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AI at Sea: The US Naval Transition to Unmanned Ships

The US Naval Transition to Unmanned Ships

By Kevin Kiilerich

When it comes to warfare, AI is here to stay. Recently, the US Navy has been shifting its strategy to rely increasingly on unmanned vessels to support the traditional warships and enable a defence against Russia and China. Congress, however, is reluctant with funding.

Earlier this year, the US conducted its first joint exercise with an ally at sea, in which UVs (Unmanned Vehicles) took part. The so called ‘Task Force 59’ was created in September of 2021 to operate from the coast of Bahrain as well as the wider Persian Gulf.[1] This mission has been made possible by a wider shift in the doctrine of the US Navy. Since WW2, the United States has gambled successfully on large carrier ships as the cornerstone of their fleet – the very heart from which their ability to project power throughout the world stems. However, it is now increasingly banking on a strategy of fewer large, manned ships supported by many smaller ones, as well as the presence of a sizable portion of large, unmanned ships.[2] The question of importance is why the Navy has felt the need to adjust.

The reasons are many of course, but a few of the more noteworthy ones are worth dwelling on. The first of these is that China – a systemic rival of the US – has been engaged in unmanned ship development for years. In fact, it has been developing a small ship with weaponry to near match that of a US manned destroyer – one of the most potent warships in the US arsenal.[3] Hence, there is a need to avoid being surpassed by rivals in technological development, particularly of weapons. However, to understand why this race has begun, one must look to the other reason for which the Navy is interested. Namely that UVs are much cheaper than traditional ships. While a ship will usually need to be staffed by anything from a dozen to over a hundred sailors, in UVs one avoids that expense completely. The facilities accommodating the staff onboard can be cut away too, and should the ship be sunk there is no loss of American lives.[4]

Unmanned ships come in many shapes and sizes. One of the most prominent uses that the Navy is interested in is that of submarines. An unmanned submarine is capable of gathering information, planting mines and even firing missiles against enemy ships.[5] This allows for the collection of intelligence in much broader scopes than what has previously been possible, while also extending the reach of US naval forces in general since these cheaper submarines can be sent on individual, automated missions from US naval bases or fleets. In addition, the affordability and disposability of such vessels have a profound influence on the way in which the US would be able to conduct combat in a war scenario. 

When a fleet operates using both manned and unmanned ships, it is possible to deploy greater numbers of ships – of which the enemy will have a hard time telling which ones have sailors on them and which do not. This distinction in terms of weaponry may also come to matter less and less as evident by the Chinese ship mentioned earlier in this article. The ability to overwhelm an enemy with a large ship presence, distract and confuse them as to which targets they should be focusing on, and potentially attacking from more directions than ever before is immensely valuable. 

While UVs are without a doubt cheap in relative terms, they still require a sizable portion of funding in terms of research and development, an issue on which the US Congress has been  more reluctant. Having requested $464 million for research in the 2021 budget, the Navy was only granted a quarter of that by a sceptic Congress that demanded more testing before willing to pay for larger numbers of these vessels, particularly those of a larger size.[6] As such, the Navy is not yet riding on a wave of uncontrolled enthusiasm from politicians and bureaucrats, a delay which could weaken the capacity of the US to fight against Russia and China at the same time. This is especially true in the Pacific, which is large and primarily sea-dominated, without the numerous and sophisticated support one could possibly receive from NATO allies in Europe. For the Navy it is imperative that unmanned vessels bolster their numbers to launch a successful defence of the Pacific, while politicians are concerned about the idea of ships with no crew sailing the high seas. This divide may be partly due to the technicality of language, which can create the impression that humans do not control the UVs, or that weapon systems today are not largely automated, both of which are wrong.[7]

The challenge that the US now faces is one that much of the world is being confronted by. With technological progress, limited financial resources and a great aversion to casualties, states are finding it much more difficult to avoid coming to terms with what once seemed pure science fiction. AI is not something that only has recently become an option in warfare. Rather, it is the result of a gradual transition that has been taking place ever since the first ship was put to sea, and which shall continue to happen for as long as technology improves and changes. From the simplest of radios and computer systems making life easier for a sailor to modern day when those computers can sail the ship while the sailor sits back on the mainland, the possibility of ‘stopping’ the progress has long ceased to be an option. The US Navy is biding its time and fulfilling Congress requests for further tests, having conducted an exercise involving both manned and unmanned vessels with the purpose of simulating a conflict in the Pacific in April of 2021.[8] Since then it has once again filed a request for more funding than last year to acquire more UVs and conduct better research.[9]

While the US Navy continues to stress the importance of these vessels for the maintenance and development of US war capabilities, one must not forget that it is ultimately a political prerogative to decide the direction that national security strategy will take. While Admirals might advise and highlight certain issues, the current and future security of the US, and by extension its allies, will be determined by the priorities set by the President and Congress through rhetoric, policy and most importantly of all, funding. Such are the terms of a Republic, and the US can be sure that both friends and foes are watching closely.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the Sciences Po Cybersecurity Association.

Image: PEARL HARBOR (Oct. 31, 2018) The Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) prototype Sea Hunter pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Corwin M. Colbert/Released).

[1] Katz, J. (2021, October 27). Navy’s Unmanned Ships Sail With US Ally In The Middle East

[2]  Rourke, R. (2021, October). Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress.

[3] Larter, D. (2019, February 19). US Navy moves toward unleashing killer robot ships on the world’s oceans.

[4] Middendorf, W. H. T. J., II. (2021, January 1). Meet the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Ships of the Future.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Klare, M. T. (2021, May). Navy Presses Ahead With Unmanned.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Middendorf, W. H. T. J., II. (2021, January 1). Meet the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Ships of the Future.


Katz, J. (2021, October 27). Navy’s Unmanned Ships Sail With US Ally In The Middle East. Breaking Defense. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from

Klare, M. T. (2021, May). Navy Presses Ahead With Unmanned Vessels | Arms Control Association. Armscontrol.Org. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from

Larter, D. (2019, February 19). US Navy moves toward unleashing killer robot ships on the world’s oceans. Defense News. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from

Middendorf, W. H. T. J., II. (2021, January 1). Meet the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Ships of the Future. The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from

Rourke, R. O. R. (2021, October). Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service.