Navy plans large new fleet of 'mothership'-controlled drone boats

Overwhelming enemy fleets with surveillance and weapons, finding weak spots along an enemy coastline to pinpoint areas for breakthrough attacks and bringing a new networked group of Unmanned Surface Vehicles into hostile areas — they are all anticipated missions for the Navy’s emerging fleet of drone boats.

The service is now fast-tracking and testing all types and sizes of networked prototyped surface drones as part of an “Operation Overlord” strategy program to multiply and coordinate large integrated fleets of unmanned systems. The Navy intends to align them all on a common command and control system able to quickly integrate war-crucial data in ocean combat.

“We are prototyping Phase II of the Overlord program,” Capt. Pete Small, program manager, Unmanned Maritime Systems, Naval Sea Systems Command, told reporters at the Surface Navy Association Symposium in January 2020.

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The current work, Navy weapons developers explain, is to test and refine emerging levels of autonomous operations, multiple drone boat coordination and new strategic developments. While referring to seven prototype unmanned vessels now in the process of being delivered, Small explained that a fleet of multiple ocean drones was being developed to support and integrate with much larger unmanned surface vehicles, such as a new Medium and Large USVs.

“We need these vessels to demonstrate a number of different autonomy technologies and a variety of different payloads envisioned. We also need them to match fleet conops (Concepts of Operation), which include multiple USVs in proximity with each other,” Small said.

The strategic intent of the effort is to enable swarms of synchronized drones to capture, organize and disseminate key targeting and sensor data, such as the location of mines, submarines, surface vessels or incoming enemy attacks.

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A larger Medium USV could function as a Command and Control “Mother Ship” operating a large fleet of forward operating sea drones, some of which to be armed with weapons. Of course human doctrine stipulates that humans will decide about the use of lethal force, however arming forward drone boats will enable attack options with sailors at safer standoff ranges. The Overlord program, Small explained, will integrate common command and control technology with emerging levels of coordinated autonomy.

The program, which is now being refined through a series of what Small described as Interface Control Documents, advances an autonomy-focused program called Unmanned Maritime Autonomy Architecture.

“We are integrating autonomy and payloads. Payload integration is allowing us to work out technical challenges and work with technology developers to identify gaps in the experimentation plan,” Small said.

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The Navy is now working on the software development needed to integrate government-furnished communications equipment.

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Larger USVs, it would appear, could bring the promise of greater forward-deployed command and control, along with an increased ability to integrate a range of otherwise separated functions. For instance, it seems entirely plausible that a new Medium USV could combine submarine-hunting with mine-countermeasures, command and control and surface attack.

As a forward-positioned vessel, it could enable deeper draft manned ships to launch and control drone boats for maritime warfare missions. Also, by pushing the limits of technology, larger surface drones could potentially bring unprecedented amounts of endurance. Not only would they free up constraints on mission dwell time, such as the need to return human crews, but larger drones could potentially carry more fuel, supplies and ammunition.