For the First Time, a Navy Drone Ship Launched a Missile at Sea

·3 min read
  • For the first time, a U.S. Navy uncrewed surface ship has launched a missile.

  • The missile, SM-6, is capable of engaging almost anything at sea.

  • Uncrewed ships will increase the Navy's firepower at sea cheaply and efficiently, while creating room for new tactics.

In new footage from the U.S. Department of Defense, Ranger, an uncrewed Navy drone ship, launched an SM-6 missile (one of the service's most advanced guided weapons) while steaming at sea.

The video, posted September 3 on Twitter, isn't just for fun, though—it marks an important first for the service; uncrewed ships like Ranger promise to boost the number of missiles that a Navy fleet can carry at sea, all while keeping shipbuilding costs down.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy/YouTube
Photo credit: U.S. Navy/YouTube

Ranger is designed with a long, flat cargo area behind the bridge, allowing it to accommodate all sorts of mission payloads, from anti-submarine warfare to mine-hunting. In the video, Ranger appears to be carrying a number of shipping containers onboard with a single 30- to 40-foot white container parked prominently on the ship's stern.

Suddenly, the roof of the white shipping container rises to a 90-degree position, showing off what appears to be four missile launchers. An SM-6 missile then rises into the air on a pillar of fire. The SM-6, for its part, is a jack-of-all-trades missile that can engage drones, aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. It can even attack enemy warships, striking them at Mach 3.5, and peppering their vulnerable electronics and weapon systems with a small, but powerful blast-fragmentation warhead.

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The Navy is betting big on unmanned surface vehicles (USV). The service envisions several roles for them, but one of the most important is that of a floating missile magazine, augmenting a crewed warship's firepower. Current guided-missile cruisers and destroyers are equipped with 90, 96, or 122 missile silos, each of which can carry a single SM-6 missile, SM-2 air-defense missile, SM-3 ballistic missile interceptor, or Tomahawk anti-ship or land-attack cruise missiles.

The rise of the Chinese Navy is prompting the U.S. Navy to boost the number of warships across its fleet from 296 to 355. Warships are expensive, however, and the service's ambitions are running into a fiscal buzzsaw. The latest Arleigh Burke-class destroyers cost approximately $1.8 billion per hull, for instance, which caused the Navy to request just one in this year's defense budget (although, thanks to Congress, that number looks like it will be adjusted upward to three destroyers.) Crewed ships are also expensive to operate and the Navy must pay people to crew them.

Photo credit: James D. Morgan - Getty Images
Photo credit: James D. Morgan - Getty Images

The solution? Place lots of missile silos on uncrewed ships, and have them steam alongside crewed ships in wartime. A cruiser with 122 silos might control another two USVs, each with 48 silos each, giving the ship a total 218 silos. That's the firepower of a destroyer without the $1.8 billion price tag.

Uncrewed missile ships could also allow the Navy to mix up tactics. If the Navy is engaging an enemy fleet, for example, the uncrewed ships could sail to engage the enemy from an unanticipated direction. This would force the enemy to train sensors and weapons in all directions, weakening its overall defenses.

One day soon, an enemy fleet will be on the receiving end of a powerful U.S. Navy strike force, with carrier-based strike fighters approaching from the air; submarines under the sea; and crewed and uncrewed missile-firing surface ships. That's a powerful incentive to just stay home and not make trouble. So if the Navy gets its way, ships without crews just might prevent a war.

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