Hey, let’s have a little fun today!
The Navy is obsessed with unmanned ships and aircraft, not as a means of achieving greater military effectiveness, but as a means of achieving reduced manning costs so that they can build more ships. At best, this will produce a very weak navy that has somewhat reduced costs and any savings will be consumed by the hugely increased construction costs of those few manned assets that are left.
What if, instead of going down the Navy’s path of small, weak, unmanned ships, we, instead, postulate an unmanned ship that goes the other direction: a very powerful, combat-dominating, unmanned ship? What would such a ship look like? What characteristics would it have? How would it operate? Let’s speculate and have some fun with it!
Now, what do we do before we begin designing a vessel and loading it up with every weapon system we’ve ever heard of (you know … the Navy way of designing)? That’s right! We develop a Concept of Operations (CONOPS).
Here’s a few unmanned characteristics that should influence our CONOPS (absent an actual strategy which is what should drive the CONOPS!):
- Unmanned vessels should be cheap since they don’t need berthing, heads, galleys, food and water storage, waste treatment, passageways (beyond a few service passages), showers, gyms, lounges, mail handling, postal services, etc. That immediately reduces the ship size and, hence, cost by half.
- Cheap unmanned vessels should be numerous.
- Unmanned vessels are ideal for high risk missions.
What do those simple, general, foundational unmanned characteristics suggest in the way of a CONOPS? They suggest – actually demand! - that the proper use for an unmanned warship is one that is not only intended to stand in harm’s way but to actively seek it out. This is the offensive ship that the Navy has been lacking for so long – the ship that will take the fight to the enemy rather than sit back and passively try to defend and survive. This ship will be used to aggressively seek out and engage (go straight at, not just try to defend against) enemy fleets, advance into the teeth of enemy port defenses and destroy those ports, and engage and destroy coastal bases and fortifications. The ship will operate in squadrons of half a dozen on up to a couple dozen or more, depending on the mission, and will be supported, as needed, by other vessels and assets that will perform ASW, long range AAW, and long range surveillance. Thus, this is NOT a do-everything ship – it is an attack ship, pure and simple.
It is also not a Terminator-like, artificial intelligence ship that is going to wander around on its own looking for targets among civilian shipping and deciding what is or isn’t a valid target. That kind of AI doesn’t exist and would cost enormous sums to develop and would never achieve operational status. Plus, that kind of candy-ass mission doesn’t call for a powerful WARship like this. Instead, this is an unmanned ship that is simply given a series of waypoints and instructed to attack anything it can, within some generalized target parameters. We already have this level of AI … it’s called cruise missiles. Thus, the AI already exists and would cost almost nothing to develop and integrate.
It is important to note, as a crucial part of the CONOPS, that the ship will NOT be required to stay at sea, wandering around aimlessly and autonomously. Instead, the ship will execute a mission and, if it survives, will return to port where needed maintenance and repairs will be performed and weapons will be reloaded. It will stay in port until the next mission.
So, with that cursory CONOPS in mind, what does the CONOPS tell us about the required ship design characteristics?
The CONOPS assures us that the ship will come under attack, will take hits, will have to absorb damage, and will have to continue fighting with only minimal degradation of its combat effectiveness due to battle damage (a complete departure from current Navy ship design practice!). Further, the ship will need massive amounts of offensive weapons because, having fought its way to a target, we have to make sure we can destroy the target or it’s all a waste of resources and effort.
What then, are the specific characteristics of this ship?
Sponge Construction – This ship will have nothing in common, structurally, with conventional ships. Instead, the ship will be built as a ‘sponge’. By this, I mean that instead of open, floodable compartments bounded by thin sheets of metal, the ‘compartment’ volume will be ‘filled’ by a metallic (or ceramic or resin or whatever material we can technologically produce in this form) ‘foam’. Like a sponge, the volume will be a closed-cell (you plastics people know what that means) metal (or whatever material) foam. Picture a giant cube of metal with lots and lots of void spaces like a sponge. Thus, there will be no compartment to flood and sink the ship. The worst case would be that an explosion takes a chunk out of the foam. This kind of foam construction would likely confer tremendous resistance to missile penetration and would absolutely contain and mitigate the effects of a missile explosion. With foam construction and only a few small service passages and compartments, the vessel would be very resistant to sinking.
The only non-foam compartments in the ship would be a few spaces that contain machinery that would need to be accessed for maintenance and repair. The bulk of the electrical and utility conduits and piping would run through the foamed volumes. As such, they would not be readily accessible and, if damaged in combat, would be bypassed until repairs could be made. This ability to bypass and reroute utilities is something that would be designed in with numerous pre-existing cross connects. In essence, this would create a spider web of electrical and utilities that can be automatically isolated and re-routed as dictated by damage.
Service Life - Hand in hand with the foam concept is a short design life span. If equipment is going to be sealed inside foamed material, it goes without saying that it can’t be easily serviced which automatically limits the life span of the ship. These ships would have 10-15 year design life spans. This also eliminates the entire idiotic future proofing and mid-life upgrades that so many people love but that never happen.
Weapons - With no need for internal habitability volume, the bulk of the ship’s volume would be available for a very dense weapons fit.
- Missiles – Offensive missiles are the reason this ship exists. Each ship would carry around 64 missiles in heavily armored, dispersed launch housings. I use the term ‘launch housings’ because I don’t think the Mk41 VLS is a combat resilient mechanism. We saw from the Port Royal grounding that the VLS was knocked out of alignment by the gentle nosing aground of the ship. If a VLS can be put out of alignment by something that gentle, it is unlikely to be combat resilient. We need a new type of launch housing designed for the abuses of combat.
- AAW – AAW would be limited to horizon range using ESSM missiles. Each ship would carry around 64 missiles in quad-packed, heavily armored launch housings.
- Close-In Self-Defense Weapons – CIWS/SeaRAM mounts would be numerous (several per ship) to offer the best chance of surviving the inevitable attacks.
- Guns - A ship like this is intended to sail right through enemy missile barrages and into enemy fleets and ports/bases so large caliber guns would be quite useful. I’m thinking that a heavily armored, double or triple barrel, large caliber gun mount (I’m thinking 8”) is mandatory. Nothing has the destructive power, efficiency, and cost effectiveness of a large naval gun with a magazine of hundreds of shells per gun.
Sensors – Sensors will be triple redundant, widely separated, and housed in armored ‘pop up’ mechanisms. There would be no delicate, complex Aegis/AMDR arrays. The sensors would small, simple arrays or rotating arrays (TRS-3D/4D, as an example) suitable for horizon range sensing … nothing more.
Armor – It should go without saying that this ship needs to carry the heaviest armor fit it can. Note, though, that the foam construction fills much of the armor function.
All right, there you have it: a conceptual unmanned WARship that embodies what it means to be a WARship and that takes maximum advantage of the benefits of an unmanned platform. This is a mean, decisive, offensive machine that would restore some attack capability to the Navy.
This would not be a cheap, $200M one-hit-sink unmanned vessel with no significant capabilities (you know, like the unmanned vessels the Navy is building today). This ship would cost on the order of $600M which is good value for something with the capabilities just described.
This conceptual exercise is an object lesson for the Navy. If you want to implement unmanned vessels, at least make them useful. Use them to attack, let them shoulder the brunt of the risk, and give them significant firepower so that they’re worth having. Keep the AI simple and direct to eliminate development costs. Maximize the benefits of unmanned and use them to their strengths.
That was fun! Now, what does your unmanned vessel look like?