U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Maritime Systems

The United States Navy has invested in numerous autonomous maritime vehicles throughout the years and plans on extending its capabilities to a larger scale. The Navy requested $579.9 million for FY21 to fund three different categories of the unmanned vehicles. These categories are defined as Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSV), Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSV), and Extra-large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUV) (O’Rourke, 2020).

Figure 1. (O’Rourke, 2020)

The capabilities of each of these categories of maritime systems would be used to help retain the United States Naval capabilities while Chinese naval spending increases (Larter, 2020).  As the Navy begins to look at more and more unmanned capabilities the organization would have to change the structure of the Naval Force. Currently, the architecture the Navy uses is for large scale manned operations and vehicles with small unmanned systems for sub-hunting and mapping. However, this change in larger-scale unmanned systems would require the organization to change its command and control platforms and procedures (Larter, 2020).

The figure below is a visual representation of the difference for the current ship-centric force and the distributed / nodal force that the Navy would use with more unmanned maritime systems (O’Rourke, 2020).

Figure 2. (O’Rourke, 2020)

The movement to a more distributed force has been difficult to obtain due to the technology gap. However, with new advancements with underwater communications and artificial intelligence.

Underwater communications with ships and submarines are difficult due to the wave prorogation that occurs underwater versus in the air. Due to the density of water, radio waves do not travel as far (Matheson, 2018). However, two new technologies are being developed to solve this issue. First, university researchers have been developing quantum communications. Quantum communications do not have the same prorogation issues that degrade radio waves. This type of communication would not have any or minimal interference with smooth or turbulent water. Quantum communications technology is promising, however still in the early stages of development (Mizokami, 2020).

Another communication technology that could be an enabler is wireless communications that use sonar to prorogate signals to the surface of the water for an airborne sensor to read from an airplane (Matheson, 2018). This technology is not necessarily new; however, the application of sonar would be a new development. The application for the U.S. Navy would be to gather information from autonomous submarines during long extensive missions and provide command and control of these unmanned systems.

Artificial Intelligence has been a technology that continues to improve and ensure more autonomy for unmanned systems. The U.S. Navy is already developing this technology through DARPA with the Sea Hunter. The AI technology currently used is for single operations. However, they are continuing to develop a “swam” or cooperative behavior that would allow communications between unmanned systems to better patrol and navigate for months at a time autonomously (Congressional Research Service, 2020). The cost of utilization would be around $20,000 a day versus $700,000 a day for manned operations.

The Sea Hunter’s AI system is currently customizable for full autonomy, semi-autonomy, or human operators in the loop.

Figure 3. (O’Rourke, 2020)

The U.S. Navy’s transition to more and more unmanned systems will require a large investment in enabling technologies to ensure the success of the programs. While the enabling technologies are available, they are still in their infancy for deployment in water operations. The necessity for the Navy to continue to build combat power will remain with the Chinese investing millions in their Navy. The technology is only one aspect of the equation for unmanned systems. Command and control systems that are currently in place with the Navy will need to be revised and tested to ensure a distributed system will work in practice and during combat operations.

Only time will tell if the development of these different autonomous maritime vehicles will enable the future success of sea operations.


Congressional Research Service. (2020). Artificial Intelligence and National Security. Washington, D.C. : Congressional Research Service.

Larter, D. B. (2020, February 13). The US Navy is spending millions plotting the drone-enabled fleet of 2045. Retrieved from Defense News: https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2020/02/13/the-us-navy-is-spending-millions-plotting-the-drone-enabled-fleet-of-2045/

Larter, D. B. (2020, June 1). US Navy embraces robot ships, but some unresolved issues are holding them back. Retrieved from Defense News: https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2020/06/01/us-navy-embraces-robot-ships-but-some-unresolved-issues-are-holding-them-back/

Matheson, R. (2018, August 22). Wireless communication breaks through water-air barrier. Retrieved from MIT News: https://news.mit.edu/2018/wireless-communication-through-water-air-0822

Mizokami, K. (2020, April 22). Quantum Communication Could Make U.S. Subs Even More Deadly. Retrieved from Popular Mechanics: https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/research/a32225290/quantum-communication-submarines/

O’Rourke, R. (2020). Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service.

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