US Navy wants bigger and more capable unmanned drone ships for future navy

Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, says the US Navy could get closer to the 350 ship target faster by counting unmanned vessels with capabilities similar to a manned ship— a new twist on the definition of a ship.

Unmanned undersea vehicles currently used by the Navy aren’t at the point now where they could replace manned platforms. While they can complete a task to support a mission, they can’t complete an entire mission on their own, and none are weaponized.

Richardson said he’s trying to figure out how to increase naval power as quickly as he can because the Navy is being challenged at sea by very capable foreign naval forces. He said he’s looking at vehicles that can do a range of things, including acting as sensors and carrying weapons, and can be networked in with the rest of the fleet.

Technological advancements in autonomy, endurance, command and control and other areas are needed before the Navy could assign anything more complex, like surveillance.

The Navy could potentially get by with fewer ships if some of the larger, more capable unmanned vehicles could someday reliably do some of the easier missions ships do, but it’s not a one-for-one replacement, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

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Small unmanned undersea vehicles are 3 inches to 10 inches in diameter and cost less than $1 million, and medium ones are 10 inches to 21 inches and cost up to about $3 million, Roberts said. Large unmanned undersea vehicles are 21 inches to 84 inches and cost tens of millions.

Extra-large vehicles are greater than 84 inches in diameter. The Navy doesn’t currently have any of that size, Roberts said.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the cost of building and operating 355 ships would average $102 billion annually through 2047, which is more than one-third higher than the amount appropriated for fiscal year 2016 for today’s fleet. Richardson has said that he thinks it’ll cost far less than that prediction.