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The Last Manned Battleship

October 19, 2009

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!

23 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2014 8:57 am

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about fashioners.

  2. B. Walthrop permalink
    October 21, 2009 3:07 pm

    Here is another link that very briefly goes over the SDTS capability.

    This is a truly impressive technology that is really not particularly well represented in this brief outline, but it is what is available online.


  3. B. Walthrop permalink
    October 21, 2009 3:00 pm

    Warship scale unmanned surface vehicles already exist for limited applications. The Self Defense Test Ship run by NSWC Port Hueneme is the principle example of this sort of technology. The ship is the Ex-USS Paul F. Foster and it has been fully converted to be remotely controlled (both HM&E) as well as combat systems during self defense weapons testing.

    Some of the capability of the ship has been removed, but it is hard to argue that much of the technology that Mike proposes in his “forward looking” essay has already been proven in a relatively near shore operationally relevant environment. The test ship uses the legacy engineering plant, and can be modified to accomodate almost all of the modern ship self-defense weapons systems and operate under remote control with 0 crew members aboard for a number of hours.

    As some have pointed out, the challenge would primarily be in supporting the logistics requirements of a longer term operation, but the initial concepts are pretty far along the development path.

    Here’s a link to some pretty poor quality video of an ESSM test that was conducted successfully fairly recently.

    While not fully developed, this proposal is closer to reality than science fiction.


  4. Graham Strouse permalink
    October 21, 2009 1:39 am

    EMP is a very real threat to network-centric units. Not just nuclear EMP. A fairly formidable flux-compression explosive can be rigged up for about $400 using 1940s tech. Maintaing a balance between manned & unmanned units is still important.

  5. October 20, 2009 9:52 pm

    Networking is always good and should be done. Over depending on it vs a future first team threat can get one killed. Link-16 et al is geo-locatable, jammable and so on. Want to find the U.S., just follow your nose to its network nodes and you can get enough of a fix to have a good idea where someone is. Not that most of our enemies will have this…. which leads us too the idea that not many of our enemies justifiy a giga-dollar dreadnought, or a corvette with a destroyer price tag known as the Littoral Combat Gip.

  6. Joe K. permalink
    October 20, 2009 12:50 pm

    I would think that ships of that size just can’t be unmanned in general.

    Even if you put some people on board to make repairs, you’d be labeling them as completely expendable if you send the ship in like it’s an unmanned vessel. And there’s a reason purposefully putting men in harm’s way is very frowned-upon especially if it’s unnecessary.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 20, 2009 12:35 pm

    “Who’s going to put out fires, patch holes and fix battle damage when the robot destroyer is hit?”

    Smitty brings up a very good point and of course we would have to work through the problems before you would deploy such a system. I think you also mentioned earlier of some larger USVs and I would definitely start there before I would see my own full size drone destroyer.

    My thinking first off is, if it wouldn’t be possible for a completely crewless battleship, then you would have a dozen or two personnel, who would monitor controls and systems, perform basic maintenance, though not actually drive or fight the ship. These would also act as damage control parties in warzones.

    Also I would hope the drones would price less than $2 billion each, certainly less than a mothership, since that is a main selling point, to reduce the price of individual warships. These vessels would be without Aegis radar and smaller without the need for living spaces, cafeterias, food storage areas, ect.

    Heretic, you may be right on the unmanned cargo vessels appearing first, and I think I agree.

  8. B.Smitty permalink
    October 20, 2009 11:38 am

    Even if you can solve (or ignore) the “denied comms” problem, you still have to face the fact that a large warship is a complex system, with MANY moving parts that won’t fix themselves when they break. Who’s going to put out fires, patch holes and fix battle damage when the robot destroyer is hit? Are you ready to risk losing a $2+ billion investment because your damage control party couldn’t land on the helopad due to fire or obstructions?

    That’s why, IMHO, large USVs should be constrained in size and expense to relatively simple systems with a reasonable MTBF that are, above all, expendable.

  9. Heretic permalink
    October 20, 2009 11:33 am

    We will have unmanned commercial cargo ships before we have unmanned warships. So far, NO ONE is willing to remove the entire crew from a container ship. Three guesses as to why (and the first two don’t count…).

  10. Hudson permalink
    October 20, 2009 10:39 am

    Presently, the armies of the United States and Europe are stymied in Afghanistan by a rag tag army of religious fanatics and criminal gangs equipped with infantry weapons, without armor, body armor, air power or heavy artillery. You can say that the rules for engagement favor al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and that might be true. Even so, this is a remarkable situation.

    What the enemy has is a fanatical will to win. Our soldiers fight hard, no doubt, but most of the Europeans have no stomach for this fight. They spend a little treasure and almost no blood. The Predator drone attacks descimate al-Qaeda leadership, but fail to destroy them or slow down the Taliban. Our armies cannot deny the Taliban anything essential to their war effort: men, weapons or money. Our generals tell us we are not succeeding, which means we are losing. Our only hope, really, is in a larger, improved Afghan army, not more hi-tech weapons.

    I think we have to question the idea of robot weapons, robot armies. They “save lives” no doubt. But what does this say about our will to fight as a nation? In the popular imagination, in machine vs. man conflicts, going back to Star Wars and beyond, the human forces, usually the rebels, win out in the end. So we have to ask ourselves where are we heading? Is it our fate to end up as the Death Star in Star Wars?

  11. Joe K. permalink
    October 20, 2009 9:50 am

    Revolutionize the Navy into a force that commits to wars and conflicts on the push of a single button?

    That’s insane.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 20, 2009 6:30 am

    “Not shown of course are any network denial efforts.”

    I always hear this. Where are these network deniers? How can we know how to react unless we face them? This is needless fear and another reason for not trying new ideas.

    We were once told the bomber would always get through, that the battleships’ guns would shoot down all the carrier’s planes. But new technologies persevered to prove these ideas wrong. I say we push ahead with these robot plans, and see how far we go. So far so good. They are working on land and in the air. Lets take the drones to sea and revolutionize the Navy.

  13. October 20, 2009 4:29 am

    This is a common blue-sky marketing ploy with gold plated weapons systems sales jobs… “It’s networkable”. Yeah well, a B-52 is networkable and so is the USS Iowa if it was brought out. These slides showing the latest pretty toy and then showing the network node are just another form of lying to the public.

    Not shown of course are any network denial efforts. In PowerPoint, the network always works, always has enough bandwidth and so on.

  14. Tarl permalink
    October 20, 2009 2:30 am

    If an unmanned cruiser were possible, what would it be good for? What could it do that land-based UAVs could not do more cheaply and reliably? If the main function of the cruiser is to fire cruise missiles, why not have a bomber do this?

  15. B.Smitty permalink
    October 19, 2009 11:24 pm


    I think it’s a bit much to ask for a large warship to be completely unmanned anytime soon. Plus, IMHO, USVs still have to be cheap enough to lose.

    However I am interested in exploring what happens when you increase the size of USVs. Could you make a patrol craft-sized MIW/ASW/ASuW unmanned vessel with enough range and endurance to self deploy with a task force? How do you handle maintenance and repairs? Automated RAS?

    It seems like a crew should still be optional to perform VBSS, take control if systems go down, and so on.

  16. Joe K. permalink
    October 19, 2009 10:18 pm

    You really don’t give two hoots about morality at all do ya?

    And if you build an automaton warship the size of an Arleigh Burke you’re not going to send it closer to harm because it is too expensive to play warship spam.

  17. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 19, 2009 8:30 pm

    Here is another “Plug and play” warship, something different than the littoral combat ship. Consider the individual drone ships as separate modules, but instead of joined at the shipyard, they are joined electronically. This way, by using dispersal, you might ensure greater survivability in a precision missile environment. The mothership would be “plugged in” to the drones to suit the mission she is sent on.

    Other than missiles, what other functions could you envision for such a fleet? ASW, or aviation with UAVs? or minesweepers, where the mothership sails safely out of range while the expendable drones do the sweeping?

    Such a force might be tailor made for a future resupply convoy under threat of submarines. You could send out numerous drone convoys, with only one carrying the true cargo, the other’s as decoys. The decoys,naturally, would be heavily armed so as to have a nice and lethal surprise awaiting the attackers!

  18. Mrs. Davis permalink
    October 19, 2009 5:19 pm

    Low diving, manned submersibles will make a lot more sense for the mother-ship by the time this level of ship robotics is available. In fact an Ohio class as a mother ship…

  19. Distiller permalink
    October 19, 2009 5:04 pm

    As I usually say at that point: The cultural challenges here might outweigh the technical/technological ones …

  20. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 19, 2009 3:40 pm

    “Great – until someone (gasp!) shoots down the satcoms satellites, or jams them, plus (horror) starts pumping out megawatts of white noise across your HF freqs”

    I’ve been hearing horror stories about someone shooting down our satellites, or electromagnetic pulse for years. Note my idea would use these as backup navigation guides. But we’ve been using GPS for decades now, and I think in wartime we can adjust to the threat. The mothership is the key here.

    And we risk crews every time we send one of our 5000 crew supercarriers up against a shoreline. A much smaller ship with no crew would be far less a risk in contrast.

  21. Hudson permalink
    October 19, 2009 2:22 pm

    Though far from being an expert on what it would take to run a destroyer or similar size ship, I think it’s safe to say that the Navy would never put a ship that size and expense to sea without at least a skeleton crew aboard, to maintain the engine and manually override any errant sensors.

  22. Jed permalink
    October 19, 2009 2:11 pm

    Great – until someone (gasp!) shoots down the satcoms satellites, or jams them, plus (horror) starts pumping out megawatts of white noise across your HF freqs, starts messing with GPS signals, etc etc, need I go on ?

    There is a difference to flying UAV’s over ‘the Stan’ from Florida, to controlling a ‘task force’ remotely, the tech is not mature enough.

    Slight flight of fantasy here – the whole premise of the modern version of Battlestar Galactica was that the enemy had better cyber-warfare, ECM / ECCM than the friendly forces (humans), hence disconnected, non-networked vital systems, and even manned fighters !


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