The Navy has expressed considerable interest in acquiring unmanned vessels that would patrol coastal areas and help protect surface combatants from terrorist attacks.
Budgetary and technological issues, however, are now slowing down the development and procurement of these vehicles.
The terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000 prompted both Navy and Coast Guard officials to consider the use of autonomous vessels — known as unmanned surface vehicles — to detect and deter suicide bombers and other threats.
But it does not appear that large numbers of these vehicles will be in the fleet in the foreseeable future, experts said. At a time when the Navy faces a budget crunch in its shipbuilding accounts, purchasing new robotic technology is not a top priority right now, said
James Jay Carafano, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank.
Another reason for the delay in adopting robotic technology is that the Navy doesn’t want to take risks with systems that are unknown to most sailors and have seen little operational use, Carafano said. “There’s always a degree of reticence with new systems until there’s enough testing and experience.”
Until recently, the military was generally “reluctant to embrace robotics,” he noted. It was not until the Army began to deploy small robots for explosive detection and other duties in Iraq that the military realized how useful they really are, said Carafano. The Navy may one day feel the same way about unmanned surface vehicles, he said. It is possible that, years from now, “the Navy will likely be the greatest proponent of robotics.”
The Navy has purchased four small unmanned surface vehicles — manufactured by General Dynamics Robotic Systems — for use with the littoral combat ship anti-submarine warfare mission module, but it has yet to procure larger, more expensive systems suitable for coastal surveillance.
A larger weapon-loaded unmanned surface vehicle, called Protector, is one of the systems that are being marketed to the Navy and Coast Guard. Built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Ltd., based in Israel, Protector comes in seven-to 11-meter configurations with an aluminum, rigid, deep-v hull. It is equipped with electro-optical sensors for surveillance, identification and targeting. Its weapons can fire small-caliber ammunition. Although the company characterizes the vehicle as autonomous, meaning it can operate on its own, Protector requires two human operators to control the vehicle from the shore or from another vessel.
Rafael partnered with defense contractors BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin to offer the vehicle to the Navy.
Protector has been deployed with Israeli military forces in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea, said Scott Thompson, director of BAE sea systems. He stressed that Protector is the only unmanned surface naval vehicle that is currently deployed in real-world operations.
The Navy had signaled interest in Protector, but took a step back because of concern about the vehicle’s weapon system, Thompson told National Defense.
“The Navy hasn’t developed a concept of operations for engagement with weapons. For the Navy and Coast Guard, it’s a challenge to have a weapon,” he said.
The military is wary of allowing an unmanned vehicle to shoot weapons, Carafano said. Generally, the services have “always been reluctant to arm robotics systems.”
Thompson insisted that the Navy is still interested in Protector. The contractor team is waiting for further feedback from the Navy, he noted.
BAE conducted several demonstrations in 2006 and 2007 for the Navy and Coast Guard, but has no plans for any this year, said Stephanie Moncada, a BAE spokeswoman.
“We have to get a better feel for customer needs. There are no demonstrations or milestones planned for the near future,” she said.
BAE is considering arming the Protector with nonlethal weapons, in an effort to assuage the Navy’s worries about firearms aboard robotic vehicles. Nonlethal technologies are being employed in Iraq and Afghanistan at checkpoints and for crowd control, and could be a viable option for naval operations as well, said Dave Boudreau, BAE technical director of naval systems. The company is evaluating nonlethal weapons such as microwave generators, acoustic devices, high intensity lights and laser dazzlers.
Nonlethal weapons are a “great idea,” Carafano said. They would be especially useful when trying to stop a boat smuggling illegal aliens because they could prevent the vessel from landing without hurting the civilians on board.
They would also eliminate the need for a Coast Guardsman to attempt to shoot at a suspicious boat’s engine, which can be “very dangerous,” Carafano said.
The Navy also would have to assess the safety of nonlethal technologies, some of which have been criticized for posing risks to civilians.
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