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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) An emerging, high-tech and promising new Navy surface drone boat just sailed 4,700 miles autonomously, mostly without any kind of human intervention, a development which marks a new significant milestone in the service’s multi-year Ghost Fleet Overlord program. 

“A Ghost Fleet Overlord unmanned surface vessel, part of a partnership between the Defense Department’s Strategic Capabilities Office and the Navy, recently traveled a distance of more than 4,700 nautical miles, almost entirely autonomously. The Ghost Fleet Overlord program has been an accelerant to the Navy’s adoption of unmanned surface vessels, enabling it to more rapidly bring such vessels into the fleet,” a Pentagon report stated. 

The effort, begun years ago by the Office of Naval Research, is intended to architect and coordinate a fleet of interoperable unmanned systems to operate in coordination with one another on specific high-risk missions, such as countermine tasks, reconnaissance or even direct armed attack when directed by sailors. 

Drawing upon advanced computer algorithms, Ghost Fleet has for many years now worked progressively to bring AI-enabled autonomy to new heights, in part strengthening the ability for one unmanned vessel to receive, process, analyze and transmit crucial maritime combat mission data of vital significance to operational effectiveness. Perhaps one forward drone, as part of Ghost Fleet, could ascertain key threat information regarding enemy maneuvers and then autonomously network with other surface drones in the fleet to identify weak points for attack. After doing so, the drone ships could establish a surveillance perimeter around the high-threat area and share sub-hunting and countermine mission intelligence data. Finally, once all of that was done very quickly, the drone ships could send analyzed and organized multi-pronged streams of integrated data to human decision makers. The more advanced the algorithms become, the more integrated Ghost Fleet missions can be, meaning small groups, or even swarms, of small boats can operate in tandem with one another, fortifying and refining mission objectives. 

Following the successful effort to travel those ranges autonomously, the Navy assessed the state of surface warfare autonomy in a recent training exercise, called Dawn Blitz

“During its participation in Dawn Blitz, the Ghost Fleet Overlord USV operated autonomously for more than 130 hours and traversed roughly 950 nautical miles—accounting for approximately 98% of its underway time,” the Pentagon report says. 

Autonomy is advancing more quickly than human weapons developers can keep pace with. The more advanced the algorithms, the more widespread and refined the AI-applications, the more a maritime warfare “margin of difference” between U.S. and rival power navies can emerge.

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When it comes to the application of non-lethal force, groups of autonomy-enabled Ghost Fleet drone boats could potentially complete an entire mission cycle without needing human direction. This could, for instance, pertain to finding and destroying large numbers of different types of fast-proliferating sea mines. One Unmanned Surface Vessel sweeping for mine threats could detect a threat object, instantly share information with nearby drone boats able to dispatch mine-destroying undersea drones or cue attack submarines in the area to destroy those enemy mines. 

Navy Drone Boats ... On the Way

The U.S. Navy is delivering its first squadron of autonomous drone boat prototypes to its surface force while simultaneously acquiring two more for testing and experimentation. Indeed, the U.S. navy intends to refine the service’s ability to operate drones in coordination with one another, while not needing human intervention.

Under rapid development now for many years with the Office of Naval Research and the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, the groups, or even swarms, of interconnected, yet autonomous, drones are now hitting new breakthroughs. Those breakthroughs involve the application of AI-enabled computer algorithms designed to find enemy threats, consolidate and organize an ever widening sphere of otherwise disparate pools of combat sensor data.

The effort, called Ghost Fleet Overlord, seeks to add unprecedented value to maritime warfare by performing tasks historically reserved for manned ship crews, therefore reducing risk to sailors and massively expediting the transmission and analysis of real-time combat sensor data.

“The SCO will transition its two Ghost Fleet Overlord prototypes to the Surface Development Squadron One by the end of fiscal year 2021. The Navy is currently acquiring two more Ghost Fleet Overlord prototypes to accompany the two SCO built to continue unmanned systems testing and fleet experimentation,” a Pentagon report states.

The Ghost Fleet program, the DoD report explained, is now in what’s called Phase II of the Ghost Fleet program, described as an effort focusing on “the integration of government furnished command and control systems and playloads,” the Pentagon essay explains.

An interesting point of emphasis, described in the Pentagon essay, is that the Navy is increasingly drawing upon commercial “ocean-going” vessels to help engineer and deliver Ghost Fleet. There are several advantages to this, the first of many perhaps being the possibility that commercial technology can of course be rapidly configured, adjusted or militarized, given how unit Commanding Generals tend to follow these kinds of developments as much as possible.

One key reason for an expanded migration or, perhaps more accurately, expansion of commercial ships into Ghost Fleet, may simply pertain to a massive ongoing effort to acquire large numbers of unmanned surface vehicles. Navy expeditionary warfare leaders have, for many years now, been consistently calling upon the service to engineer very large numbers of smaller or somewhat small high-tech surface and undersea drones increasingly able to detect threats and pass operationally relevant data to surface ships performing command and control as well. One key concept now gaining traction pertains to amphibious assault. For instance, large, big-deck amphibious assault ships could operate as command and control, mothership platforms for large numbers of drone boats.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. 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.