Down Select and Commit To Uncrewed Surface Systems

Notes to the New CNO Series

By LCDR U.H. (Jack) Rowley

China’s Navy has now eclipsed the U.S. Navy in size, and the gap continues to grow. For this reason, as well as for the benefits that uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) bring to the fight, the U.S. Navy’s Force Design 2045 envisions a future Navy of 350 crewed hulls and 150 uncrewed surface vessels. Like their air and ground counterparts, these unmanned systems are valued because of their ability to reduce the risk to human life in high threat areas, to deliver persistent surveillance, and to provide options to warfighters that derive from the inherent advantages of uncrewed technologies.

However, so far the Navy has only committed to developing and acquiring large uncrewed surface vessels (LUSVs), ranging in length from 200 to 300 feet. These vessels are envisioned to have two roles – as uncrewed ships that can carry missiles or other weapons, or as motherships that can carry medium (MUSVs) and small USVs to the fight. Anticipating that medium USVs will be the workhorses for missions such as ISR, mine countermeasures, and combat logistics, MUSVs have been evaluated by the Navy and the Marine Corps in a large number of exercises, experiments and demonstrations in recent years.

However, after almost a decade of demonstrating the capabilities of MUSVs, the Navy has been slow to establish programs of record to populate the fleet with these workhorses. The Navy should now shift its efforts from prototyping to serial production, given how these vessels have demonstrated their potential to perform the abovementioned missions. These vessels are affordable enough that they can be constructed in large numbers for the cost of a single conventional surface combatant, and allow the Navy to rapidly increase its fleet size to meet burgeoning operational demand signals. Otherwise, the Navy will not be able to confidently keep up with China’s historic naval expansion and offset the pressures that are threatening to shrink the fleet until it makes a firm commitment to serial production of unmanned vessels.

While there are a number of MUSVs that can potentially meet the Navy’s needs, there are three that appear to be furthest along in the evaluation cycle and which have been featured most prominently in numerous Navy and Marine Corps events. They cover a range of sizes, hull types and capabilities, including:

    • The Vigor Industrial Sea Hunter, a 132-foot-long trimaran. 
    • The Textron monohull Common Uncrewed Surface Vessel (CUSV) featuring a modular, open architecture design.
    • The MARTAC family of catamaran hull USVs that include the Devil Ray T24 and T38 craft. 

The CNO can accelerate the Navy’s journey to achieve a robust hybrid fleet by directing a down-select of MUSV candidates and establishing programs of record. The U.S. Navy can diversify its capabilities and make itself more competitive for great power challenges by accelerating its adoption of unmanned vessels.

LCDR U.H. (Jack) Rowley (USN-Ret) is a career Surface Warfare and Engineering Duty Officer whose 22 years of active duty included nine years of enlisted service before commissioning. Since his retirement he has continued to work, as a Naval Architect and Ocean Engineer, with the marine ship design and construction areas in both government and commercial sectors. He has had extensive experience with unmanned surface vehicles including serving as the SAIC Lead Engineer in the early stages of the development of the DARPA/ONR Sea Hunter USV Trimaran now operating with the Navy in the Port of San Diego. He currently serves as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc. (MARTAC).

Featured Image: An Expeditionary Warfare Unmanned Surface Vessel autonomously navigates a predetermined course through the water during Advanced Naval Technology Exercise 2019 at Camp Lejeune, N.C., July 12. (Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara/Marine Corps)

4 thoughts on “Down Select and Commit To Uncrewed Surface Systems”

  1. I struggle with using the term MUSV in this advice to the CNO as the actual MUSV already selected based on the 2 Overlord ships currently working off Japan isn’t mentioned once. Generally, this seems to have ignored the past several years of MUSV development and testing on the west coast to sculpt MARTAC products into the discussion, It might be better to point to the 5th fleets work in the Persian Gulf to saturate an area with smaller ISR drones for that pitch. MUSV will often be operating in concert with the larger combatants.

    Why down select when fast, adaptable and attribute are some of the desired aspects of these smaller systems? If anything, we should try and describe these types as ones that could launch from an 11-12m davit off any available ship or via ship’s crane. Look at the modular davit system on the Italian PPAs. Far more useful than what we implemented on either LCS.

    I think if we compare the Sea Hunter Sea Hawk MDUSVs to the selected MUSV you will see just how much the existing aluminum commercial hull can do for about the same or less money than the composite trimaran hulls. I think Sea Hunter Seahawk have like a 10,000lb or 10 tonne capacity or something around there whereas MUSV has 350 DWT and 300 tonne deck capacity with speed, redundancy, and a small loss of range while remaining with the potential for optional manning.

    Also, I have never one time heard LUSV described as a USV mothership. Source?

    The actual commercial hull selected for MUSV prototype with options for an additional 8:

  2. Nice piece – and I agree. Much as you ranked the current top technology choices for serial production, what is your perspective on the top barriers to implementation?

    Is it funding? Risk aversion? Industrial capability? Lack of champion/pull from users?

  3. This article presents an important issue that the new CNO would be well-served to consider. Unmanned surface vehicles can make a huge difference in the U.S. Navy’s ability to complete its many missions.

  4. Sea Hunter and Seahawk were not Vigor products. Sea Hunter was begun by Christensen Yachts under contract to Leidos and transitioned to Vigor on the foreclosure of Christensen Yachts. Vigor completed the Sea Hunter hull (hull had already been molded). Sea Hawk was built by USMI under contract to Leidos. The vessel design, autonomy, and program management of Sea Hunter and Seahawk was performed by Leidos (the prime contractor).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.