DARPA’s Sea Hunter full-scale autonomous warship prototype will help the Defense Department learn how unmanned capabilities will intermix with manned capabilities in future systems, according to a key Pentagon official.

Originally envisioned as a way to track potentially stealthy diesel electric submarines, Sea Hunter could be used in other roles, according to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Stephen Welby. Welby said Sea Hunter could provide a number of benefits to the Navy like freeing up manned ships like destroyers for more important tasks or perhaps using it in a mine clearing role.

Simulation of the Leidos Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) also known as Sea Hunter. Image: Leidos.
Simulation of the Leidos Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) also known as Sea Hunter. Image: Leidos.

Welby said while DARPA could have developed all of Sea Hunter’s technologies “on a whaler in the Chesapeake,” that wouldn’t have allowed the agency to examine how the 132-foot trimaran would drive tactics and doctrine. Sea Hunter, he said, will also allow DARPA to dig deep into integration issues, operational challenges and system effects.

Sea Hunter in late June completed initial performance trials off the coast of San Diego, Calif. The ship met or surpassed all performance objectives for speed, maneuverability, stability, seakeeping, acceleration/deceleration and fuel consumption. It also established confidence in mechanical systems reliability in an open-ocean environment, according to Sea Hunter prime contractor Leidos [LDOS].

Sea Hunter is designed to operate for extended periods at sea with no person on board and only sparse supervisory control throughout deployment. While initial vessel tests require a pilot on board the ship, later tests are planned to have no personnel on board. Welby said Sea Hunter is designed to be launched from a pier and is capable of traversing 10,000 nautical miles at 12 knots without refueling. He said it also has fully redundant systems including computation, propulsion and safety systems.

Christened in April as Sea Hunter, the program is formally known as DARPA’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV). The June completion of Sea Hunter’s performance trials is the first milestone in the two-year test program co-sponsored by DARPA and the Office of Naval Research (ONR). Testing in upcoming months is scheduled to include testing of sensors, the vessel’s autonomy suite, compliance with maritime collision regulations and proof-of-concept demonstrations for a variety of Navy missions. DARPA didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday. A Leidos spokeswoman Thursday deferred a request for comment to DARPA.

Welby’s remarks came at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank in Washington.