Uncrewed Vessels Spearhead US Navy Innovation Plans

A MARTAC Devil Ray T-38 USV taking part in a demonstration exercise. (Image credit: Jack Rowley/MARTAC)

The informed readership of Ocean News & Technology understands that emerging technologies have changed the character of warfare at sea through the ages.

Whether it was the transition from sail to steam, or the advent of steel warships to replace wooden ones, or the change from the battleship to the aircraft carrier to the centerpiece of the Navy fleet, these changes have helped the US Navy dominate at sea for an extended period.

Today, there are numerous technologies—some in development, some already in the field—that promise to rewrite the naval warfare playbook in the second half of this decade. Some of the most noteworthy include stealthy ships and bombers, more capable missiles, next generation fighter aircraft, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and unmanned technologies in all domains.

The Navy stands on the precipice of another monumental technological advancement. The Navy’s Force Design 2045 document envisions a fleet of 500 ships—350 crewed and 150 uncrewed. This represents a once-in-a-generation paradigm shift for Navy fleet operations, and one that will place big bets on the emerging technologies needed to make uncrewed maritime vehicles more autonomous.

Unmanned systems—especially uncrewed maritime systems—offer the US military with an asymmetric advantage over potential adversaries. Ukraine’s use of weaponized USVs to attack Russian naval vessels has demonstrated just one use of these multipurpose platforms.

The US Navy’s emphasis on uncrewed maritime vehicles was on full display at a recent major international military-industry event. Held in Honolulu, Hawaii, in November 2023, TechNet Indo-Pacific hosted by AFCEA drew over 4,000 delegates from throughout the region. As in previous years, the conference featured keynote speakers as well as breakout panels.


Rear Admiral Eric Ruttenberg, Reserve Deputy Commander, US Pacific Fleet, delivered the event’s opening keynote address. His presentation covered a wide range of challenges and opportunities facing the US Navy in the Indo-Pacific region. A substantial portion of his remarks were focused on uncrewed maritime vehicles.

Rear Admiral Ruttenberg noted that the most pressing need for US Pacific Fleet is innovation, that the velocity of innovation must accelerate, and that Pacific Fleet is looking for ways to get USVs forward to desired areas of operations. He highlighted Pacific Fleet’s strong emphasis on unmanned because these platforms will enable warfighters to conduct missions in a contested environment that manned systems cannot do due to adversary anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

The admiral also stated that the US Navy must continue to evaluate unmanned systems in national and international exercises, experiments, and demonstrations. He placed special emphasis on the Navy’s Integrated Battle Problem series—providing details of some of these events. He noted that these represent the pinnacle of experimentation with uncrewed maritime systems, and that these will continue through 2024 and beyond.

Rear Admiral Ruttenberg explained that the US Pacific Fleet, which is responsible for dealing with the United States principal adversary in the region, is leaning forward to leverage uncrewed technologies to perform a plethora of missions for a number of reasons, including their ability to reduce the risk to human life in high threat areas; to deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest; and to provide options to warfighters that derive from the inherent advantages of unmanned technologies.


Later that day, a panel of subject matter experts in the field of uncrewed maritime vehicles highlighted many of the strides that the US Navy has made in getting these technologies into the hands of Sailors and Marines to evaluate them in a legitimate operational environment.

The panelists noted that the International Maritime Exercise series, held under the auspices of Commander Fifth Fleet and Commander Task Force 59 (CTF 59) in the Arabian Gulf, set the standard for uncrewed maritime vehicle experimentation and included operations with several regional partners. Navies of these nations explored the capabilities of various USVs from various manufactuers, such as Saildrone and MARTAC MANTAS, among others.

A key theme of the panel—and something that resonated with TechNet attendees from throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region—was the fact that the most recent RIMPAC/Trident Warrior exercise was a major coming out for USVs operating with the fleet. Building on the success of RIMPAC/Trident Warrior, the Integrated Battle Problems are increasingly evaluating USVs in broader and more intense set of missions.

Panelists explained that Australia has become a leader is USV experimentation. Autonomous Warrior 22 expanded the evaluation of USVs from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the US, featuring 30 different autonomous systems. Exercise Autonomous Warrior, the Australian Defence Force (ADF)-organized, Royal Australian Navy (RAN)-led, two-week exercise was built around a simulated, next generation naval battlespace. Its purpose was to test and evaluate uncrewed, robotic, and autonomous systems in Jervis Bay, in the nearby East Australian Exercise Area, and the skies above.

Finally, the panel noted that, building on the recent successes of uncrewed maritime vehicles in international exercises, experiments and demonstrations, a plethora of events designed to continue to place these systems in the hands of naval operators are planned throughout 2024 and beyond, especially those that feature uncrewed maritime vehicles performing increasingly autonomous missions.

These, as well as other, discussions during TechNet Indo-Pacific made it clear that the Department of the Navy—and especially the US Pacific Fleet—is committed to an accelerated development path for uncrewed systems. This commitment serves as an important arrow in the quiver of US military innovation and is likely to help equip the US Navy with the tools needed to provide comprehensive security of the world’s oceans. Upcoming exercises and initiatives, which ON&T will cover ongoing, will prove to be important opportunities to persuade a sometimes-skeptical Congress to continue supporting the development and integration of unmanned maritime systems.

George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator and national security professional. His 30-year career as a naval aviator culminated in 14 years of consecutive service as executive officer, commanding officer, commodore, and chief of staff. He is a 40-year Coronado resident and enjoys writing, especially speculative fiction about the future of warfare. He is the author of 18 books, including four consecutive New York Times bestsellers.

This feature originally appeared in ON&T Magazine’s January/February 2024 issue. Click here to read more.

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