`Ghost Fleet’ Aimed at China, Russia Spooks Some in Congress (1)

  • Navy wants to invest almost $5 billion into drone ships
  • Lawmakers wary of new technology, lack of clear plan for use

(Updates with comparative ship size in third paragraph.)

America’s symbol of power at sea has always centered on sailors manning intimidating destroyers, submarines, and aircraft carriers bristling with fighter jets.

But now, the Navy is looking to a new generation of drone ships—what it calls its Ghost Fleet—to sink China’s and Russia’s ambitions to dominate at sea. It’s a prospect that demands the U.S. expand its reach and eyes on the vast oceans without spending billions of dollars on more people and traditional vessels.

The Navy is looking initially to buy 10 new, sailor-less warships as long as 300 feet (91 meters) and weighing 2,000 tons (1.8 million kilograms) as part of a larger investment of almost $5 billion over the next six years. The vessels would be about the size of a U.S. Coast Guard offshore patrol cutter or about half the length of the Navy’s guided-missile cruisers.

That plan makes some members of Congress, from both parties, nervous. They don’t see a clear path for how the Ghost Fleet will be used, and point out that the Navy’s track record on new technology isn’t exactly sterling.

The most prominent proof is the Littoral Combat Ship, a shore-hugging, fast moving vessel that was envisioned for surface and anti-submarine warfare and mine-sweeping. After 16 years and $645 million apiece, the Navy hasn’t deployed one vessel with its full capabilities.

“Maybe I am just too battle-scarred from the LCS program,” Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces panel, said in an interview. “You really need to flesh out what you need a ship to do before you start building it.”

Autonomous Navigation

The new robotic ships would have to know how to autonomously navigate from one point to another without crashing into anything, and carry missiles, sensors, sonar, and radars. The vessels would have to withstand the most tumultuous waters and sail for long periods of time. There would still be a human in the loop, directing the robots from a console installed most likely on another ship.

(U.S. Navy/John F. Williams)
The Navy had successful trials of the Sea Hunter, a medium-sized drone ship, and plans to build on that with an array of robotic vessels.

It’s incumbent that the Navy finds a “new way of thinking” of how it fights, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“Making that explanation to Congress is going to be necessary as well, because the questions will be ‘O.K., we’re going to get a bunch of unmanned vehicles, can you win against China or Russia using those?’ and that is what the Navy is going to have to be able to convey,” Clark said during an event at the Heritage Foundation April 15.

The Ghost Fleet will serve “as both a sensor and a shooter,” Rear Adm. Randy Crites, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, told reporters at the Pentagon in March. Because they’d be smaller than conventional ships, the Navy expects them to be cheaper to build and operate, Crites added.

Two Ships a Year

For fiscal 2020, the Navy is asking Congress for $470 million to invest in research and development of the Ghost Fleet. It plans to buy two ships a year.

The Navy’s “biggest challenge right now is how to integrate them into the fleet,” Rep.Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the top Republican on the Seapower subcommittee, said in an interview. “We want them to have a clear direction of how they are going to do that.”

“The key is to make sure that they are aggressively pursuing this, taking prototypes, getting them out there, testing them, and getting them into the fleet as quickly as they can but making sure too that they are not letting just the idea that you bring unmanned to the fleet be the sole driver,” Wittman said.

The Navy is moving quickly without an “understanding of the concept of operations, or how to employ weapons on an unmanned vessel, including the application of the law of armed conflict,” Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said last month during a hearing reviewing the Navy’s budget request.

“If there is nobody on board the ship, how does it make a determination about what to engage with the weapons on board?” Wittman asked. “All of those things are yet to be answered, and also how you incorporate that into your strategy, how you incorporate it into your operational plans, how decision-making takes place.”

Different Sizes

The Navy ultimately plans to spend $4.8 billion between 2019 and 2024 on four classes of vessels: very small, small, medium, and large, which would exceed 160 feet. The large category will be composed of the Ghost Fleet, which the Navy will fund starting in fiscal 2020 to accelerate efforts begun by the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office. That office awarded contracts to two teams in Sept. 2018: Gibbs & Cox Inc. and ASV Global, a subsidiary of L-3 Technologies Inc.

Before they get to train their weapons on adversaries, the drone vessels will have scores of missions including surveillance and reconnaissance, radio jamming and mine hunting.

The Navy is building in part on the success of the mid-sized Sea Hunter, an experimental drone ship that traveled from the San Diego to Hawaii with no sailors on board. Leidos Holdings Inc. held the contract for Sea Hunter, whose program details are no longer public. The Sea Hunter is envisioned for anti-submarine warfare.

The urgency with which the Navy is seeking to deploy its Ghost Fleet without having all answers in place first may be “emblematic” of a new way of buying weapons, Ron O’Rourke, a naval analyst with the Congressional Research Service, said at the Heritage event.

“There is a feeling that in the new era of renewed great power competition, we no longer have the luxury of time so we have to move quickly and be prepared to make decisions in the absence of complete or perfect knowledge,” O’Rourke said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com