The proud US Navy fleet left San Diego amid much publicity and ebullient speeches from naval spokesmen. It seemed that every Admiral in the Navy claimed to have played a key role in developing and fielding this new fleet which was, by this voyage, ushering in a new era of naval power. Press conferences sprang up like mushrooms. You couldn’t spit without hitting another Admiral touting the wonders of this new naval concept.
The fleet was to be the first large scale demonstration of the wonders and magnificence of the manned/unmanned partnering that would define the Navy’s new fleet structure of the future. The USS Ford, a Burke, a large displacement unmanned surface vessel (LDUSV), and five medium displacement unmanned surface vessels (MDUSV) were to sail from San Diego to the South China Sea where one of the MDUSVs would perform a publicly announced and greatly hyped unmanned Freedom of Navigation (FONOPS) passage near one of the many illegal Chinese artificial island bases. The voyage would not only usher in a new era of naval power but also send a clear message to China that the US Navy was still leading the way in naval technology.
In a nod to President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, whose voyage had introduced the world to American naval power, the press had taken to referring to the fleet as the Great White Unmanned Fleet and the more supportive of the media were given MH-60 helicopter rides to take photos of the fleet as it pulled out of port.
As with the earlier unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), the unmanned vessels hadn’t been thoroughly tested. The Navy had opted to ignore the DOT&E test protocols in their haste to get the ships into the fleet and avoid any budget reductions that a somewhat skittish Congress might impose if the vessels were found to have significant problems. Still, this wasn’t a combat action, just a demonstration voyage and Navy leadership was quite confident that the unmanned vessels were up to the task.
Five days into the eighteen day voyage to the South China Sea, the unmanned vessel control systems on the Ford suddenly displayed an alarm. One of the MDUSVs was registering water accumulation in the hull. An inspection/repair crew was ferried to the vessel and discovered that the aluminum hull had developed a 6 inch long crack, presumably from the stress of prolonged wave action, that was leaking steadily. Because the vessel had not been designed for manned operation, physical access was difficult and limited. The repair crew was unable to reach the crack with sufficient access to effect repairs. The decision was made to send a ‘prize crew’ of 18 sailors from the Ford to the unmanned vessel to sail it back to San Diego for permanent repairs. With four other MDUSVs in the group, the loss of one vessel was not a problem.
Three days later, during group refueling operations, the third MUSV was found to be unable to take on fuel. Again, an inspection/repair crew was dispatched and eventually concluded that a sticking check valve was the culprit. While this would normally be a simple shipboard repair, the unmanned vessel had no spares and the limited physical access again prevented any effective repair. As before, a ‘prize crew’ was detailed to sail the MDUSV to rendezvous with a fleet tug which would tow them to Pearl Harbor for repairs.
On day twelve, one of the remaining MDUSV automated monitoring systems reported seawater in the lube oil system. Once again, this necessitated a ‘prize crew’ to sail the offending vessel to Guam for repairs. Navy spokesmen noted that water in the lube oil was not unique to the MDUSV and was the same problem that had sidelined several LCS and the Zumwalt during its voyage from the east coast to its homeport on the west coast.
The following day, one of the two remaining MDUSVs suddenly veered out of formation. Telemetry determined that the vessel had lost communications and was executing a failsafe return to base.
At this point, the fleet was down to the Ford, the Burke, the LDUSV, and one MDUSV. Navy leadership determined that despite the run of bad luck the group was still more than adequate to perform a simple FONOPS and the decision was made to continue.
On day seventeen, having passed through the first island chain and entered the South China Sea, the group encountered heavy GPS jamming and spoofing. While not overly affecting the manned vessels that could take manual fixes, the USVs kept wandering off course. Not unduly worried, the decision was made to instruct the USVs to switch to inertial navigation (INS). Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to the group commander, the USV’s INS systems were one of the things that had not been tested despite DOT&E warnings. The MDUSV responded properly but the LDUSV veered off in a seemingly random direction. Inside the South China Sea, this could not be allowed and the Burke was dispatched to collect the LDUSV and take it under tow back to Guam.
The group, now reduced to the Ford and the one remaining MDUSV opted to go ahead with the FONOPS given that they had essentially arrived at their destination, anyway.
The next morning, the MDUSV began its passage about ten miles off from the designated artificial island. As the vessel drew abreast of the island, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel approached the MDUSV and a Chinese boarding party proceeded to board and take control of the vessel.
The US reaction was one of instant anger and condemnation from the Ford with demands that the Chinese return the vessel immediately. The Chinese reply was that the unmanned vessel presented a hazard to navigation within Chinese territorial waters and had been seized as a matter of safety.
The President’s National Security Council and the Navy met in emergency session with the President calling for the use of force to secure the return of the MDUSV. However, the Navy pointed out that the Ford was without escort support and her weapon elevators were only partially and sporadically functioning. Given the situation, the Ford would be unable to mount an operation with any reasonable chance of success and, if things escalated, might even be subject to seizure or sinking, itself! Further, the precedent had been set in the Middle East that captured or destroyed unmanned assets were not worth taking military action over. All things considered, the President reluctantly ordered the Navy to abandon the MDUSV and have the Ford retire from the area.
An ill-fated voyage, indeed.
This story is not meant to present any meaningful simulation of the Navy’s manned/unmanned group concept nor is it meant to imply that the rate of unmanned failures in the story is to be expected on a routine basis (although readers may recall that the first several LCS to put to sea ALL experienced major mechanical failures that terminated their voyages!). The story is intended only to highlight the types of failures that could afflict unmanned vessels and how those failures might impact group operations. More importantly, writing the story amused me.
The story also points out the danger in not fully testing new ships. Readers might recall that DOT&E has been quite vocal about the Navy shortcutting tests and trying to skip shock tests, among other testing related issues.