Integrating new drone ships and flying drones into US naval operations

The US Navy’s new robotic ships and drones will initially be put into fleet operations that free up ships and planes for more critical tasks

The 130-foot anti-submarine medium-displacement trimaran does not seek to replace anything a destroyer is doing, but rather would benefit the whole carrier strike group through the vessel’s months-long and thousand-mile autonomous capabilities.

“Just imagine in your mind’s eye a carrier strike group getting under way, and as part of the strike group’s screen you’ve got one of these or more,” he said of the ACTUV vessels. “Now you’ve freed up a screen ship to do something else, or push out further, or whatever you want it to do. [ACTUV] has the autonomy onboard to go off and do things that are meaningful, stuff that you want to get done, and again extends the reach—part of realizing this idea of distributed maritime operations.”

Similarly, the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial vehicle would provide the air wing with organic mission tanking and recovery tanking, to “take what the carrier does and have it do it even better,” Girrier said—freeing F/A-18E-F Super Hornet pilots who would otherwise have to stick around the carrier for recovery tanking missions and instead letting them serve in a proper fighter-jet role.

The Navy currently uses the RQ-20A Puma at sea but had no good way to recover the vehicles. Girrier said he heard from the Fleet, “’When we recover these things we often land them on the water, and that’s not always the most uneventful evolution, sometimes we damage these things.’ And so we listened to that demand signal from the fleet, saying, ‘Hey, landing these things on the water can cause some damage; we’d really prefer an automated recovery mechanism.’”

A guided-missile destroyer on deployment is currently testing the he Enhanced Recovery of Group 1 UAVs (ERGU) system, which allows the Puma to fly into an automated capture system instead of hitting the water, requiring crewmembers on a small boat go retrieve the UAV. He said the project was not complex, but it exemplifies rapid learning, a timely response to fleet requests and an effort to make unmanned systems more usable—which in total builds trust in unmanned as an idea and builds momentum for whatever system is fielded next.

Components of a Naval Formation

A naval formation has two main components: the main body, and the screen. The main body of a formation comprises its principal ships, typically the high value units such as an aircraft carrier. The formation’s screen, consists of ships (typically escorts in the way of cruisers, destroyers, frigates, etc.) whose purpose is to protect the main body.

1. Organization of the Formatio

The components of a naval formation are:

(1) Main Body

The innermost circle of your formation, normally reserved for high value units and units with limited defenses (such as aircraft carriers, oilers or replenishment ships, and freighters). Units within the main body hold their position and have the exact course and speed of the entire group at all times.

(2) AAW (Anti-Air Warfare) Ring

The second innermost ring of your formation. It should be used for platforms that have the ability to engage air targets such as missiles and aircraft (such as Aegis cruisers and destroyers). You should place them in sectors that correspond to the anticipated direction of an airborne threat.

(3) ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) Ring

The next to outermost ring of your formation. Units placed in this ring should have ASW capabilities, so they can detect and kill any submerged threats before they penetrate into your main body or AAW ring. Typical units used in this ring would include ASW helicopters and destroyers and frigates with significant ASW weapons/sensors. Units within this ring patrol within their sectors, sprinting from place to place, then slowing down or hovering to check for sonar contacts.

(4) Picket Ring

The outermost ring of your formation. Used to place scouting assets that can give early warning of incoming threats. Units used for picket duty include AEW (airborne early warning) aircraft and low value ships with good sensors. All units in this ring patrol within their sectors, speeding up and slowing down to cover it while moving with the formation.

2. The Screen

The AAW Ring, the ASW Ring and the Picket Ring collectively comprise the screen of a naval formation. As earlier stated, the screen is designed to protect the main body, and the type(s) of screen chosen is based upon the anticipated or most serious enemy threat.