The U.S. Navy is committed to integrating unmanned systems in the Fleet for a host of reasons. This is seen in the Navy’s official Force Structure Assessment, as well as in a series of “Future Fleet Architecture Studies.” In each of these studies: one by the Chief of Naval Operations Staff, one by the MITRE Corporation, and one by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the proposed Navy future fleet architecture had large numbers of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems as part of the Navy force structure.
America’s new maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, reconfirms the Navy’s commitment to unmanned systems as an important part of the Sea Service’s assets, noting, in part, “Cost-effective platforms and manned-unmanned teaming will increase the capacity of the fleet and expand our ability to distribute our forces…Naval forces will mix larger platforms with standoff capabilities and smaller, more-affordable platforms—including optionally manned or unmanned assets—that increase our offensive lethality and speed of maneuver.”
In January 2021, the Chief of Naval Operations issued CNO NAVPLAN (Navigation Plan) designed to chart the course for how the Navy will execute the Tri-Service Maritime Strategy Advantage at Sea. Not surprisingly, this document identifies unmanned systems as an important part of the Navy’s future plans.
Most recently, in March 2021, the Department of the Navy released its UNMANNED Campaign Framework describing the Service’s vision for integrating these platforms into the Fleet.
However, it is one thing to state aspirational plans for unmanned systems in high-level documents and statements by Navy acquisition officials, but quite another to bring unmanned systems that can support the Fleet and Fleet Marine Forces out of the factory or laboratory and actually put them in the hands of Sailors and Marines.
That is why, in order to accelerate the integration of air, surface and unmanned systems into the Fleet, in April of this year, the Navy organized its Inaugural Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21 to showcase these innovative unmanned capabilities.
Led by U.S. Pacific Fleet and executed by U.S. 3rd Fleet, Unmanned Systems IBP 21 sought to generate warfighting advantages by integrating multi-domain manned and unmanned capabilities into challenging operational scenarios.
One of the primary objectives of the exercise was to help the U.S. Navy determine how to remake the Fleet as it brings unmanned systems aboard to be warfighting partners with manned ships and aircraft.
Rear Admiral Robert Gaucher, Director of Maritime Headquarters at U.S. Pacific Fleet, put the objectives of IBP-21 this way:
“Building off advances achieved over the past decade in unmanned aviation, Pacific Fleet is answering the Chief of Naval Operations’ drive to put the Navy’s Unmanned Campaign Plan into action. By exercising our full range of unmanned capabilities in a Pacific warfighting scenario, UxS IBP21 directly supports U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s warfighting imperative of driving lethality through experimentation. The goal is to integrate our unmanned capabilities across all domains to demonstrate how they solve Fleet Commander operational problems.”
One USV platform highlighted during the IBP 21 event was the Maritime Tactical Systems Inc. (MARTAC) T38 Devil Ray, a 38-foot, catamaran-hull, unmanned surface vessel recently introduced as part of the MARTAC “Expeditionary Class” USVs.
One of the reasons the Navy decided to feature the Devil Ray in Unmanned Systems IBP 21 was that earlier, smaller cousins of the Devil Ray (called MANTAS) performed well in Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments, and demonstrations over the past several years.
These included RIMPAC, Trident Warrior, Bold Alligator, Valiant Shield, and others. More recently Devil Ray was a featured platform during the Navy’s 2020 Trident Warrior exercise.
The T38 Devil Ray USV, powered by twin high-speed diesel engines and vector thrust surface drives has the ability to transit at burst speeds in excess of 80 knots and operate in up to sea state five. With a range greater than 3000 nautical miles at a cruise speed of 25 knots, the craft is capable of carrying up to a 4500 pound payload on its rear deck as a ship-to-shore logistics delivery vehicle. In its aft well deck configuration, the craft can launch and recover onboard UUVs and USVs, as well as operate as a tow vehicle for onboard tow-sensors and ROVs. All configurations have the ability to carry, deploy and recover gyrocopter UAVs on its main deck forward.
In IBP 21, the T38 Devil Ray performed a high-speed autonomous round trip transit from San Diego to San Clemente Island as a demonstration for unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). It performed this demonstration while operating in a sea state 3. The Devil Ray also demonstrated the ability to serve as a high-speed payload delivery mine warfare asset, thereby enabling the Navy to achieve a long-desired goal to “Take the Sailor out of the minefield.”
The Devil Ray can quickly transit at high speed to any AOR. Upon arrival, the craft can slow to conduct its mission. Even in a total EMCON condition, the preprogramming of the autonomous mission of the Devil Ray allows for performance of any mission without any radio transmission interface with the supervisory controller onboard the mother ship or ashore. With high resolution gyro-stabilized cameras, the Devil Ray has the ability to video and data record key aspects of the mission for playback to the mission controller or upon return to base.
As the U.S. Navy is challenged by Congress regarding its ambitious plans to develop families of large, medium and smaller unmanned systems in all domains, one way to alleviate these concerns is to move forward with the fielding of proven commercial-off-the-shelf systems that have been thoroughly tested in a wide range of Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments and demonstrations.
The T38 Devil Ray is the best unmanned surface vehicle candidate to meet the Navy’s needs today. Unlike many USVs that are in various stages of development, the Devil Ray is certified as Technical Readiness Level Nine (TRL 9), meaning it is ready for deployment now. Further, integrating Devil Ray into the Fleet requires no special accommodation to field today, since it matches the size of the eleven meter RHIB currently carried by many U.S. Navy ships. The Navy will be well served to put Devil Ray into the hands of our Sailors in order to meet urgent operational needs.