Oceans are now one step closer to being battlefields for robotic ships. This past week the US Navy announced that its task force focused on developing autonomous technology and artificial intelligence for the service successfully fired several small missiles at empty boats in the Middle East as part of a test, hitting the targets each time. It was a major step in the Navy’s efforts to build uncrewed surface vessels (or USVs, as they are also called) that can be used for smaller combat situations.
The tests, dubbed Exercise Digital Talon, took what essentially looked like a small speed boat fitted with a weapons system in open international waters in the Arabian Peninsula on Oct. 23. The ship, called a MARTAC T38 Devil Ray USV, took its orders from a human operator who was on shore.
The Digital Talon tests were carried out by Task Force 59, a Navy group focused on building out USV capabilities and integrating them with crewed ships, in conjunction with Special Operations Forces Central Command.
“During Digital Talon, we took a significant step forward and advanced our capability to the ‘next level’ beyond just maritime domain awareness, which has been a traditional focus with Task Force 59,” Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander US Naval Forces Central Command (or NAVCENT), said in a statement. “We have proven these unmanned platforms can enhance fleet lethality.”
Watch the tests for yourself here.
The vessel used in the test was fitted with a small missile launching apparatus called a Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System. The USV specifically fired a Switchblade 300 loitering munition, according to Switchblade maker AeroVironment. Loitering munitions function essentially like a drone with a camera, able to provide surveillance—but then operators have the option of having them hit a target like a missile. US special operations forces have increasingly used the Switchblade in recent years. Thanks to its versatility for surveillance and offense, the weapons were also sent to Ukraine as part of the American effort to arm Kyiv with an array of drones and powerful missile systems. The War Zone (which is owned by PopSci’s parent company, Recurrent Ventures) noted that the boat appears to have a Starlink satellite antenna module mounted on it.
This is not the first time the Navy has successfully fired a weapon from an uncrewed ship like this. In 2021, it successfully launched a SM-6 missile from the USV Ranger. That ship, essentially a repurposed supply vessel with advanced autonomous technology, let the Navy experiment with how automated systems and weapons platforms function when added to an existing vessel.
The Digital Talon test marked the Navy’s first live-fire exercise with a USV in the Middle East, where the US military has increasingly deployed uncrewed surface vessels in recent years. Alongside testing the weapons systems themselves, Digital Talon was meant to examine the Navy’s capabilities for “manned-unmanned teaming.” And although the Switchblade munitions— while destructive—are much less powerful than the wider weapons capabilities of the Navy’s crewed vessels, the Digital Talon test is another benchmark in the Navy’s goal of building out its ghost fleet of USVs in the coming decades.
In fact, the Navy wants to deploy a lot of USVs in the next two decades. The Chief of Naval Operations Navigation Plan 2022, published in July 2022 by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday, outlined a goal of essentially doubling the size of the current combat fleet by 2045, with 350 new crewed vessels by 2045 as well as 150 new vessels that are totally crewless.
So far the US Navy has been steadily testing different models of USVs in the field. That ranges from smaller Saildrone Explorer USVs that the Navy uses to monitor Iranian maritime activities in the Strait of Hormuz, as well as having two USVs, including the USV Ranger, participate in the 2022 addition of a multinational exercise called the Rim of the Pacific. Although technically uncrewed, many of these USVs can also have Navy personnel onboard, for monitoring and manual control should the need arise.
Uncrewed surface and submersible vessels have already been used as lethal and effective weapons. In the Middle East, Houthi militants have used USVs against Saudi Arabian forces, where the Saudi’s military capabilities and equipment far outclass the Yemeni rebels. In the war in Ukraine, Ukrainian forces have used these ships as part of joint aerial and maritime drone swarm attacks on Russian military ships.
The Digital Talon test also comes as the United States has increased its military presence in the Middle East over the past several months. That started in the spring and summer, in response to incidents in the Strait of Hormuz. The US military sent warships, a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and an array of additional aircraft to the region.
This past month, in response to the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and the Israeli war with Hamas, the US has sent additional troops and aircraft, as well as deployed two carrier strike groups to the region. In the Navy’s statement on the Digital Talon tests, Vice Admiral Cooper added that the successful exercise is helping the Navy with “strengthening regional maritime security and enhancing deterrence against malign activity.”
The Navy’s 2045 vision imagines a number of uncrewed or skeleton-crewed large ships in the fleet, such as the Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles. But smaller USVs like the one used for Digital Talon are important in other ways. These small vessels fitted with loitering munitions could essentially serve as a protective force for larger ships, intercepting boats and USVs armed with explosives for attacks on those vessels. As a war game in 2002 showed, the low-tech tactic of simply sending large waves of tiny vessels toward larger ships can be devastatingly effective. In that game, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, commanding the exercise’s adversarial “red team,” was able to quickly take out the more high-tech and advanced “blue team” vessels with such an attack.
The Digital Talon test was just that—a test. It’s still unclear if the fleet proposal for 2045 that Gilday laid out will become a reality, as many of those ships would need to be financed and constructed. But last month’s test showed the very real weapons capabilities the Navy’s USVs have now, and could presumably be expanded to other ships in the current fleet.