In May of last year, we brought you news that the U.S. Navy was teaming up with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to put together a completely unmanned, autonomous, robotic ship concept called the NOMARS (No Manning Required, Ship). The ship was meant to usher in a new era of autonomous fleets for the Navy.
Now, it seems that era is here. The Office of the Secretary of Defense Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), in partnership with the U.S. Navy, announced that one of their unmanned vessels, named NOMAD, traveled successfully 4,421 nautical miles (more than 5,100 land miles), 98 percent of which was in autonomous mode. And this was the second such journey undertaken by a Navy autonomous ship.
The first vessel, called RANGER, completed a similar transit in October of 2020. The Navy calls the autonomous vessel program the Ghost Fleet Overlord program and it is quite proud of its achievements.
“This is another significant milestone for SCO’s Ghost Fleet Overlord program and supports the Navy’s Unmanned Campaign Framework by adding a second Overlord vessel to the West Coast. The SCO Ghost Fleet Overlord program serves to inform Navy prototype efforts by integrating mature technologies to accelerate Service priorities and is a key piece of the build a little, test a little, and learn a lot of philosophy articulated in the Navy Unmanned Campaign Framework,” SCO Director Jay Dryer said in a statement.
The Ghost Fleet Overlord program began back in September 2019 and focuses on the integration of government-furnished command-and-control systems and payloads and naval operations experimentation. It is now in Phase II and expected to conclude in early 2022.
The future is autonomous
Once the program is completed, both Ghost Fleet Overlord vessels will transition to the Navy for further experimentation. The Navy is also in the process of constructing two additional Ghost Fleet Overlord prototype USVs.
As the Navy continues to experiment with unmanned ships we can expect its operations to improve. Unmanned vehicles remove the human errors that can be caused by fatigue and loss of attention. They can also operate for days on end without human intervention which can be very useful in certain missions.
Back in September of 2020, a military think thank, the Hudson Institute, said the US Navy should assign its incoming fleet of uncrewed warships to anti-submarine warfare (ASW). ASW refers to the nickname "Awfully Slow Warfare" in military circles due to long uneventful periods military personnel must spend on duty, punctuated by brief eventful moments. These kinds of periods are particularly well suited for unmanned vessels. It seems the future of the Navy is indeed autonomous.