Video Above: Maj. Gen. Pringle Manned-Unmanned Teaming
The Chief of Naval Operations newly released 2022 Navigation Plan calls for a large, “Hybrid Fleet” in coming decades consisting of a mixture of large surface ships, submarines, drones and unmanned platforms of all kinds. Of greatest significance, perhaps, is the Navy Navigation Plan’s call for a 500-ship fleet combining manned and unmanned vessels. This is by no means surprising given the pace and scope of Chinese naval expansion.
US Navy 2022 Navigation Plan
Adm. Michael Gilday’s use of the term “Hybrid” seems somewhat defining given that it describes the Navy’s growing blend of manned and unmanned ships in an increasingly networked fleet capable of executing dispersed, disaggregated missions across a vast operational envelope.
“The Navy must become a hybrid fleet. Manned, multi-mission platforms will remain at the core of our future fleet, but augmented with new platforms and new capabilities. We will add to our current fleet a host of manned, unmanned and optionally-manned platforms operating under, on, and above the seas,” Gilday writes in the plan.
Gilday’s text is specific on both numbers and a timeline, as it calls for a combined total of 500 manned and unmanned ships of all sizes and configurations capable of conducting a wide mixture of multi-domain operations.
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“In the 2040s and beyond, we envision this hybrid fleet to require more than 350 manned ships, about 150 large unmanned surface and subsurface platforms, and approximately 3,000 aircraft,” the text of the plan reads. “As the security environment evolves, we will continue to iteratively refine our capacity goals through force structure assessments, analysis, war-gaming, and experimentation.”
The mixture of manned and unmanned platforms aligns fully with the Navy’s rapid development of a new fleet drone vessels to include Unmanned Surface Vehicles, Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles and Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles. The number of current Navy unmanned systems under development, and the pace at which they are evolving could clearly be explained as a “drone” explosion in a way. This is enabled by how breakthrough networking technologies now enable longer-range, more secure, multi-domain communication and data transmission.
This unmanned expansion, made possible by rapid advances in networking, information processing and autonomy, also extends well into the undersea realm through a number of current Navy efforts to fast-track drones of all sizes to include small, mine-hunting, semi-autonomous drones such as Barracuda as well as submarine-like drones such as the Large Diameter Unmanned Undersea Vehicle or XL extra-large variant. Smaller UUVs can now launch from missile tubes of attack submarines.
Emerging networking technologies increasingly enable multi-domain communications, opening up new opportunities for undersea platforms to launch drones able to approach the surface and connect in real-time with surface and air platforms. With these kinds of paradigm-changing tactical possibilities, unmanned systems can increasingly absorb high-risk missions facing enemy attacks while manned-vessels armed with long-range fires conduct command and control at standoff ranges.
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.