NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.–The U.S. Navy plans to take a “hard look” at what its future unmanned surface vessels (USVs) should look like, including whether it should develop “purpose-built” vessels or equip existing manned systems to operate in unmanned or optionally manned mode, a program official said April 3.

A series of studies “over the next couple of years” is expected to help the Navy answer such questions, said Howard Berkof; deputy program manager for unmanned systems in the Program Executive Office for Littoral Combat Ships.

Textron's Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle. Photo: Textron
Textron’s Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle. Photo: Textron

“I don’t have answers today because we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Berkof said at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space Exposition. “In the meantime, we’re going to be prototyping, experimenting, learning and asking hard questions.”

Potential missions for USVs include anti-submarine tracking, armed escort, communications relay, counter-swarm, electronic warfare, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, mine countermeasures, mining and the launch of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

The Navy is currently experimenting with several USVs, including the Textron [TXT] Common Unmanned Surface Vessel (CUSV), a purpose-built system designed to hunt and neutralize mines. Textron announced April 3 that it has received a $14.8 million contract to deliver two more CUSVs to the Navy in 2018, joining the CUSV the Navy already has. The first CUSV is undergoing testing off the east coast of the United States.

The Office of Naval Research plans to take ownership of the purpose-built Sea Hunter unmanned ship prototype from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) this year. Developed by Leidos [LDOS], the vessel is currently in San Diego.

Three Mine Hunting USVs (MHUs), which are rigid-hull inflatable boats turned into USVs and equipped with Northrop Grumman’s [NOC] AQS-24 mine-hunting sonar, are operating with the Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet. A fourth MHU will join the fleet by the end of fiscal year 2017 after being overhauled, Berkof said.

One configuration that Berkof does not expect to see anytime soon is a vessel that can operate in both underwater and surface-water domains. “Today, we don’t have that capability,” he said. “Is that something in the future? Potentially.”

“Step one” to achieving such a blended vehicle would be to have USVs and UUVs communicate and collaborate with each other, he added.