Surface Forces: Unmanned LUSV Ships at Sea


March 13, 2024: Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs) are unmanned surface vessels designed for the United States Navy whose construction began in 2020. Designed to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships based on commercial designs, they will have the capacity for modular payloads such as anti-ship, anti-submarine, or anti-air weapons. Capable of operating with human operators in the loop to detect unauthorized personnel boarding and seeking to damage or divert the ships or steal their cargo, the Navy plans to use these ships operating alongside fleets as scouts as well as magazine ships carrying additional supplies or weapons for manned ships.

Current LUSVs are 1,500-ton vessels that are about a hundred meters long and cruise at 48 kilometers an hour for up to 6.500 kilometers. Up to four shipping containers carrying weapons can be carried. Missiles can be transported and fired from standard shipping containers. Each container contains four missiles and control of the missiles is carried out by a remote operator on a manned warship. The 30 ton shipping containers are placed on deck of a LUSV and used as needed. Missiles can be Tomahawk cruise missiles with a range of 1,500 kilometers as well as SM-6 anti-aircraft or anti-ballistic missile missiles. Anti-submarine ASROC missiles can also be carried. Most often Tomahawk and SM-6 missiles will be in the shipping containers. The SM-6 missiles would be launched at ships detected by nearby manned warships. This would mean the LUSV would be unmanned auxiliaries for manned warships. The U.S. Navy has long sought this type of unmanned auxiliary weapons carrying vessels to accompany the fleet into combat. The armed LUSVs would enhance the fire power of nearby manned warships and, once the LUSVs expend all their weapons, they would return to a land base to replace their empty weapons containers with new ones containing weapons. One problem the navy has not solved is reloading LUSVs at sea with new weapons containers. That has proved unsuccessful and the LUSV would have to reach a nearby island or mainland base to take on new containers.

The Navy began building the first two LUSVs in 2020, with plans to buy eight more over the five years. The US Navy will receive its first LUSV 2025 followed by two in 2026, and three each in 2027 and 2028. The LUSVs cost around $250 million each.

LUSV ships lend themselves to construction in smaller shipyards. This means more shipyards can be involved. This reduces manufacturing bottlenecks and provides more work for existing shipyards. The commercial shipping industry is investing heavily in autonomous vessels to help increase ship efficiency, reduce operating cost, and most importantly improve safety. That’s because 57.8 percent of all accidents at sea are related to human error. It is possible that by 2040 over 50 percent of all commercial shipping will be fully autonomous, making the LUSV market at that time worth roughly $65 billion a year. This represents a significant opportunity to expand smaller shipyards, providing a commercial export market which could increase overall regional benefits as well as the ability to build militarized LUSV for the United States and its allies. LUSV commercial opportunities exist to advance existing industrial capacity and exploit research and development. These opportunities enable the ship building industries in many nations opportunities to participate in building LUSVs for commercial and military use.




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