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Sea-cret Vessels: America’s Autonomous Fleet

By Carter Hitchcock, Business Solutions

Project Manager


The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese – a proverb that emphasizes the complexity of decision-making and the importance of timeliness. You don’t want to be the tardy

bird with an empty stomach, and you really don’t want to be the first mouse. The solution lies in strategy.

In national security, the United States is taking a measured approach to autonomy that

mirrors the wisdom of the second mouse. Our strategy is carefully balanced - tempered

with caution but spurred by pressing deadlines. It is informed by the experiences of

early adopters like Russia and mindful of the tactics of potential adversaries such as


The Department of Defense (DoD) is strategically incorporating autonomy into its

operations to augment intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities

in a timely effort to combat the potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Sure, self-driving vehicles, drone-based delivery services, and manufacturing robots are

beneficial to the commercial sector, but in national security, how can we use advanced

technology to stop bad guys? This wave of innovation extends beyond land and air,

making a big splash in American maritime operations.

“Don’t send a human being to do something dangerous that a machine can do better, faster,

and more cheaply,” U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Sam Paparo told an audience at the

WEST 2024 conference. The United States Navy’s adoption of autonomous technologies defines

a pivotal moment in combative strategy, as the U.S. seeks to expand its scope from the sea floor

to the stratosphere.

Under the Replicator initiative, The United States has developed and deployed a fleet of four

unmanned surface vessels (USVs)- Sea Hunter, Sea Hawk, Mariner and Ranger – all of which

returned from battle testing in January. This six-month battle program aimed to assess the

vessels' Concept of Operations (CONOPs) and evaluate their capabilities in a range of scenarios.

No humans were present on the four vessels, as they were controlled from an

operations center in Port Hueneme, CA and staff onboard U.S. Navy destroyers.

These aren't your average RC boats, though. USV’s represent a significant leap forward

in maritime technology, varying in size from small, agile craft to larger ships over 200

feet in length. Aside from their ability to survey vast, remote areas of water, USV’s are

also used in anti-submarine warfare, imaging systems, and mine detection.

One of the most attractive uses for Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) is their potential

integration with drones, particularly swarm drones, which operate as a coordinated

group. This combination allows the United States to map remote and dangerous aquatic

regions efficiently, thereby minimizing risk to human life.

It would be naïve to think we would not use these vessels for combat. In fact,

Switchblade loitering munitions, which essentially act as kamikaze drones, were tested

on the platforms of smaller USV's to enhance fleet lethality.

While the capabilities are intriguing, the United States has been intentionally cautious in

sharing information about its future autonomous fleet operations for security reasons.

critical conceal and reveal strategy,” explained Capt. Alex Campbell, Maritime Director

at the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), addressing the concerns over the limited

information available on Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs).

We might not know the details of future autonomous operations, but we do know that

this is just the beginning, and its likely spurred by China. The U.S. has announced the

formation of a second USV squadron. The fleet is expected to contain smaller USVs

capable of augmenting ISR capabilities, particularly in the western Pacific.

China, on the other hand, has deployed an unmanned surface vessel in the waters

around Taiwan for “research purposes” (we know what that means). The ship possesses

significant ISR capabilities and offers a platform for drone swarm integration.

The United States’s implementation and development of unmanned surface vessels will

be crucial in thwarting the potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Reflecting on the

strategic caution embodied in the United States' approach to autonomy in national

security, it's evident that wisdom—not speed—governs the quest for security and

technological supremacy.

Much like the second mouse, which ultimately secures the cheese by learning from the

mistakes of the first, the U.S. navigates the complex waters of international relations

and technological innovation, ensuring that its actions, though measured, are effective

in maintaining a balance of power.

This strategy, informed by the lessons of early adopters and movements of potential

adversaries, positions the United States not just as a participant in the race for

autonomous maritime superiority, but as a force to be reckoned with.


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