One of the U.S. Defense Department’s two prototype robot warships just fired its first missile.
The military on Friday hailed the test-launch of an SM-6 missile from the Unmanned Surface Vessel Ranger, sailing off the California coast, as “game-changing.”
It’s one thing for an unmanned vessel to launch a missile, however. It’s quite another for the same vessel autonomously to find and fix targets.
The real “game-changer” will come when Ranger or another USV plugs into a wide-ranging command-and-control and data network—one that works in the stress of battle.
The Navy for years has been signalling its intention to supplement, if not partially replace, its traditional manned warships with large numbers of inexpensive USVs.
A tentative fleet plan that the administration of President Joe Biden released in June proposes to add between 77 and 140 unmanned ships and submarines to a long-term force of between 321 and 372 manned vessels.
To that end, the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office has acquired the two prototype USVs and is planning on buying two more before handing the program over to the U.S. Navy in 2022.
Lawmakers gave the project around $100 million for the effort last year. The program asked for $150 million for 2022. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency itself owned a pair of smaller USVs and handed those over to the Navy back in 2018.
The USVs Nomad and Ranger are former civilian fast supply vessels, dozens of which crisscross the Gulf of Mexico supporting oil platforms. The Pentagon painted the 175-foot vessels gray and added computers and communications equipment, as well as artificial intelligence systems developed by Raytheon.
Both USVs made the 4,000-mile trip from the Gulf Coast through the Panama Canal to their home port San Diego—Ranger in October, Nomad in June.
The transits were opportunities to test the vessels’ autonomous navigation abilities. With sailors in San Diego keeping watch, the USVs steered themselves to the canal, at which point pilots boarded the vessels to guide them through to the Pacific Ocean.
Ranger was the first to get weapons. The Navy installed a quad-pack of launchers for Raytheon’s SM-6, a ballistic missile with a multi-mode seeker. The $5 million SM-6 nominally is an air-defense missile, but the Navy steadily has been expanding the munitions target set to include ballistic missiles, ships and targets on land.
The launchers lie flat in a shipping container before angling upward to fire.
Some time before Sept. 3, controllers on land commanded Ranger to fire one SM-6. “Such innovation drives the future of joint capabilities,” the Pentagon crowed.
But it’s not hard to fire a missile. It is hard to fire a missile at a legitimate target during the chaos of combat. Surveillance forces must find and identify, say, an enemy warship among the thousands of civilian vessels crowding shipping lanes.
A wide array of scouts could feed data into the network. Manned planes and ships. Drones. Other robotic vessels. Even Marine Corps battalions hiding out on remote islands.
The surveilers must pass to the unmanned shooter, as well as to controllers on land, a detailed target track—coordinates where a missile should aim in order to put it close enough to the enemy for the missile’s own seeker to work.
This delicate hand-off of data must occur fast across potentially thousands of miles while the enemy is jamming sensors and radios and interfering with satellites.
The Pentagon knows that the sensor and command network is key to making the USVs work. The same SCO that acquired the USVs also has been working on the network.
The developers are optimistic. The USV program “delivers a distributed sensor network that can navigate and operate with man in/on the loop oversight, and will be capable of weeks-long deployments and trans-oceanic transits,” the Defense Department stated.
The proof will come in the form of a realistic trial—one that tests the sensors, the network and a missile-packing robot ship.