The United States Navy recently announced a contract worth at much as $ 11.3 million, for two unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) for use by the Freedom-class LCS ( littoral combat ships). These USVs would be used for anti-submarine warfare. It is a sign that while the number of manned ships are decreasing, the Navy is going to go into the unmanned ship business.
At least three types of USVs, and possibly more will be part of this contract. One of these USVs is based on an 11-meter rigid-hulled inflatable boat, known as the Spartan. Two others are in development. One is the High-Speed Unmanned Surface Vehicle - a 35-foot hydrofoil with a top speed of 64.82 kilometers per hour. The other is the Tow Force Unmanned Surface Vehicle, a 39-foot boat which can carry up to four tons of payload and fuel, and tow 1.2 tons at up to 37 kilometers per hour.
Unmanned surface vessels (USVs) can be valuable in more ways than one. The first thing they do is increase the amount of space that can be scanned by a single ship. This makes the LCS (or the larger Zumwalt-class destroyer) the center of a network of sensors. This means that it can locate a submarine contact further out, and thus take action to deal with it - usually by sending a helicopter equipped with anti-submarine weapons. Another benefit of the USVs is that they can be sent into hostile waters much more freely than a manned ship. If one of these gets sunk, it won't make CNN (and thus result in a dynamic similar to that seen after 1993 in Mogadishu). It's easy to replace equipment or a lost UAV. It's harder to replace experienced and well-trained sailors.
A third benefit is that the USVs can also help with deception operations. Active sensors are a two-edged sword. They can provide detection of enemy targets, but they also tell anyone with the ESM systems where they are. This is why manned ships will not always have their radars operating - because sometimes, they need to avoid giving away their position. This will not only improve situational awareness, since active sensors will be able to operate all the time. These sensors will also confuse a potential enemy, since there is no way to tell without getting a visual lock… and that spreads the enemy forces thinner. These USVs can also be "sacrificed" - often emitting signals in an effort to draw fire - and deplete an enemy's store of anti-ship missiles. In essence, these USVs would be acting much like decoys currently in service, like the SLQ-49 - only with much more positive control, and at a much longer distance. A USV can simulate a target - while its control ship is dozens of kilometers away - or even further.
This is not as big of a stretch as one might imagine. UAVs have also been successfully used as decoys in recent history, like the first day of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The United States made widespread use of air-launched decoys (the ADM-141 TALD) and ground-launched UAVs (the BQM-74 Chukar) to fly ahead of the manned aircraft, and to draw fire from Iraqi SAM batteries. The Iraqi SAMs were then targeted and taken out by aircraft carrying HARMs. USVs which can simulate the radar signature of a LCS or DDX could easily serve a similar purpose (when an anti-ship missile launches, it is very visible), drawing fire, and giving the LCS or DDX an aimpoint, and the opposing surface-to-surface missile battery will then have a short, albeit exciting, life.
All in all, one can only look at the way UAVs have become an integral part of aerial warfare, and see that USVs offer the same potential for the U.S. Navy. The day will come when some of the escorts for an American aircraft carrier will have no sailors at all aboard. - Harold C. Hutchison (firstname.lastname@example.org)