CONOPS for the U.S. Navy and the New ‘Hybrid Fleet’

As the informed readership of Seapower is well aware, the U.S. Navy stands at the precipice of a new era of technology advancement. In an address at a military-industry conference, then-U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, revealed the Navy’s goal to grow to 500 ships, to include 350 crewed vessels and 150 uncrewed maritime vehicles. This plan has been dubbed the “hybrid fleet.”

In December 2023, at the Reagan National Defense Forum, current CNO Lisa Franchetti cited the work of the Navy’s Unmanned Task Force, as well as numerous exercises, experiments and demonstrations where uncrewed surface vehicles were put in the hands of Sailors and Marines, all designed to advance the journey to achieve the Navy’s hybrid fleet.

The reason for this commitment to uncrewed vehicles is clear. During the height of the Reagan defense buildup in the mid-1980s, the U.S. Navy evolved a strategy for a “600-ship Navy.” That effort resulted in a total number of Navy ships that reached 594 in 1987. That number has declined steadily since, and today the Navy has less than half the number of ships than it had then. However, the rapid growth of the technologies that make uncrewed surface vehicles increasingly capable and affordable has provided the Navy with a potential way to put more hulls in the water.

However, the U.S. Congress has been reluctant to authorize the Navy’s planned investment of billions of dollars in USVs until the service can come up with a concept-of-operations (CONOPS) for using them. Congress has a point. The Navy has announced plans to procure large numbers of uncrewed systems — especially large and medium uncrewed surface vehicles — but a CONOPS, in even the most basic form, has not yet emerged. Additionally, while the composition of the future Navy’s crewed vessels is relatively well understood, based on ships being built and being planned, what those uncrewed maritime vehicles will look like, let alone what they will do, has yet to be fully determined.

That said, the Navy has taken several actions to define what uncrewed maritime vessels will do and thus accelerate its journey to have uncrewed platforms populate the fleet. These include publishing an Unmanned Campaign Framework, standing up an Unmanned Task Force, establishing Surface Development Squadron One in San Diego and Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One in Port Hueneme, California, and conducting a wide range of exercises, experiments and demonstrations where operators have had the opportunity to evaluate uncrewed maritime vehicles.

All these initiatives will serve the Navy well in evolving a convincing CONOPS to describe how these innovative platforms can be leveraged to achieve a hybrid fleet and gain a warfighting advantage over high-end adversaries. Fleshing out how this is to be done will require the Navy describe how these platforms will get to the operating area where they are needed (for example, the Western Pacific), as well as what missions they will perform once they arrive.

Into Warfighter Hands

The answer to the first question is that the Navy has committed to obtaining a number of large uncrewed surface vehicles (LUSVs). These will be between 200 and 300 feet long and displace 1,000 and 2,000 tons, the size of a corvette. The Navy’s budget plan funds a total of seven LUSVs over the next five years.

An evolving CONOPS is to marry various size uncrewed surface, subsurface and aerial vehicles to perform missions that the U.S. Navy has — and will continue to have — as the Navy-after-next evolves. Simply put, the Navy can use the evolving large uncrewed surface vehicle as a “truck” to move smaller USVs, UUVs and UAVs into the battle space to perform a number of important Navy missions such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and mine countermeasures (MCM). There are many large, medium, small and ultra-small unmanned systems that can be adopted for these missions. Over the past several years, the Navy and Marine Corps have focused primarily on medium uncrewed vessels in its exercises, experiments and demonstrations. The reasons for this emphasis are clear: The LUSVs have not yet been built and small USVs cannot perform as many missions as their larger MUSV cousins.

Rather than speaking in hypotheticals as to how uncrewed vehicles might be employed for missions such as ISR and MCM, there are concrete examples where the services have inserted commercial-off-the-shelf uncrewed systems into recent Navy and Marine Corps events to perform these missions. Events such as the COMPACFLT-led Integrated Battle Problem series of exercises, the Integrated Maritime Exercise series held under the auspices of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Commander Task Force 59 in the Arabian Gulf, NATO exercises REPMUS, and the follow-on Dynamic Messenger, Australian Defence Force Exercise Autonomous Warrior, and many others too numerous to describe here put USVs — primarily medium uncrewed surface vehicles (MUSVs) — into the hands of Sailors and Marines.

While there are a wide range of MUSVs that can potentially meet the U.S. Navy’s needs, there are three uncrewed surface vehicles that are furthest along in the development cycle and that have been featured most frequently in Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments and demonstrations. All are currently in production and fully operational. They are:

The Leidos Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk. At 132 feet, these are the largest of the three. The Sea Hunter was launched in 2016 and was built at a cost of $20 million. It is a trimaran (a central hull with two outriggers).

The Textron monohull Common Uncrewed Surface Vessel (CUSV), now referred to as the MCM-USV, features a modular, open architecture design. The CUSV has a length of 39 feet and a beam of 11 feet.

The Maritime Tactical Systems Inc. (MARTAC), catamaran hull, uncrewed surface vehicles include the MANTAS T12 and the Devil Ray T24 and T38 craft. The T24 and T38 USVs are 24 feet and 38 feet long, respectively, with beams of 10 feet and 11 feet.

All three of these MUSVs are viable candidates to be part of an integrated uncrewed solution CONOPS. I will use the MANTAS and Devil Ray craft for a number of reasons. First, they come in different sizes with the same hull, mechanical and electrical (HME) attributes (something Congress has designated as a highly desirable attribute). Second, the Sea Hunter is simply too large to fit into the LUSVs the Navy is considering. Third, the CUSV is the MUSV of choice for the littoral combat ship Mine-Countermeasures Mission Package, and all CUSVs scheduled to be procured are committed to this program.

Strike Group CONOPS

This scenario and CONOPS is built around an Expeditionary Strike Group underway in the Western Pacific. This Strike Group includes three LUSVs under supervisory control from a large amphibious ship. In an address, Gilday suggested this CONOPS when he said he “wants to begin to deploy large- and medium-sized uncrewed vessels as part of carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups in 2027 or 2028, and earlier if I can.”

Depending on the size ultimately procured, the LUSV can carry a number of T38 Devil Ray USVs and deliver them to a point near the intended area of operations. The T38 can then be sent independently to perform the ISR mission, or alternatively, can launch one or more T12 MANTAS USVs to perform this task. Building on work conducted by the Navy laboratory community and sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, the T38 will have the ability to launch uncrewed aerial vehicles to conduct overhead ISR.

For the MCM mission, the LUSV can deliver several T38s equipped with mine-hunting and mine-clearing systems (all of which are COTS platforms tested extensively in Navy exercises). These vessels can then undertake the “dull, dirty and dangerous” work previously conducted by Sailors who had to operate in the minefield. Given the large mine inventory of peer and near-peer adversaries, this methodology may well be the only way to clear mines safely.

While the full details of how this CONOPS plays out is beyond the scope of this article, this innovative approach accomplishes an important goal. If the U.S. Navy wants to keep its multi-billion-dollar capital ships out of harm’s way, it will need to surge uncrewed maritime vehicles into the contested battlespace while its manned ships stay out of range of increasingly capable adversary A2/AD platforms, systems, sensors and weapons.

To be clear, this is not a platform-specific solution, but rather a concept. When fleet operators see a capability with different size uncrewed COTS platforms in the water working together and successfully performing the missions presented here, they will likely press industry to produce even more-capable platforms to perform these missions.

While evolutionary in nature, this disruptive capability delivered using emerging technologies can provide the U.S. Navy with near-term solutions to vexing operational challenges, while demonstrating to a skeptical Congress the Navy does have a concept-of-operations to employ the uncrewed systems it wants to procure.

Most recently, the Navy has signaled a commitment to the Replicator program. This initiative is intended to field thousands of attritable, autonomous systems across multiple domains within the next two years as part of a plan to better compete with China.

In announcing the program, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks noted, “we will counter the People’s Liberation Army’s mass with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, and harder to beat.”