drone technology necessitates continuous investment and adaptation to remain at the forefront of naval capabilities. However, successfully leveraging the opportunities presented by drone proliferation can enhance naval effectiveness, improve response capabilities, and contribute to regional maritime security.

Understanding the strategic implications of drone proliferation on maritime security is crucial for naval forces operating in the Indo-Pacific region. By adapting naval doctrines, capitalizing on enhanced ISR capabilities, reevaluating force projection strategies, and effectively addressing challenges and opportunities, navies can effectively navigate the evolving security landscape and contribute to the maintenance of regional stability.

Geopolitical Dynamics and Regional Security

The proliferation of military drones in the Indo-Pacific region has intensified competition among countries, while also fostering opportunities for cooperation. As countries invest in drone technology, there is a rivalry to develop and deploy advanced drones to gain a competitive edge. This competition has led to an increase in defense spending, technological advancements, and the pursuit of innovative operational concepts. However, the shared challenges and potential benefits of drone technology also create opportunities for cooperation. Countries may collaborate on research and development, information sharing, joint exercises, and the establishment of common standards and protocols for drone operations.

The widespread adoption of military drones in the Indo-Pacific region also has the potential to impact power dynamics and regional balance. Countries that effectively integrate and leverage drone capabilities may enhance their military effectiveness, influencing the balance of power in the region. Drones can provide a force multiplier effect, enabling smaller countries to project power and assert their interests. This could potentially lead to shifts in regional alliances, strategic alignments, and the redistribution of influence. The strategic implications of drone proliferation extend beyond the capabilities of individual countries and have implications for the broader regional security architecture.

The emergence of military drones as a critical component of maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region has significant implications for strategic partnerships and alliances. Countries that possess advanced drone capabilities may strengthen existing partnerships and alliances by providing support, sharing knowledge, and conducting joint operations. Additionally, the integration of drones into existing cooperative frameworks, such as information sharing networks, maritime security initiatives, and multilateral exercises, can enhance the effectiveness of regional security cooperation. However, differing technological capabilities and strategic interests related to drone proliferation may also create challenges in forging and sustaining partnerships and alliances.

Understanding the geopolitical dynamics and regional security implications of military drone proliferation is essential for policymakers and military leaders in the Indo-Pacific region. The competition and cooperation surrounding drone technology, its impact on power dynamics and regional balance, and the implications for strategic partnerships and alliances shape the regional security environment. By analyzing these dynamics, countries can navigate the changing landscape, assess potential risks and opportunities, and make informed decisions to maintain stability, foster cooperation, and address shared security challenges in the Indo-Pacific.

Ethical and Legal Considerations

The proliferation of military drones in the Indo-Pacific region raises ethical and legal concerns regarding targeted killings and the use of force in maritime operations. Drones equipped with precision strike capabilities have been utilized for targeted killings, raising questions about the legality and morality of such actions. The use of lethal force through drones in maritime operations requires a careful examination of legal frameworks, including international humanitarian law, human rights law, and the law of armed conflict. It is essential to establish clear guidelines and criteria for the use of force, ensuring transparency, accountability, and compliance with legal standards.

The increased deployment of military drones for surveillance activities in the maritime domain raises privacy and human rights concerns. Drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and sensors can collect vast amounts of data, including images and information about individuals and communities. The indiscriminate or unauthorized use of drones for surveillance can infringe upon privacy rights and violate human rights. It is imperative to establish robust safeguards, oversight mechanisms, and regulations to protect privacy rights, ensure data security, and mitigate potential abuses.

The use of military drones in the Indo-Pacific region necessitates adhering to international norms, promoting transparency, upholding human rights, and engaging in dialogue and cooperation. In doing so, countries can mitigate risks, build trust, and foster a conducive environment for the sustainable and ethical use of drones in maritime security operations. Compliance with these norms and frameworks is crucial to prevent misunderstandings, minimize the risk of conflict escalation, and maintain regional stability. Countries should actively engage in discussions and cooperation to develop common standards, share best practices, and enhance understanding of the legal implications of drone use in maritime security.

Technological Challenges and Opportunities

The integration of drones into naval operations and command structures presents both challenges and opportunities. Effectively incorporating drones requires the development of compatible communication systems, data integration protocols, and command and control mechanisms. This integration enables seamless coordination between manned and unmanned platforms, ensuring optimal utilization of resources and enhancing operational effectiveness. Navies must invest in developing interoperability standards, establishing efficient workflows, and adapting their organizational structures to fully leverage the capabilities of drones in maritime security.

The widespread adoption of military drones necessitates the training and skill development of drone operators and support personnel. Operating drones in a maritime environment requires specialized knowledge and expertise. Drone operators must possess a comprehensive understanding of the equipment, software, and mission-specific requirements. Furthermore, support personnel, including maintenance technicians and data analysts, must be adequately trained to ensure the reliability and effective utilization of drone systems. Investing in training programs, simulation exercises, and continuous professional development is essential to build a skilled workforce capable of maximizing the potential of drones in naval operations.

The proliferation of military drones in the Indo-Pacific region has significant impacts on defense industrial capabilities and technology transfer. As countries develop and deploy drone systems, there is a need for domestic production capabilities, including research and development, manufacturing, and maintenance facilities. The acquisition and integration of drone technology may also involve technology transfer agreements between countries. These agreements have implications for national security, intellectual property rights, and industrial collaboration. Careful consideration of these factors is crucial to ensure sustainable defense industrial capabilities and to facilitate responsible technology transfer in the context of drone proliferation.

Navigating the technological challenges and opportunities associated with military drone proliferation requires proactive measures and strategic planning. By focusing on the integration of drones into naval operations and command structures, investing in training and skill development for personnel, and carefully managing defense industrial capabilities and technology transfer, countries can capitalize on the potential of drones to enhance maritime security. This will enable navies to effectively address emerging threats, improve operational efficiency, and maintain a competitive edge in the Indo-Pacific region.

Future Trajectories and Recommendations

The future trajectories of drone technology and deployment in the Indo-Pacific region hold significant implications for maritime security. Anticipated developments include advancements in drone capabilities, such as longer endurance, increased payload capacity, and improved autonomy. Additionally, the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms is expected to enhance drone performance and decision-making capabilities. Understanding these anticipated developments is crucial for navies and policymakers to stay ahead of the curve and effectively adapt their strategies and operational concepts.

To address the strategic impact of military drone proliferation on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region, several policy recommendations can be put forth. First, navies and policymakers should prioritize the development of comprehensive regulatory frameworks and guidelines that ensure responsible and accountable use of military drones. This includes guidelines for the use of force, data protection, privacy, and compliance with international legal norms. Second, investments should be made in research and development, innovation, and acquisition programs to keep pace with evolving drone technologies. Navies should consider the procurement of advanced drones and the development of indigenous drone capabilities. Third, fostering regional cooperation and dialogue among Indo-Pacific navies is essential. Establishing information sharing mechanisms, conducting joint exercises, and promoting collaboration on drone-related research and development can enhance regional security and interoperability.

In the context of evolving drone technology and its impact on maritime security, collaborative efforts and information sharing are crucial for enhancing regional security in the Indo-Pacific. Navies should establish platforms for sharing best practices, lessons learned, and intelligence related to drone operations. This can facilitate a common understanding of emerging threats, enable the development of effective countermeasures, and enhance regional situational awareness. Additionally, regional security frameworks, such as ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum), ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA) can serve as platforms for dialogue and collaboration on drone-related security issues.

Finally, understanding future trajectories and providing recommendations is vital for Indo-Pacific navies and policymakers to navigate the strategic impact of military drone proliferation on maritime security. Anticipating developments in drone technology and deployment, formulating policy recommendations, and fostering collaborative efforts and information sharing will contribute to a more secure and stable Indo-Pacific region. By proactively addressing these aspects, navies can harness the potential of military drones while mitigating associated risks and challenges, thereby shaping the future of regional security dynamics.


The strategic impact of military drone proliferation on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region necessitates proactive approaches. Navies and policymakers must recognize the transformative nature of drones and their implications for regional security. It is crucial to stay ahead of technological advancements, adapt operational concepts, and develop comprehensive regulatory frameworks. Proactive measures include investments in research and development, capacity-building programs, and collaborative efforts among navies. By taking a proactive approach, navies can effectively address emerging challenges and leverage the opportunities presented by drone proliferation.

While this analysis has shed light on the strategic impact of military drone proliferation on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region, further research is needed. The evolving nature of drone technology and its implications require continued monitoring and analysis. Future research should delve into specific aspects such as counter-drone measures, the impact on non-state actors, and the role of drones in asymmetric warfare. Additionally, interdisciplinary studies involving experts from the fields of law, ethics, technology, and international relations would contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter.

In conclusion, proactive approaches, informed by research and analysis, are vital in addressing the strategic impact of military drone proliferation on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region. By embracing the opportunities, managing the challenges, and adhering to ethical and legal principles, navies and policymakers can effectively harness the potential of drones while maintaining regional stability and security. Continuous monitoring and further research will ensure that strategies and policies remain adaptive and responsive to the evolving dynamics of drone proliferation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Commander Amila Prasanga is a Military Research Officer at the Institute of National Security Studies, the premier think tank on National Security established and functioning under the Ministry of Defence Sri Lanka. The opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the institute or the Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka.

Featured Image: An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper, assigned to the 49th Wing, lands at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, July 6 during Rim of the Pacific 2022. (Credit: Lance Cpl. Haley Fourmet Gustavsen/Marine Corps)

Unmanned Ships: A Fleet to Do What?

By Jonathan Panter

On March 18, 2021, former Congresswoman Elaine Luria of Virginia criticized the Navy’s then-recently-released Unmanned Campaign Framework as “full of buzzwords and platitude but really short on details.” When promised a classified concept of operations, she added, “I think the biggest question I have [is]… it is a fleet to do what?”

Two and a half years later, the American public – soon to spend half a billion dollars on unmanned vessels – could ask the same thing. What strategic ends are unmanned vessels intended to serve? The Navy has yet to update the Unmanned Campaign Framework. The document promises all the right things (“faster, scalable, and distributed decision-making”; “resilience, connectivity, and real time awareness”) but provides little granular detail about the differential utility of unmanned systems across mission and warfare areas.

Nevertheless, unmanned vessels are receiving more attention than ever. The media frenzy surrounding Ukraine’s “drone boats” continues; the Navy’s Task Force 59 (responsible for testing small unmanned surface vessels in the Persian Gulf) gets the feature-length treatment in Wired; and a front-page article in the New York Times all but lobbies for more unmanned ships.

Perhaps a concept of operations for unmanned surface vessels is floating around in the classified world. But elsewhere, buzzwords still rule the day. Just weeks ago the Department of Defense announced its new “Replicator” initiative to deploy thousands of drones within two years: it will be “iterative,” “data-driven,” “game-changing,” and of course, “innovative” (variations of the latter appear 22 times in the announcement). Never mind that, in warfare, “innovative” is not always synonymous with “useful.”

Part of the problem is conceptual. The term “unmanned system” includes everything from a civilian hobbyist quadcopter used for spotting artillery in Ukraine, to the Navy’s as-yet-unbuilt “large unmanned surface vessel,” a tugboat-sized ship that is supposed to launch cruise missiles. This expansive terminology can confuse lay observers or new students of the subject. Unmanned systems have matured at different rates. Some have been thoroughly tested and proven their mettle in real-world operations; others are, at present, theoretical or even daydreams. The U.S. military has decades of experience operating unmanned aerial systems (or “aerial drones”), for instance. But the record of unmanned surface vessels – the focus of this article – is limited. Only two types of unmanned surface vessels have seen operational duty in the current era: Ukraine’s (decidedly non-autonomous) explosive-laden drones, and the U.S. Navy’s tiny “Saildrone,” a vessel with little current purpose besides visually-identifying other ships in a permissive environment. Despite these narrow use cases, the two examples are almost-unfailingly invoked in claims that a naval revolution is underway.

When the same few words, and the same few examples, so frequently justify a wholesale strategic pivot, policymakers and strategists should take pause. If the Navy intends to reorient its ways and means of warfare – and if the taxpayer is expected to pay for it – then Congress and the American people deserve a formal, public strategy document on the general purposes and risks of unmanned surface vessels.

The Missions of the Navy

The 2021 Unmanned Campaign Framework is less a plan than a promotional pamphlet. The Framework dedicates one page each to the Department of Defense’s four unmanned systems “portfolios” – air, surface, subsurface, and ground – an understandably brief introduction given the infancy of the technology and classification concerns. Because specific programs are prone to change, it is more informative to examine the promise of unmanned systems from the perspective of the underlying strategic motivation for their development. That context is a shift to what the Navy calls “distributed maritime operations”: a plan to field more platforms, in a more dispersed fashion, networked together to share information and concentrate fires, while keeping people outside the enemy’s weapons envelope, and sending more expendable assets inside of it. Unmanned ships, the Framework contends, free up humans for other tasks, reduce the risk to human life, increase the fleet’s persistence, and make it more resilient by providing more “nodes” in the network. They are also – the Navy frequently claims – cheap. The Chief of Naval Operations’ Navigation Plan 2022 also promises that unmanned systems will deliver particular means of warfare (e.g., increased distribution of forces) but again, without specifying the differential application of such means across mission and warfare areas.

The first step in determining the likely future distribution of unmanned surface vessel risk is projecting where those vessels are most likely to be used. Setting aside strategic deterrence, which remains the realm of ballistic missile submarines, the Navy’s core four missions are sea control, presence, power projection, and maritime security.

Forward Presence is the practice of keeping ships persistently deployed overseas, demonstrating U.S. capabilities and resolve, in order to deter adversaries and reassure allies. Unmanned ships’ putative “advantages” – that they are cheap, small, expendable, and don’t risk personnel – are decidedly counterproductive for this purpose. Deterrence and reassurance require convincing adversaries and allies that one has skin in the game, and risking an unmanned asset hardly compares to risking a destroyer and her crew. On the other hand, the Navy’s large and medium unmanned surface vessels, if ever successfully fielded (and there are ample reasons to suggest that severe challenges remain) might contribute to the credible combat power that deterrence requires.

Another possible argument is that unmanned vessels will free up manned ships for those specific presence operations where a human touch is invaluable (such as port visits), reducing strain on the fleet. But that raises a conundrum. For a ship to demonstrate credible combat power, it must be able to shoot. And the Navy has made clear that any unmanned ship with missiles and guns will be under human control. Particularly in the next few decades, when unmanned vessels’ maintenance and support requirements will be high, nearby manned ships will probably provide that control. Hence, while unmanned vessels could increase the fleet’s vertical-launch capacity – and therefore its combat credibility – they may also worsen operational tempo or contribute to higher overall costs.

Power Projection is the use of ships to fire missiles, launch aircraft, land troops, or provide logistical resupply in support of combat operations on land. The Navy’s large unmanned surface vessel is expected to serve this mission by swelling the Navy’s capacity to launch land-attack missiles. Destroyers and guided missile submarines already serve this function, but unmanned vessels will, according to their advocates, do so more cheaply and with less human risk. But since manned assets’ capabilities in this area are proven, and unmanned assets’ capabilities are not, the Navy must explain what happens if the new technologies fail, and the traditional fleet – perhaps prematurely shrunken or reordered to accommodate the unmanned systems – has to step in to pick up the slack. Unmanned vessels are not officially intended to “replace” manned warships, but a significant strategic imperative for their development is the Navy’s tacit acknowledgment that, given constrained budgets, it cannot achieve its desired fleet expansion with manned ships alone.

Sea Control is attacking enemy ships, aircraft, and submarines, so that the U.S. and its allies can use the sea for power projection or make it passable for wartime commerce. Its corollary is sea denial: preventing an enemy from using of the sea for his purposes. This is where unmanned surface vessels are really supposed to shine. The two biggest arguments for their value-add in sea control are intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and increased anti-ship missile capacity. There are also interesting emerging use cases, such as swarming electromagnetic warfare.

Small unmanned surface vessels, like the Saildrone – the argument goes – can loiter in large numbers, for weeks at a time (using solar power), all over a battlespace, looking and listening for enemies. While such a niche case for surveillance can be useful, the problem is that maritime surface ISR can struggle to match the global access and persistence of space-based and airborne ISR. Even in relatively constrained areas like the East and South China Seas, the search areas are vast. Unmanned surface vessels cannot match the revisit rates of low earth orbit satellites when combing large swaths of the ocean’s surface. In the last few years, the vast growth in low-earth orbit satellite constellations (both commercial and government-owned) has further diminished the urgency and budget efficiency of meeting ISR needs with surface ships. Ironically, the Saildrone and similar craft may end up being more dependent on space, because unmanned surface ISR assets operating over the horizon will rely on satellite communications to send mission data back. As for airborne ISR (that conducted by manned or unmanned aircraft), small unmanned surface vessels deployed en masse can exceed the persistence of aircraft, but at the cost of sensor reach: these vessels’ low “height of eye” inherently limits the range of their electro-optical sensors.

That relates to the second role unmanned ships are expected to serve in the sea control mission: offensive surface warfare. As noted, the Navy has been explicit that any unmanned ship with kinetic capabilities will be controlled by humans. As such, these vessels cannot be compared to, say, a command-guided missile that switches to radar in the terminal phase. Any kinetic-equipped unmanned vessel will rely on over-the-horizon communications relay provided by satellites, manned and unmanned surface vessels, or airborne assets. But if the Navy expects a satellite-degraded environment, as is possible in a conflict with a peer competitor, then surface and airborne assets will substantially assume the relay burden (requiring far greater numbers of them). Considering the Navy’s stated intent that most unmanned assets be “attritable,” however, it remains to be seen how long such a distributed network would last before manned vessels must themselves assume the relay function, bringing them closer to the enemy’s weapons engagement zone.

Maritime Security refers to constabulary functions such as protecting commerce from terrorists and pirates and preventing illegal behavior such as arms smuggling and drug running. In such operations, small and medium unmanned surface vessels could technically conduct surveillance, issue warnings, or engage threats with small-caliber weapons while under remote human control. The latter, however, seems especially unlikely in practice. Maritime security is a peacetime endeavor, conducted in congested sea space among civilians. Accordingly, there is a high premium on positive identification of bad actors, and generally the goal is not to kill anyone. A human touch will be required – not just “in the loop,” but probably on-scene.

Another problem is that, if unmanned vessels are small and cheap – two of their most celebrated characteristics – terrorists and drug runners may be able to disable them quite easily. Saildrone, therefore, adds most value for maritime security ISR under the following narrow set of conditions: when no aviation assets, satellite coverage, or allied coast guards are available; manned ships or shore facilities are within communications range; it is sunny, or enough sunny days have recently passed to keep batteries charged; and the targets of surveillance are incapable of shooting at, or (as with Iran in 2022), attempting to capture the drone monitoring them from within visual range.

The Risks of Concentration

Most contemporary Navy ships can be used for a variety of the missions delineated above. Destroyers can be used for power projection, sea control, presence, and maritime security; aircraft carriers can be used for all of those; amphibious assault ships are best for power projection and presence but can readily support maritime security. None of this is true for any unmanned vessel – not any in production, and none even in the design phase. A large unmanned surface vessel will have one purpose: to support power projection. Medium unmanned surface vessels will have two purposes: to contribute to sea control and maritime security.

Multi-mission capability, however, is not necessarily the goal. Unmanned assets, proponents argue, will not replace manned ships, but rather augment them as part of a “hybrid fleet.” The Navy expects a force structure that is 40 percent unmanned by 2050, although that does not mean that each naval mission area will be 40 percent unmanned. Some missions will rely more heavily on unmanned platforms than others will. This means the risks of unmanned vessels will not be evenly distributed across the Navy’s missions.

In general, we can forecast that unmanned vessels will fall out of operation (in peacetime) or attrite more quickly (in wartime) than manned ships for two reasons. First, the technology is immature and likely to remain so for a long time; currently, unmanned vessels are prone to inherent hull, mechanical, and electrical casualties, and cyber vulnerabilities. In brief, persistence is these vessels’ greatest challenge (and one the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is attempting to solve). Unmanned vessels may be required to keep station for weeks or months, in contrast to aerial drones’ persistence times, which are measured in hours. The longer unmanned surface vessels are at sea without maintenance, the greater their chance of routine equipment failure that either requires remote troubleshooting or on-scene repair. The former incurs both electromagnetic targeting and cyber risk. Second, unmanned vessels are explicitly designed to be less survivable, or “expendable” in the words of proponents.

The New York Times feature article mentioned previously illustrates the problem. It observes that the Navy has not scaled the success of Saildrone by integrating larger unmanned surface vessels into the fleet. This failure is attributable, the article argues, to bureaucratic inertia and industry capture. Missing from the discussion is the fact that the hull, mechanical, and electrical solutions required to field a 2000-ton medium unmanned surface vessel (especially one capable of persistent operations) are an order of magnitude more complex than those required for the 14-ton Saildrone. The propulsion requirements alone, let alone combat systems, place the former decades behind the latter in technological maturity. It is therefore nearly guaranteed that by 2030, for instance – even if the Navy has increased the overall percentage of unmanned vessels in its force structure – the Navy will not be able to have significant numbers of unmanned vessels in key mission areas.

Accordingly, the Navy must assess concentration risk: what happens when certain missions, but also warfare areas within those mission areas, degrade at different rates due to the differential survivability of manned versus unmanned assets. As a thought experiment, let us assume the Navy hits its 40 percent unmanned target. However, because Saildrones are far less technically complex, and far cheaper, than large unmanned surface vessels, the future fleet has more of the former than the latter. That future fleet would therefore be more reliant on unmanned assets for maritime security than for presence. Suppose, then, that China executes a successful cyber attack against a network of Saildrones; suddenly the maritime security mission is compromised, and the Navy must draw on its manned assets to support it – at the expense of the presence mission.

Sound unrealistic? Ukraine recently hacked Iranian-made drones used by Russia; during the Solar Winds hack, malicious code was delivered via legitimate code process; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellite network was hacked on at least one known occasion. And these are only some of the reasons why any unmanned asset with external communications capability must be assumed as cyber-vulnerable by default.

Beware Innovation for Innovation’s Sake

It should make the hairs stand up on the back of one’s neck when a new capability is described as simultaneously cheaper and more effective; when dozens of articles use the same buzzwords; when strategy documents are heavy on sweeping generalizations and light on detail; when the claim that technology will “mature” is delivered as a certainty; when “innovative” is treated as synonymous with “useful;” or when the same few empirical examples appear in every article on a subject. All of these are present in spades in media coverage of unmanned vessels.

If the U.S. Navy is to embark on a costly project with uncertain chances of success, it owes Congress and the American people a better Unmanned Campaign Framework, or an unclassified concept of operations that disaggregates the role of unmanned ships across the Navy’s various missions, and the warfare areas that comprise them. Such a concept must be honest about concentration risk and suggest ways to mitigate it. And Congress, which has already begun to take a deeper interest in unmanned platforms, should hold the Navy to account.

Jonathan Panter is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Columbia University. His dissertation examines the strategic logic of U.S. Navy forward presence. Prior to attending Columbia, he served as a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy.

The author thanks Anand Jantzen and Ian Sundstrom for comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Featured Image: NAVAL STATION KEY WEST, Fl. – (Sept. 13, 2023) Commercial operators deploy Saildrone Voyager Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) out to sea in the initial steps of U.S. 4th Fleet’s Operation Windward Stack during a launch from Naval Air Station Key West’s Mole Pier and Truman Harbor(U.S. Navy photo by Danette Baso Silvers/Released)

Exercise Digital Horizon: Accelerating the Development of Unmanned Surface Vehicles

By George Galdorisi

The international community has been tremendously proactive in undertaking operations, exercises, experiments, and demonstration to accelerate the development and fielding of unmanned surface vehicles, reflecting the real importance of these systems to world navies. Much of this work has occurred in and around the Arabian Gulf under the auspices of Commander U.S. Fifth Fleet and Task Force 59.

These ambitious exercises throughout the course of 2022 provided a learning opportunity for all participating navies. These culminated in the capstone unmanned event, Exercise Digital Horizon, a three-week event in the Middle East focused on employing artificial intelligence and 15 different unmanned systems: 12 unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

A key goal of Digital Horizon was to speed new technology integration across the 5th Fleet, and to seek cost-effective alternatives for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) missions. As Carrington Malin described the importance of Digital Horizon:

“Despite the cutting-edge hardware in the Arabian Gulf, Digital Horizon is far more than a trial of new unmanned systems. This exercise is about data integration and the integration of command and control capabilities, where many different advanced technologies are being deployed together and experimented with for the first time.

The advanced technologies now available and the opportunities that they bring to enhance maritime security are many-fold, but these also drive an exponential increase in complexity for the military. Using the Arabian Gulf as the laboratory, Task Force 59 and its partners are pioneering ways to manage that complexity, whilst delivering next-level intelligence, incident prevention and response capabilities.”1

Digital Horizon brought together emerging unmanned technologies and combined them with data analytics and artificial intelligence in order to enhance regional maritime security and strengthen deterrence by applying leading-edge technology and experimentation.2 Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces introduced the exercise and highlighted its potential: “I am excited about the direction we are headed. By harnessing these new unmanned technologies and combining them with artificial intelligence, we will enhance regional maritime security and strengthen deterrence. This benefits everybody.”3

Click to expand. Graphic illustration depicting the unmanned systems that will participate in exercise Digital Horizon 2022. The three-week unmanned and artificial intelligence integration event involved employing new platforms in the region for the first time. (U.S. Army graphic by Sgt. Brandon Murphy)

Captain Michael Brasseur, then-commodore of Task Force 59, emphasized the use of unmanned maritime vehicles to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, including identifying objects in the water and spotting suspicious behavior.4 He noted: “We pushed beyond technological boundaries and discovered new capabilities for maritime domain awareness to enhance our ability to see above, on and below the water.”5

During Digital Horizon, Task Force 59 leveraged artificial intelligence to create an interface on one screen, also called a “single pane of glass,” displaying the relevant data from multiple unmanned systems for watchstanders in Task Force 59’s Robotics Operations Center (ROC). Reviewing what was accomplished during this event, Captain Brasseur marveled at the pace of innovation: “We are challenging our industry partners in one of the most difficult operational environments, and they are responding with enhanced capability, fast.”6

One of the features of Digital Horizon, and in line with the first word of the exercise, “Digital,” was the ability of one operator to command and control five unique drones, a capability long-sought by U.S. Navy officials.7 The Navy is acutely aware of the high cost of manpower and is dedicated to moving beyond the current “one UXS, multiple joysticks, multiple operators,” paradigm that has plagued UXS development for decades.

Digital Horizon was a unique exercise from the outset. Task Force 59 worked with the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) in order to leverage that organization’s expertise as a technology accelerator. Additionally, given the U.S. Navy’s ambitious goals to rapidly test and subsequently acquire USVs to populate the Fleet, CTF-59 used a contractor-owned/contractor operated (COCO) model to bring a substantial number of unmanned systems to Digital Horizon, well beyond those already in the inventory. This approach sidestepped the often clunky DoD acquisition system while providing appropriate oversight during the exercise and gaining operational experience with new systems.

MANAMA, Bahrain (Nov. 19, 2022) Various unmanned systems sit on display in Manama, Bahrain, prior to exercise Digital Horizon 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy)

Another distinctive feature of Digital Horizon involved launching and recovering small UAVs from medium-size USVs. This lash-up leveraged the capabilities of both unmanned assets, enabling the long-endurance USVs to carry the shorter-endurance UAVs to the desired area of operations. This “operationalized” a CONOPS that emerged from the U.S. Navy laboratory community years ago.8

The results of Digital Horizon lived up to the initial hype. During a presentation at the 2023 Surface Navy Association Symposium, here is how Vice Admiral Cooper described what was accomplished during Digital Horizon:

“We are creating a distributed and integrated network of systems to establish a “digital ocean” in the Middle East, creating constant surveillance. This means every partner and every sensor, collecting new data, adding it to an intelligent synthesis of around-the-clock inputs, encompassing thousands of images, from seabed to space, from ships, unmanned systems, subsea sensors, satellites, buoys, and other persistent technologies.

No navy acting alone can protect against all the threats, the region is simply too big. We believe that the way to get after this is the two primary lines of effort: strengthen our partnerships and accelerate innovation…One of the results from the exercise was the ability to create a single operational picture so one operator can command and control multiple unmanned systems on one screen, a ‘Single Pane of Glass’ (SPOG)…Digital Horizon was a visible demonstration of the promise and the power of very rapid tech innovation.”9

The results of Digital Horizon could change the way the world’s navies conduct maritime safety and security. Having multiple unmanned systems conduct maritime surveillance, with the operations center then using big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to amalgamate this sea of data into something that commanders can use to make real-time decisions, enables navies to “stretch” their crewed vessels and use them for more vital missions than merely conducting surveillance.

As one example of how Digital Horizon brought together COTS unmanned surface vehicles with COTS systems and sensors, the T-38 Devil Ray was equipped with multiple state-of-the-art COTS sensors to provide persistent surveillance. The T-38 provided AIS, full motion video from SeaFLIR-280HD and FLIR-M364C cameras, as well as the display of radar contacts on a chart via the onboard Furuno DRS4D-NXT Doppler radar. These were all streamed back to Task Force 59’s Robotics Operations Center via high bandwidth radios and SATCOM.

These exercises and initiatives are important if the Navy is to convince a skeptical Congress that its plans for unmanned systems are sound, and represent an important course change in the way the Navy intends to communicate with Congress, by “showing, not telling” what its unmanned systems can do.10 This approach is vital, for as long as Congress remains unconvinced regarding the efficacy of the unmanned systems the Navy wishes to procure; it is unlikely that funding will follow.11

Secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, explained this new “show, don’t tell,” philosophy built on an ongoing series of exercises, experiments and demonstrations, further indicating that he believes the Navy is “on the same page as Congress:”

“The Navy has a responsibility to be able to prove that the technology that Congress is going to invest in actually works and it meets what we need to address the threat. I think that’s the responsible thing to do…I don’t see it as a fight between Congress and the Department of Navy. I think we’re aligned in our thinking about what has to be done.”12

Indeed, in remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Secretary Del Toro said the Navy intends to stand up additional unmanned task forces around the globe modeled after what Task Force 59 accomplished during Digital Horizon, noting:

“We’ve demonstrated with Task Force 59 how much more we can do with these unmanned vehicles—as long as they’re closely integrated together in a [command and control] node that, you know, connects to our manned surface vehicles. And there’s been a lot of experimentation; it’s going to continue aggressively. And we’re going to start translating that to other regions of the world as well. That will include the establishment of formal task forces that will fall under some of the Navy’s other numbered fleets.”13

Secretary of the Navy Del Toro continued this drumbeat during the U.S. Naval Institute/AFCEA “West” Symposium in February 2023. In a keynote address describing the Navy’s progress and intentions regarding integrating unmanned systems into the Fleet, he emphasized the progress that CTF-59 had made, especially in the area of successfully integrating unmanned systems and artificial intelligence during Digital Horizon.14

A Marine Advanced Robotics WAM-V unmanned surface vessel operates in the Arabian Gulf, Nov. 29, during Digital Horizon 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy)

Importantly, the U.S. Navy has now created the infrastructure to accelerate the testing and evaluation of unmanned surface vehicles. In 2019, the Navy stood up Surface Development Squadron One to provide stewardship for unmanned experimentation and manned-unmanned teaming.15 In 2022, seeking to put additional emphasis on unmanned maritime vehicles, the Navy established Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One (USVDIV-1), under the command of Commander Jeremiah Daley.16

This new division oversees medium and large unmanned surface vessels out of Port Hueneme Naval Base in Ventura County.17 Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One is engaged with the Fleet to move the unmanned surface vessels further west and exercise autonomy, payloads, and hull, mechanical and electrical (HM&E) systems to ensure that future programs of record (LUSV and MUSV) are successful from inception, and that they provide lethality and combat effectiveness for future naval and joint forces.

Digital Horizon presages a new paradigm in the way navies will think about uncrewed assets, no longer as “vehicles” but rather as “systems” that are nodes in a web of assets delivering far greater capability than the sum of the parts. World navies will conduct ambitious unmanned exercises, experiments and demonstrations throughout 2023 and beyond, and the lessons learned from Digital Horizon will no doubt inform those efforts.

Captain George Galdorisi (USN – retired) is a career naval aviator whose thirty years of active duty service included four command tours and five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff. He began his writing career in 1978 with an article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. He is the author of 15 books, including four New York Times best-sellers. The views presented are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.


1. Carrington Malin, “A Testbed for Naval Innovation,” Middle East AI News, December 1, 2022.

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

3. “U.S. Launches New Unmanned & AI Systems Integration Event,” U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Public Affairs, November 23, 2022, accessed at:

4. J.P. Lawrence, “Navy’s ‘Influx’ of Aquatic and Aerial Drones Tested in the Middle East,” Stars and Stripes, December 1, 2022.

5. “Digital Horizon Wraps Up: Task Force 59 Perspective, Second Line of Defense, December 22, 2022.

6. Geoff Ziezulewicz, “New in 2023: Here Comes the First-Ever Surface Drone Fleet,” Navy Times, January 3, 2023.

7. Justin Katz, “Accenture Demos Data Vis, C2 for Multiple USVs During Navy’s Digital Horizons Exercise,” Breaking Defense, December 16, 2022.

8. Vladimir Djapic et al, “Heterogeneous Autonomous Mobile Maritime Expeditionary Robots and Maritime Information Dominance,” Naval Engineers Journal, December 2014.

9. Audrey Decker, “5th Fleet Commander Details ‘Digital Ocean’ After TF-59 Reaches FOC,” Inside the Navy, January 16, 2023.

10. See, for example, George Galdorisi, “Catch a Wave: Testing Unmanned Surface Vehicles Is Becoming an International Endeavour,” Surface SITREP, Winter 2022.

11. “Navy Failing to Make ‘Critical Pivot’ In Unmanned Investment,” Inside the Navy, October 10, 2022.

12. Justin Katz, “Show, Don’t Tell: Navy Changes Strategy to Sell Unmanned Systems to Skeptical Congress,” Breaking Defense, March 10, 2022.

13. Jon Harper, “Navy to Establish Additional Unmanned Task Forces Inspired by Task Force 59,” Defense Scoop, December 4, 2022.

14. Remarks by the Honorable Carlos Del Toro, Secretary of the Navy, at the U.S. Naval Institute/AFCEA “West” Symposium, February 16, 2023.

15. Meagan Eckstein, “Navy Stands Up Surface Development Squadron for DDG-1000, Unmanned Experimentation,” USNI News, May 22, 2019.

16. “Navy to Stand Up New USV Command This Summer,” Inside the Navy, January 13, 2022.

17. Joshua Emerson Smith and Andrew Dyer, “Navy Ramps Up Efforts on Unmanned Vessels,” San Diego Union Tribune, May 16, 2022, and Diana Stancy Correll, “Navy Creates Unmanned Surface Vessel Division to Expedite Integration of Unmanned Systems,” Navy Times, May 16, 2022.

Featured Image: T38 Devil Ray during Exercise Digital Horizon. (Photo by Dave Meron)

The Broadening Global Effort to Accelerate Unmanned Maritime Systems Development

By George Galdorisi

While it will take years to unpack all of the lessons learned from the ongoing war in Ukraine, one method that has surfaced during this conflict that connects maritime warfare and unmanned surface vehicles in the use of USVs armed with explosives to attack naval vessels. This is a tactic and concept of operations that has been frequently discussed and simulated, but until now has been hypothetical.

Today it is real. As described in reports of Ukraine’s attacks on Russian naval vessels in the Black Sea, armed USVs have been used with deadly effect.1 Consider how naval analyst H.I. Sutton described the momentous impact of these attacks and what they portend for the future of maritime warfare:

“Ukraine’s attack on Sevastopol on October 29, 2022 will go down in history as the first major example of what many believe is a new era of drone warfare. The Russian Navy Black Sea Fleet found itself defending against both surface and aerial drones. Seven uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) were involved, along with nine uncrewed air vehicles (UAVs)…Individually, they may pose only a limited danger, but their low cost and the low risk associated with their use likely will lead to them becoming a persistent threat. They may shape future wars just as their aerial counterparts are already doing. But will leading navies accept the obvious lessons and initiate similar low-cost armed USVs?”2

In this era of great power competition, unmanned maritime systems have begun to take center stage and are now on an accelerated development path for reasons that are clear. Like their air and ground counterparts, these unmanned maritime systems are valued because of their ability to reduce the risk to human life in high-threat environments, offer options for more aggressive and risk-worthy strategies, to deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest, and other options that derive from the inherent advantages of unmanned technologies.

To be clear, the accelerating development of unmanned maritime systems has not been restricted to the United States. The U.S. Navy is far from being the only navy keenly interested in unmanned surface vehicles. Indeed, 2022 may well be remembered as a key milestone for the development of USVs due to their inclusion in an unprecedented number of international exercises, experiments, and demonstrations that have spanned the globe. Over the course of these events, unmanned maritime systems have performed an increasingly ambitious and complex series of missions, giving greater confidence to those nations and navies who see them as an important part of their fleets. The highlights of these events show the keen interest of many navies in finding new roles for these unmanned systems.

International Maritime Exercise 2022 (IMX 22), held under the auspices of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Commander Task Force 59 in the Arabian Gulf, focused on the integration of manned and unmanned vessels, and included operations with a number of regional partners.3 Admiral Michael Gilday, U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations, noted that a key mission for TF-59 is to “Enable more rapid fielding of unmanned systems.”4 Navies and Coast Guards of the nations and navies involved in IMX 22 worked to fully explore the capabilities of unmanned systems such as the Saildrone, the MARTAC MANTAS and Devil Ray, and many other USVs from participating nations.5 This is the first time this many nations participated in an event of this type. In the run up to IMX 2022, the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, also noted: “The Navy has been working with manufacturers to test new technologies, including firms such as Saildrone and MARTAC under a contractor-owned, contractor-operated model.”6

Fast response cutter USCGC Glen Harris (WPC 1144) sails near a U.S sail drone explorer in the Gulf of Aqaba, during the International Maritime Exercise/Cutlass Express (IMX) Feb. 13, 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Cpl. DeAndre Dawkins)

What is noteworthy about TF 59 operations in the Arabian Gulf is the fact that IMX 22 was not a one-off event. Rather, manned-unmanned integration operations in the Arabian Gulf continue. In October 2022, the United Kingdom and the United States held joint drills in the Arabian Gulf in the wake of Iran’s seizure of a U.S. Navy Saildrone USV.7 As of the end of 2022, the U.S. Navy had 20 USVs in or near the waters of the Arabian Gulf.8 Indeed, the United States and its allies want a force of 100 unmanned surface vessels patrolling waters from the Red Sea into the Arabian Gulf by the end of 2023.9

In another international exercise focused on missions for unmanned maritime systems, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) hosted Exercise Autonomous Warrior 2022 (AW 22). Nations joining this Royal Australian Navy-led exercise included New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States while featuring a total of 30 autonomous systems. The unmanned surface vehicles that were part of this two-week exercise were the Saildrone, MANTAS and Devil Ray, the Atlas Elektronik ARCIMS, the Elbit Systems Australia SEAGULL, and the Ocius Bluebottle.

Another exercise, the biannual Rim of the Pacific Exercise (the world’s largest international maritime exercise) was especially noteworthy as the U.S. Navy inserted four unmanned surface vehicles in this major event. Two of these USVs included platforms that were purpose-built to be unmanned systems, including the Sea Hunter and the Sea Hawk. The other two systems—Nomad and Ranger—were previously manned vessels that were equipped with autonomous technology under the auspices of the Ghost Fleet Overlord program. The 2022 RIMPAC exercise gave the event’s 26 participating nations an opportunity to see these USVs in action. The U.S. Third Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Michael Boyle, the commander of RIMPAC 2022, put special emphasis on the unmanned vehicles participating in RIMPAC, as well as manned-unmanned integration:

“What’s also new in this RIMPAC is a lot more integration of unmanned systems—on the surface, in the air, and under the surface. The four unmanned surface vehicles that the Navy brought to the exercise carried specialized payloads for anti-submarine warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, domain awareness and communications capability. So that’s all kind of new.”10

RIMPAC was valuable for getting deckplate-level feedback from sailors operating these four USVs. One official from the Navy’s program office for unmanned maritime systems noted that “One of the biggest pieces of feedback we’re getting is that they’re [sailors operating these USVs during RIMPAC] talking about payloads, they’re talking about capabilities. They’re not talking about the autonomy. They’re not worried that [the USV is] going to ever run into something.”11

A Devil Ray and Saildrone USV operate during exercise IMX 2022. (Photo courtesy of Dave Meron)

On the other side of the world, NATO exercises REPMUS-22, and the follow-on Dynamic Messenger 22, provided an opportunity for NATO nations to evaluate unmanned systems and their ability to coordinate on, above, and under the sea. Led by Portugal and conducted near the Troia Peninsula, these exercises focused on the integration of 120 autonomous assets into a single network.12 A number of NATO commands participated, including NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, NATO’s Allied Maritime Command, the NATO Center of Excellence, and NATO Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation. This enabled partner nations to learn best practices regarding how to shepherd unmanned systems into their respective navies.

In late 2022, the U.S. Navy-led exercise Digital Horizon 2022, a three-week event in the Middle East, focused on employing artificial intelligence and 15 different unmanned systems (12 USVs and three UAVs), many of which were operated in the region for the first time. The exercise, meant to be a continuation of IMX 22 but at significantly larger scale, was hosted by Task Force 59, and built on the work done during IMX 22. Indeed, Digital Horizon is the largest international unmanned exercise ever held to date.

Digital Horizon brought together new, emerging unmanned technologies and combined them with data analytics and artificial intelligence to enhance regional maritime security and strengthen deterrence. The exercise featured 17 companies that collectively brought 15 different types of unmanned systems, ten of which operated with US 5th Fleet for the first time.13 As Captain Michael Brasseur, then-commodore of Task Force 59, noted, one of the objectives of Digital Horizon 2022 was to use unmanned maritime vehicles to conduct intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions, including identifying objects in the water and spotting suspicious behavior.14

From the perspective of the U.S. Navy, these exercises and initiatives are important and represent a significant course change as the Navy works to convince Congress that its plans for unmanned systems are sound. The development and fielding of these unmanned systems will ultimately be critical for the U.S. Navy to reverse decades of pressure that have long threatened to shrink its force structure. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro explained the Navy’s new “show, don’t tell” philosophy built on an ongoing series of exercises, experiments, and demonstrations. According to Secretary Del Toro, these events further indicate that the Navy is “On the same page as Congress.” As Del Toro described it:

“The Navy has a responsibility to be able to prove that the technology that Congress is going to invest in actually works and it meets what we need to address the threat. I think that’s the responsible thing to do…I don’t see it as a fight between Congress and the Department of Navy. I think we’re aligned in our thinking about what has to be done.”15


World navies are keen to bring more both commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) unmanned maritime systems, as well as other USVs in various stages of development, to exercises, experiments and demonstrations. This will enable them to not only demonstrate their own capabilities, but to also learn best practices by observing the operations of unmanned maritime systems of other nations. These efforts are virtually certain to accelerate the development of these USVs, and for the U.S. Navy, hasten the goal of a 500-ship Navy that is envisioned to one day have 350 crewed ships and 150 unmanned vessels working together.

Captain George Galdorisi (USN – retired) is a career naval aviator whose thirty years of active duty service included four command tours and five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff. He began his writing career in 1978 with an article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. He is the author of 15 books, including four New York Times best-sellers. The views presented are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.


1. “Ukrainian Ingenuity is Ushering in a New Form of Warfare At Sea,” The Economist, December 7, 2022. See also, Mark Bowden, “The Tiny and Nightmarishly Efficient Future of Drone Warfare,” The Atlantic, November 22, 2022.

2. H.I. Sutton, “USVs at Work in the Black Sea,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 2022.

3. “Navy Leading International Unmanned Task Force in Large-Scale Exercise,” Inside the Navy, February 7, 2022.

4. Nick Wilson, “Gilday Looks to Expand Unmanned Development in Task Force 59,” Inside the Navy, September 5, 2022.

5. “U.S. Navy Tests Unmanned-Vessel Teaming in Persian Gulf,” The Maritime Executive, October 26, 2021.

6. Mallory Shelbourne, “U.S. 5th Fleet Set to Expand Unmanned Ship Operations in Middle East,” USNI News, January 14, 2022.

7. Jon Gambrell, “US, UK Hold Drone Drill in Persian Gulf After Iran Seizures,” Navy Times, October 7, 2022.

8. Caitlin Kenney, “U.S.-Led Drone Fleet Starting To Come Together in Middle East,” Defense One, October 13, 2022.

9. Sam LaGrone, “Navy Wants 100 Unmanned Ships Monitoring Middle East Waters by Next Year,” USNI News, October 11, 2022.

10. Sean Carberry, “SPECIAL REPORT: Unmanned Systems Make a Splash During RIMPAC,” National Defense, August 16, 2022.

11. Justin Katz, “After RIMPAC, Sailor Feedback Shows Evolving View of Unmanned Vessels: Officials,” Breaking Defense, August 2, 2022.

12. “NATO Allied Nations’ Forces Conduct Portugal-led Exercise REPMUS 22,” Naval Technology, September 16, 2022.

13. Justin Katz, “3 weeks, 15 Unmanned Systems: Navy launches ‘Digital Horizon’ Exercise in Middle East,” Breaking Defense, November 23, 2022.

14. J.P. Lawrence, “Navy’s ‘Influx’ of Aquatic and Aerial Drones Tested in the Middle East,” Stars and Stripes, December 1, 2022.

15. Justin Katz, “Show, Don’t Tell: Navy Changes Strategy to Sell Unmanned Systems to Skeptical Congress,” Breaking Defense, March 10, 2022.

Featured Image: The Devil Ray USV in exercise Autonomous Warrior 2022 (Photo courtesy of Dave Meron)