How the Navy Hopes Robot Warships Will Deter China

David Axe

Key point: America is once again using its high-tech advantages to try and ensure it could win any war.

While the American fleet throughout its history has shifted back and forth between naval concepts favoring fewer large ships or more smaller ones, the fleet architecture currently under development for the first time includes large numbers of robotic vessels.

The goal, according to a June 2019 report from Ronald O’Rourke, a naval expert with the Congressional Research Service, is to deploy a fleet that can spread out during wartime, absorb Chinese missile attacks then quickly strike back.

In today’s fleet of around 290 warships, there are two large warships such as 9,000-ton destroyers for every two small ones such as 3,000-ton Littoral Combat Ships. According to O’Rourke, the Navy wants to flip that ratio as it works toward a bigger fleet of as many as 355 ships. Sometime in the 2030s, there could be two small vessels for every large one.

Potentially scores of unmanned vessels -- “U.V.s,” as O’Rourke calls them -- are critical to the plan. They’re cheap enough to buy quickly in large numbers. They can sail on station for long periods of time without wearing out a human crew. And in combat, they’re more expendable than a manned ship is.

“U.V.s are one of several new capabilities—along with directed-energy weapons, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and cyber capabilities—that the Navy says it is pursuing to meet emerging military challenges, particularly from China,” O’Rourke explained.

U.V.s can be equipped with sensors, weapons, or other payloads, and can be operated remotely, semi-autonomously, or (with technological advancements) autonomously. They can be individually less expensive to procure than manned ships and aircraft because their designs do not need to incorporate spaces and support equipment for onboard human operators.

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