The Last Manned Battleship
Five American warships pass through the Strait of Malacca toward the Indian Ocean, on a mission in support of a ally who is threatened by the ally of an unfriendly Asian power. In appearance, there is little difference in size or design, save that only a single one of the US missile destroyers are manned. This vessel, acting as mothership and utilizing advanced Aegis arrays embedded in its smooth deck, has complete control of the steering and if need be the weaponry of the other four.
As fate would have it, the 21st Century battleships blunder into an old nautical foe. A minefield laid by an enemy auxiliary cruiser disguised as a freighter impedes the small squadron. A further tragedy ensues when the only vessel struck is the mothership. With the command ship dead in the water, this fails to impede the 4 robot vessels on their mission of mercy. While the helpless parent ship awaits a tow back to port, the others are set onto a predetermined course, though they will not be totally alone. Overhead US satellites track the strange squadron to ensure they maintain their journey. A USAF AWACS plane from a nearby friendly airbase is launched to further guide them on their way, acting as a temporary mothership and can even order the ships to return fire if attacked.
Days later, as the completely unmanned squadron nears its destination, it is joined by another mothership. This vessel was dispatched from a larger 5th Fleet battle group which was sailing to the same destination. A crisis has been averted and an ally supported, while a potentially major setback fails to stop an urgent mission.
This allegory of a future naval scenario is an exaggerated version of something very real in service today. Strategypage recently detailed the use of unmanned surface vehicles in the Israeli Navy, as well as detailing the use of such craft in the USN, within an article titled Warships With No One On Board:
Israel is using a locally made USV (unmanned surface vessel), the Protector, to patrol the Gaza coast, and the waters around the Lebanese border. These USVs were also used earlier this year off Gaza, during the December-January war with Hamas. The Protector USV is basically a four ton, 30 foot long (9 meter) speedboat (up to 72 kilometers an hour) equipped with radar, GPS and vidcams, and armed with a remote control 12.7mm machine-gun (using night vision and a laser rangefinder)…Protector can be controlled from an operator ashore, or in a nearby ship, usually out to the horizon or at least 10-20 kilometers distant.
The U.S. Navy had earlier developed the lighter Spartan Scout USV. The Spartan Scout is a two ton, 22 foot long, radio controlled boat. It is armed with a .50 caliber machine-gun and a number of sensors (mainly day and night vidcams.) Spartan Scout is more suitable for patrolling port areas and inland waterways.
Both USVs can operate without an operator (by using GPS to move between specified locations.)
Note that both craft are very small, suitable for only sheltered waters, but plans are underway for a larger 11 meter vessel, which can stay at sea for 24 hours. My own vision, with warships already heavily automated, would see a vessel the size of a Burke destroyer or even larger, a missile barge, used in this role, to enhance the firepower of the navy with little if any extra cost. Leaving off the crew would permit large savings, and allow a ship to use valuable spaces for extra fuel, ammunition, or perhaps a total reduction in size. Such a vessel might lead its controllers to send them closer into harm’s way, if the safety of its sailors were no longer a factor.
Just as the smaller USV’s could be guided by other ships or even shore controllers, as well as set on a predetermined course, I added the same ability in my future robot destroyers. It would seem little extra effort to guide such craft from military satellites, or even fight with them by use of AWACS planes if need be. Note the enhanced connectivity of the current DDG-1000 destroyer above and imagine the potential!