LAS VEGAS: “Keeping the sailor out of the minefield,” the Navy’s new mantra for mine warfare, means sending the robots in. As part of an annual exercise in July called “Trident Warrior,” the fleet experimented with an unmanned ship developed by Textron subsidiary AAI and known blandly as the Common Unmanned Surface Vessel (CUSV).
The video, provided by AAI, shows two CUSVs — the only two in existence — streaking out to sea during Trident Warrior to hunt simulated naval mines. The two boats look identical, but the “common” part of the CUSV name refers to the design’s ability to serve as a common carrier for a host of mission-specific payloads. They slot into a bay in the stern.
In this exercise, one CUSV played the hunting dog, locating the mine with sonar. Then the other, the hunter, launched an even smaller unmanned vehicle, a kind of smart torpedo called a Sea Fox, to destroy the mine. A single human operator controlled the CUSV from shore, while a second operator ran the Sea Fox. The artificial intelligence on board the craft is largely borrowed from the widely used Shadow drone.
The Trident Warrior exercise happened close to shore, a reasonable simulation of conditions in the Strait of Hormuz should Iran try to mine the chokepoint of the Persian Gulf. For open ocean missions the CUSV could be launched from a larger vessel, like the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships — the CUSV can be carried by either variant — before launching the Sea Fox or other mini-submersibles.
It’s sort of Russian nesting dolls with robots. Tactically, “it buys you battle space,” said Stan DeGeus, the AAI executive who went over the CUSV program with Breaking Defense at last week’s AUVSI unmanned technologies conference: The manned mothership can keep its distance or even flee while the robo-boats go forth to meet the threat. True, CUSVs can’t make the speed of helicopters. They’re a lot cheaper, and because they’re far more fuel-efficient they can stay on station for days at a time, including operating at night, when it would be too dangerous to fly helicopters at low altitudes to hunt mines with towed sonar arrays.
Minefields are the project’s current focus because they are the Navy’s top concern given tensions in the Persian Gulf and the limits of the current Avenger-class minesweeper fleet, which has to approach the mines closely to neutralize them.
Degeus, a former Navy man himself, remembers the deeply uncomfortable feeling of being on a minesweeper in the middle of a live minefield back in the 1980s, during the “Tanker War” between Iraq and Iran, and he’s eager for this generation of sailors to avoid the experience. But AAI’s also experimented with using a CUSV as an unmanned patrol boat to warn off intruding surface vessels with recorded messages, broadcast over a kind of super-loudspeaker called a Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD). Other missions up for consideration including hunting submarines, jamming enemy transmissions, and even transporting Navy SEALs.
CUSV is not a Navy-funded program: It’s something AAI built at its own expense, in the hopes of winging US and international sales. Admittedly, AAI hardly has a lock on this technology, and someone may well come along and build a better robot boat. But the concept certainly seems worth exploring.