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Video Above: Can the Navy Handle Accelerating to a 500-Ship Fleet

The Chief of Naval Operations Navigation Plan 2022 sets the ambitious and strategically vital goal of developing a 500-ship fleet with as many as 150 unmanned systems, a concept intended to leverage breakthroughs in autonomy, AI-enabled computer processing, data networking and manned-unmanned teaming.

Unmanned Systems

“Unmanned surface and subsurface platforms increase the fleet’s capacity for distribution; expand our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance advantage; add depth to our missile magazines; supplement logistics; and enhance fleet survivability,” Navy CNO Adm. Michael Gilday writes in the plan.

Maritime warfare is expected to be more dispersed and defined in large measure by breakthrough weapons and sensors with much greater range, precision and data-transmission capability. Unmanned systems and cross-domain air, surface and undersea networking in particular, form the conceptual basis of what could be called a transformation.

“This transition will rebalance the fleet away from exquisite, manpower-intensive platforms toward smaller, less-expensive, yet lethal ones,” Gilday writes in the pan.

Unmanned systems can conduct clandestine forward operating surveillance and reconnaissance missions, function as sensor nodes within a larger, multi-domain meshed warfare network. Advanced algorithms are allowing much greater degrees of collective or collaborative autonomy such that groups of unmanned systems can now operate in tandem with one another and adjust in real-time to changing combat variables. Gilday’s text interprets drones very much in this fashion, as he describes them as critical to rebalancing the fleet by expanding its size while saving money and simultaneously improving lethality.

“This transition will rebalance the fleet away from exquisite, manpower-intensive platforms toward smaller, less-expensive, yet lethal ones,” Gilday writes.

“Lightning Carriers” or CVLs—loaded with F-35Bs—would provide more numerous, less expensive aviation platforms to expand the Navy’s distributed maritime operations concept to the naval aviation community.

“Lightning Carriers” or CVLs—loaded with F-35Bs—would provide more numerous, less expensive aviation platforms to expand the Navy’s distributed maritime operations concept to the naval aviation community.

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The massive expansion of drones is entirely consistent with the Navy’s now heavily emphasized Distributed Maritime Operations strategy which calls for a dispersed, yet-highly networked, force of manned and unmanned systems able to share time-sensitive targeting and reconnaissance data across the force in real time. The networking is also intended to be multi-domain in that it aims to connect undersea drones with surface ships and even air assets such as helicopters lowering mine-and-submarine-hunting sonobuoys into the water.

Greater numbers of unmanned systems favor or support the strategic call for “distributed” operations in keeping with the services’ DMO strategy, as less condensed maritime forces are of course less of a target to enemy forces and therefore less vulnerable to destruction.

A key reason for the large number of unmanned ships is likely due to the technological ability to operate with a kind-of “collective autonomy” wherein multiple drones share information with one another in real time, process and analyze incoming data in relation to one another and a wide range of variables and then execute an operation in a collaborative or “collective” way.

This concept has been in development with the Navy for many years, going back to an Office of Naval Research program known as Ghost Fleet. The Overlord (or Ghost Fleet) program has been achieving breakthrough levels of coordination and multi-domain data sharing for several years now.

The concept is to extend the premise of “autonomy” beyond the operations of a single vessel to enable a kind of coordinated, collective autonomy wherein unmanned systems share and analyze information among themselves and make course corrections of mission adjustments as needed.

The more groups of unmanned systems can adjust course and respond to new information sent between them, the greater the impact drones and autonomy can have upon operational effectiveness and high-speed command and control. 

The massive expansion of drones is entirely consistent with the Navy’s now heavily emphasized Distributed Maritime Operations strategy which calls for a dispersed, yet-highly networked, force of manned and unmanned systems able to share time-sensitive targeting and reconnaissance data across the force in real time.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization