Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rethinking USVs

Unmanned surface vehicles are rapidly approaching practicality for naval uses. Although I’ve sung the praises of UAS for some time now, I’ve been a bit skeptical on the utility of their robotic surface cousins. I recently had an opportunity to check out the high and low ends of the USV spectrum in person. The Piranha is an “optionally manned” 16M carbon fiber diesel-powered beast that tops out at 45 knots and is purported to have a remarkable endurance of 40 days. The Piranha can be air dropped, operate up to sea state 6, employ a 2.5 ton payload of weapons, people, or sensors, and as a hybrid, it sips gas and can be operated very quietly on battery-power.

At the opposite end of the scale is the boogie board-like Wave Glider. Originally developed for oceanography purposes, the wave and solar-powered platform moves at a leisurely knot and a half and has already made an 82 day transit from the US West Coast to Hawaii.

Needless to say, both of these craft have utility for special operations and coastal counter-terrorism missions. They seem tailor made for long duration ISR patrols and the deployment of other unattended sensors where the presence of SOF (or larger manned vessels) is operationally too risky or politically untenable.

I am less a fan of USVs for force protection missions. Although there is certainly appeal in an unmanned craft taking the place of a patrol boat crew in rough seas and harsh weather, I just don’t think the soda straw situational awareness USV’s provide is a good choice for operations which require split second decisions on assessing hostile intent and applying ROE in the close quarters of a harbor. Though in the long term, I foresee autonomous USV swarms attacking enemy ships with missile barrages or “suicide” bombing missions against high value platforms. Of course, as with UAVs, technology spreads rapidly, and it’s only a matter of time until we see USVs deployed by state and non-state enemies for smuggling, reconnaissance, and other nefarious operations.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.

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