The US Navy is rushing to acquire a new class of unmanned surface vehicles and will potentially award a contract for USV designs by the end of 2019, USNI News reported.
According to an unclassified readout of the program for USV designs reviewed by USNI, the Navy is to issue a request for proposals for a new class of medium USV within the next two months (April and May).
On March 6th, USNI News requested additional details of the competition from Naval Sea Systems Command. The request was acknowledged, but immediately returned.
“According to a notional list of requirements, the medium USV will function as a sensor and communications relay as part of a family of unmanned surface systems being developed by the service. The craft will be able to carry a payload equivalent to a 40-foot shipping container, will operate on its own for at least 60 days before needing to return to port, and be capable of refueling at sea,” USNI reported.
Furthermore, the USV would have to operate autonomously under the rules of maritime road at a cruising speed of approximately 16 knots with a minimum range of 4,500 nautical miles and operate via a government-provided communication relay system.
The size of the MUSV – 12 to 50 meters – ranges from about the size of the service’s 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) to the Navy’s Cyclone-class patrol craft (PCs).
The price per hull of the USV is yet unclear, but its modular focus would place the bulk of the costs in the modular payload rather than the hull.
Back in January, USNI News cited Rear Adm. Ron Boxall, Navy director of surface warfare (OPNAV N96) according to whom the future medium USV draws inspiration from the Sea Hunter medium USV demonstrator, which was initially a DARPA program and transitioned to the Office of Naval Research for further development.
“We now see that we’ve got a platform we can start being innovative with. Let’s try different payloads on there, and let’s go get that thing out there,” Boxall said. “We’ve already done some of that, and we’re going to continue to learn more.”
According to the Navy’s so-called Surface Capability Evolution Plan, the initial medium USVs will be used for a serious of experimentation efforts before moving into efforts to refine the program.
Over the next 10 years, the US Navy is set to not only develop a range of large and medium USVs, but also a next-generation guided-missile frigate based on an existing US or allied design, as well as a clean-sheet large surface warship that will follow the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class of guided-missile destroyers.
According to USNI, “the rapid proposed contract award and complex reimagining of the fundamental structure of the surface fleet come ahead of a new force structure assessment that could reflect changes in how the Navy organizes itself and what ships it needs to buy.”
The last Force Structure Assessment in 2016 called for a battle force of 355 manned ships, which the US Congress later enshrined in law. It is unclear how the US Navy will count the USVs in its next FSA or how their role will be quantified in the future fleet. “What is clear is that the Navy has decided it needs a drastic change in how its surface fleet is organized and built for the future.”
“The imperative here is that we need to – we’re in a great power competition these days, in case you hadn’t noticed or heard – and because of that, it’s important that we have to start thinking how to get better more quickly,” Boxall said.