The Navy’s FY 2020 budget request is pushing to start a new 10-ship “Ghost Fleet” of large unmanned surface vehicles (LUSVs) to add more sensors and weapons to the manned fleet.

In FY ’20 the Navy intends to spend $400 million for two LUSVs under the research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) funding account. Over the course of the future years defense plan (FYDP) the Navy intends to buy two more LUSVs per year through FY ’24, at a total cost of $2.7 billion.

The DARPA Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program full-scale Sea Hunter demonstration vehicle. (Photo: DARPA)

On Tuesday Deputy Assistant Navy Secretary for Budget Rear Adm. Randy Crites told reporters “we expect to transition this program to ship construction at some point later in the FYDP as we further develop the capability of the command, control, and the concepts of operations through fleet demonstration.”

These LUSVs are planned to serve as both sensors and shooters that “will be smaller, potentially more cost imposing and more attritable than conventional ships in addition to being more affordable,” Crites continued.

He noted the Navy aims for these vessels to have vertical launch built in “and that would drive us to change the way the program is currently laid out to ship construction as we validate the requirements.”

The LUSVs will be 200-300 feet long and 2,000-ton corvette-sized vessels. “I’m not sure what the final hull form will be, that’s what we’re using today in terms of what the ghost fleet buy is.  But I don’t think we know yet exactly what the hull form will be,” Crites said.

The LUSVs will act as test articles to help determine concept of operations, command and control, and how the ships will work in a distributed environment. Later the Navy intends to transition the ships to a program of record.

Crites added the Navy is looking to LUSVs as part of a way to work with distributed maritime operations and investing in future capabilities.

On Wednesday, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told reporters during the McAleese Annual Defense Programs Conference that this decision was inspired by the success of programs like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Office of Naval Research (ONR) Sea Hunter program.

Richardson underscored in the past year the Sea Hunter sailed from the West Coast to Hawaii and back and participated n the annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2018 exercise.

“We’ve been doing some work with unmanned surface vessels and making some progress there. And I would liken it to this is sort of the, maybe the surface vessel version of where we picked up on MQ-25 and are moving very aggressively to get something on deck in the air,” Richardson said.

He added the Navy can move quickly on the program by taking advantage of what it has learned from accelerating acquisition and talking to industry earlier.

“We’re going to utilize those practices kind of as fundamental to the progress we’re making on the frigate [FFG(X)] program,” he continued. “So this seems like kind of the next natural step. I want to move this past the Skunkworks phase, if you will, and get it out into the operational phase as quickly as we can.”

Richardson noted unmanned systems like LUSV can be cheaper because they do not need to support live operators.

“The overall benefits are that you can certainly perhaps reduce cost of the platform because you don’t have to support and protect people, and then you also can change the risk equation because they don’t have human life involved. And so, by virtue of that you can potentially build more of them.”

He identified LUSV potentially conducting mine countermeasures (MCM) missions as well as “a whole host of capabilities that this unmanned approach can do to supplement and extend the influence of a manned platform.”

The Navy has not yet issued a request for proposals or have a specific hull form or requirements listed. The CNO admitted, “we’ve got to come to that decision pretty quick.”