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The Navy wants to develop and acquire LUSVs, MUSVs, and XLUUVs as part of an effort to shift the Navy to a more distributed fleet architecture, meaning a mix of ships that spreads the Navy’s capabilities over an increased number of platforms and avoids concentrating a large portion of the fleet’s overall capability into a relatively small number of high-value ships (i.e., a mix of ships that avoids “putting too many eggs into one basket”).

ARLINGTON, Va. — As the U.S. Marine Corps considers how to move weapons around contested waters to resupply forces ashore, it’s copying an unusual source: drug traffickers.

Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration, said at the Defense News Conference on Wednesday that logistics remains one of the toughest aspects of the service’s new way of fighting, which calls for distributed, small units across a wide area.

Whereas Marines can often pre-position food, water and spare parts with allies and partners, doing so for missiles and munitions often isn’t an option. And with an enemy looking to cripple the American force by choking off its supply lines, resupplying small units with crewed ships is a risky proposition.

So the Corps is testing a prototype called the Autonomous Low-Profile Vessel.

“We just copied the drug lords down in [Joint Interagency Task Force] South running drugs. They’re hard for us to find, so now we figured, yeah, it works,” Heckl said.

The prototype the Marines have today can carry two Naval Strike Missiles into about 4 feet of water, where Marines would then pull the missiles onto the beach and to the nearest missile battery in need of resupply
, Heckl explained. The Naval Strike Missile is the anti-ship missile used in the NMESIS weapon, or Navy/Marine Corps Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System.

Heckl, who is the Marine Corps’ requirements officer, told reporters after his on-stage remarks that he wasn’t sure how many of these Autonomous Low-Profile Vessels the service may buy. But because of their low cost, he said, “they’re almost expendable” — something that will be important in contested waters where, if spotted, they’d likely be the targets of enemy weapons.

The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, which falls under his command, is experimenting with a prototype. Heckl said he hopes the service starts buying these unmanned vessels within a couple years. He added that it could become a family of systems, depending on whether a two-missile resupply drone proves valuable during experimentation or if Marines find they need something larger or smaller.

The Corps plans to bring the Autonomous Low-Profile Vessel to the Army’s Project Convergence Capstone 4 event in the spring to test the resupply tool in a major exercise with joint and coalition partners.

More broadly, Heckl said the Corps is considering a range of autonomous options to solve contested logistics problems. “You should try to go after everything autonomous. If you take the air-breather out of it, things get simpler; they typically get more efficient and they get less expensive.”

Heckl pointed to the expeditionary fast transport ship Apalachicola, built at Austal USA’s production line to include autonomy features that allow it to operate for 30 days without a human crew’s intervention. He explained the ship has conducted 1,500 nautical miles of autonomous operations, with humans onboard as a backup but not driving or maintaining the vessel. This could be an attractive option for moving much larger quantities of supplies around, he added.

This intra-theater lift ship can travel at 45 knots —faster than most U.S. Navy ships — and has a massive payload bay inside that could be outfitted to support dispersed Marine units in several ways.

“I want unmanned, autonomous everything, if we can get there,” Heckl said.

Slow and ponderous? Blame McNamara

The defense acquisition system, originally developed by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in the 1960s, favors evolutionary versus revolutionary change, like unmanned systems the Navy is planning.

The acquisition system and test and evaluation system he created demand that new defense programs (ships, aircraft, vehicles, missiles, etc.) must pass a rigorous course of analysis and testing to be approved for production. LCS and DDG 1000 ran afoul of that system as their failures of system tests delayed their fleet entry, made for longer periods of spending and resulted in much more expensive ships than ever intended..

The slow and deliberate acquisition system to a large degree is in conflict with the Navy’s current plans for unmanned platforms. Indeed, the current acquisition system would need major overhaul to support the rapid fielding of credible new systems in numbers..

Interesting take on the LCS and the DDG 1000.

Unmanned and manned systems in the works

The Navy is exploring unmanned surface ships as eyes and ears of the fleet (as explored in Task Force 59) and as missile shooters. The uncrewed Boeing M/Q-25A tanker aircraft is on the verge of joining the fleet, and it will vastly extend the range of the F/A-18 E/F and F-35C aircraft, as well as serving as a potential strike platform.

The large, unmanned underwater vehicle (XLUUV) continues testing as a potential scout, minelayer and weapon-armed “loyal wingman” of the manned submarine force. The Navy Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Unmanned Systems and Small Combatant (PEO USC) office has many lessons learned from LCS and is proceeding with caution to develop stable systems that can earn congressional approval.

These systems, as well as the new carriers, destroyers, frigates and submarines, are 21st century platforms with capabilities far greater than their 1980s-era counterparts. The challenge is that the Navy must build them to achieve safe passage through the defense acquisition system with good stewardship of public funds as a priority.
The legislative branch is decidedly skeptical of what the Navy is now doing with unmanned systems as a result, and the service must again earn the trust of Congress through a thorough unmanned systems program that passes tests and does not have ridiculously high costs.


Another major challenge is the outcome of recent war games in which the Navy has come in for criticism due to the poor performance of its “crown jewel” platforms. The wargames showed that the Navy would lose at least two aircraft carriers, all of the escorts for those ships and nearly 200 aircraft in battle against China due mainly to its land-based missiles and missile-armed aircraft.

These games, however, deal only in pure numbers (ranges and numbers of weapons) but not with what the Naval War College often calls “intangibles,” which include opponent motivation, level of political involvement in and direction of military action and adversary military doctrine. U.S. wargames have sometimes “mirror-imaged” opponents by assuming that opponents would act with their forces as would a U.S. commander.

The U.S. has made similar mistakes in the past. In the 1970s it was assumed that the Soviet Navy would launch a World War II-style counter-commerce campaign against NATO resupply in Europe. The Soviets possessed over 300 submarines and such a campaign seemed logical. Signals intelligence and other means, however, determined that Soviet submarines would primarily defend their ballistic missile submarines and support the Soviet Army rather than attack NATO convoys.

Likewise, many experts believed the modern Russian Army was a highly effective organization based on observation of decades of Russian military exercises like ZAPAD. The actual Russian performance turned out quite different when they invaded Ukraine.

Wargames offer potential options but are never solutions by themselves.
Changes coming to the Navy?

The lead article is only a proposal but the Disruptive Capabilities Office is very real.


Notes to the New CNO Series
By Shelley Gallup
In past wars, small and well-armed ships, such as destroyer escorts, torpedo boats, and riverine craft have been a necessary complement to large combatant force structure. This need is being exacerbated by the U.S. Navy’s currently small yet top-heavy fleet structure. This contrasts with the force structure and operational concepts of Chinese maritime forces, which have been highlighted by the intrusions of PRC naval, Coast Guard, and maritime militia ships into the territorial waters of the Philippines. The Philippine Navy has only three ships to meet these threats, creating demands for U.S. naval presence that is already stretched thin among its relatively few large combatants. China’s numerous small combatants and maritime auxiliary forces would surely have important wartime roles to play as well, and U.S. large combatants may not be available to address these threats.

Less emphasis on specific technologies and more emphasis on capabilities?

Instead of


More of this


Which is to say, rather than attempting to make each individual platform survivable and put all sensors and effectors on all platforms, increase the number of platforms and distribute the sensors and effectors over them. Then you aren't fighting the ship, you are fighting a flotilla.

Innovation in maritime warfare is strategically significant, continuous, difficult to achieve, and must fight its way through an existing paradigm. Often, by the time innovation is adopted, another construct is appearing on the horizon, resulting in a continuous tail-chase. The U.S. Navy continues to push after esoteric technologies, rather than adopting near-term and less costly capabilities. The proposal here, in support of the bi-modal fleet concept featuring a mix of sea denial and sea control vessels, is the LMACC (Lightly Manned Automated Combat Capability) system. This small combatant vessel concept extends autonomy, machine learning, resilient comms, and passive sensor fusion within a cloud shared by a flotilla or other forces.

The bi-modal fleet structure includes a combination of small, crewed, and autonomous systems working as a networked flotilla. The crewed LMACCs and uncrewed autonomous surface vessels can be built and armed for much lower costs and greater capability than the cost of building one or two more destroyers or frigates. In this systems view, it is the holistic flotilla network that is the capability, rather than the individual platform. The uncrewed vessels act as sensors, and the LMACCs serve as decision arbiters and weapons carriers.

LMACC is intended as an O-3 command, affording naval officers an opportunity to command earlier in their careers and develop critical leadership skills, including initiative, adaptability, and tactical acumen.