05 May 2021

Robot Missile Barges

David Axe at Forbes recaps an idea (others have also proposed it) whose time may have come.

The idea is to build unmanned ships that have Vertical Launch System (VLS) missiles and little else at a cost of $100 million each on the proposed "large unmanned surface vehicle" (LUSV) platform or perhaps something even more basic and cheaper like a towed barge, or a modified ship that is already part of the U.S. Navy or Merchant Marine's fleet of transport ships. 

In contrast, a destroyer costs $2 billion to build and $80 million a year to operate, and even the latest U.S. frigates, which are being built based on an existing proven French Navy design, costs close to $900 million or more to build.

VLS missiles are the primary armament of all of the frigates, cruisers (22 year old ships which are about to leave service which have 122 VLS tubes each) and destroyers (with 96 VLS tubes each) in the U.S. Navy (except the three Zumwalt class destroyers and the Littoral Combat Ships which have been redesignated as frigates). The types of missiles used in VLS batteries include: Tomahawk surface to surface cruise missiles to attack ground targets, Standard Missiles (SM-6) and Harpoon missiles which are used to attack other surface ships, Enhanced Sea Sparrow anti-air and anti-missile missiles, and anti-submarine missiles.

(These ships also have advanced sensors, anti-aircraft weapons, torpedoes, anti-missile guns, 3" or 5" main naval guns, and machine guns, but these are either primarily defensive, or designed to use only a short range with less accuracy and a less potent effect. These ships also have armed helicopters.)

VLS missiles are also (together with torpedoes) the primary armament of about four Ohio-class guided missile nuclear powered, blue water submarines (SSGNs) originally designed to launch intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles, which are 40 years old and soon to be decommissioned, but have 154 VLS missile tubes each.

The idea is that the missiles would be fired at targets communicated to the drone ship remotely, which were established with satellites, sensors on other ships and submarines, sensors on aircraft, land based sensors, and forward observers. Other surface ship drones, such as the 150 foot long, $35 million, medium unmanned surface vehicle (MUSV), might be part of this network of sensors for it. Proof of concept has already been established:
Last week off the California coast, drones on the surface and in the air chased down a target barge and relayed, via satellite, its location to the destroyer USS John Finn.

The destroyer fired a long-range SM-6 missile and sank the target from “well beyond the line of sight,” according to the Navy.

The idea echos the abandoned arsenal ship concept of the early 1990s which was similar but would have been manned.  The goal is to bring lots of firepower to bear at a minimum cost. 

The drone ships would be defended against hostile force threats like enemy missiles, enemy submarines, and enemy aircraft, thorough resources elsewhere in the fleet.

Meanwhile, there is also an effort underway to outfit the Navy's new Constellation-class frigates, its amphibious transport ships, 31 of its littoral combat ships in the next two years (15 of which will also be outfitted with long delayed anti-submarine modules and 15 of which will be outfitted with long delayed anti-mine warfare modules), coast guard cutters, and even modified Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (an armored replacement for Humvees and the MRAP vehicles) called NMESIS with either VLS missile tubes, or a new class of missile called a "Naval Strike Missile" with a 115 mile range with a 500 pound warhead, similar to but smaller than the VLS, to dramatically increase their capacity to effective take on enemy warships or coastal targets. 

There are also efforts underway to equip these ships with active defenses such as lasers that can be used against incoming missiles, drones, aircraft, naval guns, artillery shells and smaller armed boats, decoy launchers, and anti-aircraft missiles similar to the man portable anti-aircraft missiles like the Stinger or the M-SHORAD systems used on its Stryker armored personnel carriers, which are in use in the U.S. Army.

(The three Zumwalt class destroyers are being considered seriously as a platform for a new class of hypersonic missiles starting in 2025 in lieu of its 155mm naval gun that never had any ammunition designed for it.)

There are other solutions to the same problem of how to increase the firepower at the "tip of the spear" without going into the battlefield in what amounts to an RV which is basically what a traditional manned surface combatant warship does. 

But, this one is simple, cheap, could be effective, and deserves more attention with any modifications that further examination of the concept brings to light.

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