Op-Ed: Unmanned Naval Vessels Will Take Long-Term Development

Sea Hunter
The DARPA / U.S. Navy drone ship Sea Hunter (USN file image)

Published Nov 23, 2023 6:26 PM by CIMSEC

[By James J. Wirtz]

Will unmanned forces transform naval campaigning? Given recent events following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, maritime transformation appears to be well underway. Autonomous and semi-autonomous aircraft and surface vessels have damaged or destroyed Russian surface combatants, air defense systems, and supply depots. Land warfare also has seen its share of innovative applications of autonomous and semi-autonomous technology, from swarming drone attacks against urban areas to single hand grenades precisely dropped on lone soldiers in slit trenches dug into the Ukrainian steppe.

One could also point to recent press reports about a flurry of drone activity across the U.S. Navy. In September 2023, two unmanned surface vessels sailed from Hawaii to participate in exercises with Carrier Strike Group 1 in the Western Pacific, while the Navy’s Task Force 59 based in Bahrain has become the de facto U.S. Navy drone innovation center with its ongoing experimentation with small autonomous vessels as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.1 The Navy needs to consider how else it can leverage unmanned systems in campaigns, and how these systems can open up unique options for enhancing naval campaigns in pursuit of deterrence.

Doubts About Drones

Despite mounting evidence drawn from recent battlefield experience and enthusiastic recognition of the growing effectiveness of these systems, Navy officers are still expressing reservations about the impact of drones in the maritime domain, especially in the western Pacific.2 They note, for instance, that the Navy is already stretched to the breaking point by the effort to maintain and supply its existing manned surface fleet and that it cannot create the infrastructure needed to support hundreds of medium sized and large autonomous surface vessels in the relatively short time envisioned by current shipbuilding plans. Others suggest that the weapons payload carried by most drones is too small to create more than a nuisance. Instead of a five-pound warhead, a one-thousand-pound warhead would be more appropriate when it comes to disabling a major surface combatant. Unmanned systems also need a range of thousands, not hundreds, of miles to operate in the Pacific.

Drones may have requirements that make them more of a liability than an asset in a contested Pacific, such as drones with limited battery life, or that have to be transported and deployed within reach of sophisticated adversary systems, or drones that require weeks of lead time to be moved into operational areas, or that create windows of vulnerability when they need to be retrieved or serviced in the battlespace. A semi-autonomous drone armed with a Hellfire missile might in fact be the perfect weapon to end Ayman al-Zawahiri’s retirement in downtown Kabul, but using an autonomous weapon to hit a modern multi-mission warship on the high seas is another matter.3

Who has it right, the optimists or the pessimists? They both are correct, which creates an “innovation paradox” that was recently addressed by a survey of past efforts at maritime innovation. Vincent O’Hara and Leonard Heinz looked at the operational history surrounding the introduction of mines, the automobile torpedo, radio, radar, submarines, and aircraft from about the turn of the 19th century to World War II.4 Their analysis suggests that the process of innovation and weaponization is a moving target that is shaped by the maturity of the technology involved, tactical and operational considerations, strategy, doctrine, organizational acceptance of new weapons and platforms, and the countermeasures possessed by the opponent. Innovation also is slowed by the fact that significant warfare at sea is mercifully rare.

Without the only test that really matters – battle itself – it is difficult for visionaries to assess the capabilities created by their new weapons against likely opponents and countermeasures. What O’Hara and Heinz discovered is that myriad considerations, which are often circumstantial, transitory, or linked to shortcomings in ancillary systems or doctrine, can limit the performance and impact of new weapons. “Successful” innovations do not spring forth spontaneously, but involve a process of refinement and maturation that can take decades to produce an effective weapon, regardless of the enthusiasm surrounding the new technology or system.

O’Hara and Heinze suggest that the assessment of the future role and impact of autonomous and semi-autonomous systems has more to do with psychology than technology. There is a shared collective bias in viewing technology as a “full up round,” so to speak, not a work in progress.5 There is a tendency to extrapolate from successful evolutions observed in the skies above Kabul or the waters off Crimea and to expect the same results in the western Pacific. There also is a tendency to treat technology as a weapon, and to treat new weapons as silver bullets – a one-size-fits-all solution to whatever the opponent might bring to bear.6 Or in the words of Hiliare Belloc, “whatever happens, we have got the Maxim, and they do not.”7

By contrast, to be effective, technology must be subjected to a process of weaponization, where it is integrated into an existing strategy, force structure, doctrine, and logistical scheme. It also is helpful if the officers charged with operating these new weapons understand the science behind them, how they work, and the limits of their performance, instead of first confronting their knowledge deficit at the worst possible time – in battle. Recent descriptions of the night naval battles off Guadalcanal, for example, paint a disturbing picture of officers who did not understand the limits of their radar or how to exploit its advantages. Some of them did not even understand the nature of the information that was being collected and displayed by their new sensors.8 It cannot be assumed that naval forces will always know how to fight with the technology they are equipped with, and that includes capability that has existed in fleets for much longer than drones.

Overcoming the Innovation Paradox: Integrating the Sea Hunter into a Naval Campaign

Treating innovation as a component of campaigning – the conduct and sequencing of logically linked military initiatives aimed at advancing well-defined strategy-aligned priorities over time – offers a promising way of taming the innovation paradox. It increases the likelihood that new weapons can be used to meet operational and strategic objectives. To be more specific, how can the Sea-Hunter unmanned surface vessel be integrated into campaigns in the Western Pacific?

The campaign would begin by acknowledging that the U.S. has adopted a strategy of deterrence based on denial, where in the event of deterrence failure, U.S. forces will focus on preventing the opponent from achieving their objectives. The goal of a deterrence strategy is not to engage in conflict, but to preserve the peace, prevent some unwanted fait accompli, and to ensure that change occurs through democratic and rules-based processes. Indeed, the outbreak of hostilities would represent a failure of strategy, a complete failure of the U.S. military to deter conflict, and a political and humanitarian catastrophe, forcing the nation to engage in an unwanted war. So how can a campaign using Sea Hunter strengthen deterrence, and in the unfortunate event of deterrence failure, how can the campaign be used to deny the opponent their objectives?

The Sea Hunter could be quickly integrated into the fleet by creating many hybrid (crewed and uncrewed) surface action groups. The Sea Hunters might serve several roles – as decoys, as ISR platforms, or as carriers of containerized weapons as a cost-effective way to increase firepower. The precise mission force mix is a technical or operational matter, best left to operators to resolve after they are informed by analysis. Organizing a campaign around such deployments would strengthen deterrence in several ways. First, as they are deployed and undergo the process of integration into the fleet, they will create a dynamic problem for the opponent. Instead of a static force posture that barely changes year to year, operations that feature experimentation with Sea Hunter can complicate an opponent’s planning, reducing their confidence in various schemes to use surprise or novel military evolutions to earn a fait accompli.9 Efforts to bolster deterrence create a “reveal-conceal” issue, that is, how much capability should be revealed to bolster deterrence and how much capability should be concealed to bolster warfighting effectiveness in the wake of deterrence failure. Resolving this issue could even be undertaken with a campaign philosophy – new capabilities might be revealed from time to time to keep the opponent off balance or during a crisis to reduce the opponent’s confidence in their existing military preparations.

Second, the Sea Hunter can bolster the credibility of the maritime deterrent threat by increasing the survivability of the fleet’s second-strike capability, a force that takes on especially outsized importance if U.S. strategy fails in the Pacific.10 Because conventional deterrent threats are “contestable,” that is, the opponent has a say when it comes to their execution, steps must be taken to win the battle of the opening salvo.11 In other words, because the United States embraces a deterrence strategy, it is unlikely it will fire the first shot in a conflict, which would bring about the war Washington wants to avoid in the first place. A deterrence strategy must envision a way to defeat or misdirect an opponent’s effort to fire effectively first.

Here the Sea Hunter’s ability to act as a decoy provides an important, even strategic capability to the fleet. A decoy could exhibit the signatures of larger combatants and posture itself in such a way that it complicates the opponent’s planning and misdirects its opening salvo. Decisions about concealing or revealing capabilities become crucial in this regard. The ability to lead the opponent to activate sensors, fire, reveal their position, and miss will constitute a significant tactical success if deterrence fails. It can also make for a strategic success if aggressive designs are revealed by an opening strike on unmanned systems that the adversary believed were warships filled with thousands of sailors. Instilling in the opponent’s mind the idea that the previous sequence of events is a distinct possibility would also do much to increase the survivability of conventional second-strike forces, thereby increasing the overall credibility and effectiveness of U.S. deterrence strategy.


The way forward is clear. Strategists and tacticians cannot simply take existing autonomous and semi-autonomous systems and operations that were successful in past battles, transfer them to a new geo-strategic setting, and expect to achieve the same results. Instead, the process of weaponization must continue by developing new applications of autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies to solve specific problems at hand. Solving this force development problem and devising war winning strategies is especially difficult when it comes to new technology.12 In other words, the chances of successful innovation increase if new weapons are integrated into a campaign to achieve tactical and operational goals that contribute to overall strategic and political objectives. There is no doubt that the promise of new autonomous technologies is growing. Nevertheless, their successful application requires the active participation of those who will have to employ new systems and weapons at sea. Planners also must abandon the perennial quest to produce war-winning “silver bullets” and instead focus on developing systems that provide modest advantages and cost-effectiveness at the margins, such as autonomous weapons that cost less than their intended targets or possible counters.

With these criteria in mind, several missions could be quickly undertaken by drones in the Western Pacific. For instance, the resilient and expendable ISR platforms under development by Task Force 59 could be adapted to monitor areas of interest across the Western Pacific. Data collected would help improve maritime domain awareness, enriching the information available to improve indications and warning intelligence. Better warning could increase the survivability of U.S. forces while decreasing the prospects that the opponent might be able to launch a successful fait accompli by providing the time necessary for U.S. units to posture toward some point of contention.

None of the applications mentioned are especially creative. They constitute little challenge to the state of the technological art. None hold out the prospect of becoming a silver bullet. Nevertheless, they all can bolster deterrence in the Western Pacific, but only if Navy officers embrace the process of weaponizing unmanned systems seriously by devising novel campaigns to overcome challenges and achieve strategic objectives in the Western Pacific.

James J. Wirtz is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is the co-author of The US Navy and the Rise of Great Power Competition (Routledge 2024) and War, Peace and International Relations 3rd edition (Routledge 2024).

This article appears courtesy of CIMSEC and may be found in its original form here.


1. Sam LaGrone, 2 Navy Ghost Fleet Unmanned Ships Now in the Western Pacific,” USNI News September 21, 2023 https://news.usni.org/2023/09/21/2-navy-ghost-fleet-unmanned-ships-now-in-the-western-pacific; Sam Dagher, “US Planning More ‘Robots at Sea’ in Middle East to Combat Iran,” PMN Business May 5, 2023. https://financialpost.com/pmn/business-pmn/us-planning-more-robots-at-sea-in-middle-east-to-combat-iran

2. As Colin Gray repeatedly noted, recent battlefield experience provides evidence that is ignored at great peril because battle “is the only test that counts.” Nevertheless, observers have to still asses if recent experience is relevant in a future setting. See Colin S. Gray, War, Peace and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 19.

3. Jim Garamone, “U.S. Drone Strike Kills al-Qaida Leader in Kabul,” DOD News August 22, 2022. https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/3114362/us-drone-strike-kills-al-qaida-leader-in-kabul/

4. Vincent P. O’Hara and Leonard R. Heinz, Innovating Victory: Naval Technology in Three Wars (Annapolis: US Naval Institute Press, 2022).

5. Jeffrey E. Kline, James A. Russell, and James J. Wirtz, “The US Navy’s Generational Challenge,” Survival Vol. 64, Issue 4, 2022, pp. 123-136.

6. James J. Wirtz, “A Strategists Guide to Disruptive Innovation,” Military Strategy Magazine Vol. 8, Iss.4 Spring 2023, pp. 4-9/

7. Hilaire Belloc, The Modern Traveller (London: EArnold, 1998). N.p.

8. Vincent P. O’Hara and Trent Hone, Fighting in the Dark: Naval Combat at Night 1904-1944 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2023).

9. James J. Wirtz, “Theory of Surprise” in Richard K. Betts and Thomas Mahnken, Paradoxes of Strategic Intelligence: Essays in Honor of Michael Handel (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 101-116.

10. Albert Wohlstetter, “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” Foreign Affairs Vol. 37, No. 2 (January 1959), pp. 211-234.

11. James J. Wirtz, “How Does Nuclear Deterrence differ from Conventional Deterrence,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Winter 2018, pp. 58-75.

12. James J. Wirtz, “Winning Left of Battle: The Role of Analysis,” Military Strategy Magazine Vol. 7, Issue 4, Winter 2022, pp. 4-8.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.