Unmanned ships for RAN : Here we go again – idea without a concept !

Mar 16, 2024
A U.S. Naval Ship (DDG) enters Sydney harbour.

There has been significant media discussion (including P&I) of Defence Minister Marles’ recent announcement of the Surface Ship Review for the RAN – a step towards remedying the Defence procurement shambles inherited by the Albanese government and conducted by yet another retired US admiral! But there has been scant attention to the rabbit out of the hat Marles produced to provide six large unmanned ships of an as yet undecided US design – let alone a concept of how they might best be deployed. All of which has been the subject of long and often acrimonious debate in the US.

Not surprisingly, Marles provided only limited detail about these new ships:

“We’re also procuring six large optionally crewed surface crewed- surface vessels. The LOSVs are in development with the United States…They have the capacity to operate in an uncrewed fashion, but it is the intention of the Royal Australian Navy to crew these vessels. They will operate in combination with the Hobart-class anti-warfare destroyers, Air Warfare Destroyers and they will also operate in conjunction with the Hunter-class frigates. These ships in combination with the three existing Air Warfare Destroyers will take our service fleet of warships to 26. It is the largest fleet that we will have since the end of the Second World War.”

There has been confusion about the generic name for these new ships because of uncertainty about how they would be operated. Early US thinking about these vessels was that they could operate completely unmanned – driven like other drone forms by US based operators or from nearby regular USN vessels. But the USN came to the firm view eventually that there must be a manned presence on any LUSV before it could be used to fire missiles. That then led to the US introduction of the key words of “optional” and “lightly manned” with an emphasis on a very small crew to minimise costs of crew and their facilities, etc.

Australian media reporting of the proposal inevitably was misled initially by the successes the Ukrainians have had with their much smaller drones against the Russian Navy in the Black Sea. But the difference was so stark: small unmanned high speed craft loaded with high explosives travelling short distances from a home base in the Ukraine against a lightly manned Corvette sized LOSV operating up to thousands of kms away from home base. This was typified by a headline from Channel Seven:

“Six drone warships are to be commissioned for the Australian Navy, missile carriers that can roam the world’s oceans with no one at the wheel.”

As another booster for the proposal, Marles emphasised that the six vessels “would be acquired through formal engagement with the US Navy but constructed in Australia. “and later “the six LOSVs will also be built at the Henderson naval precinct. Again, this provides a multi-decade pipeline of work in Perth for the Henderson Naval Precinct.” Separately it was reported that Austal had been selected to build the LOSV’s – presumably on the basis that its US company (Austal US) would gain a contract for the supply of at least some of the US LUCV’s! Judged on the continuing problems with the submarine deal there are some big gaps in all of this sketchy deal too. Interestingly while Marles wants six vessels for the RAN, the USN is only planning on nine at this stage. And on top of this, one can only imagine the design implications required to meet “optional” manning by the USN or RAN.

The above illustrates starkly just how much is still not yet known about the whole unmanned surface vessel project in the US – let alone what it means for Australia! Especially, as according to Marles’s statistics, these vessels are supposed to comprise a quarter of the RAN’s eventually planned record size! Recent public reports from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provide an invaluable current perspective of the whole program.

The use of large unmanned ships arose in USN scoping discussions, identifying the need for a fundamental review of the USN’s fleet deployment structure. This is driven primarily by the urgency of budgetary relief to meet the USN’s huge procurement program, serious shortages of crew and maintenance staff, vulnerability of USN fleet deployments in the Western Pacific to Chinese land based anti ship missiles and the changing geopolitical scene.

The same imperatives which drove the USN into the controversial Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) concept, which was criticised inside and outside the USN for not meeting expectations. The LCS involved the Austal US built trimarans which the USN has been trying, for some years, to offload prematurely through its military aid programs. Such as the “ Canberra” so recently commissioned by the USN in an over the top PR stunt at Garden Island with some strange outcomes.

From the outset, Congress and other critics were wary of costly past USN performance in developing new platforms like the LCS. The USN explained that the unmanned ships would form an integral part of its aim “to counter forces in combat operations against an adversary, particularly China, that has substantial capabilities for detecting and attacking U.S. Navy surface ships with anti-ship missiles and other weapons.”

In 2022, the USN conducted a major review of these issues, which has remained secret, but which it labels as the USN’s new “foundational operating concept”, summarised as:

“Using resilient communication links and networking technologies to knit the resulting widely dispersed force of manned and unmanned ships and aircraft into a coordinated battle force that can withstand and adapt to enemy attacks on Navy communications and networks.” Under the new title of Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO).

That occasioned the Congress to seek further clarification and detail from the USN for its 2024 consideration of the proposal. Among these issues were:

Construction and maintenance problems – As with the nuclear submarine experience, the overstretched US shipyards will have to increase significantly their capabilities to build the LUSV’s and provide the requisite long term repair and maintenance program. (Austal US has been one of six companies provided with some preliminary funding for the program. Note Marles also asserting that the RAN LUSV’s would be built in Perth ?). A lightly manned ship would also be more vulnerable to damage from attack (even by smugglers) or normal breakdown and less able to carry out running repairs.

Command and control issues – USN seems inclined to prefer use of these vessels in carrier group based operations, so fully integrating remote operations from nearby USN vessel or US base into combat operations but fully under carrier group commander.

Survivability – stealthy structures will still need significant protection from satellite based intelligence and associated air and missile support – especially from cyber attack to which they would be more vulnerable than ordinary ships. All the more as their possible roles in ASW and intelligence collection which would require them to be operating around the edges of the carrier group cover. US literature delightfully concedes they will be far cheaper than regular ships and thus more “attritable” !

In all, these not unmanned surface vessels present another batch of daunting issues for the RAN even before we have a properly planned concept for their operation as an Australian ship – not just part of a US carrier group!

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