Pentagon’s Ghost Fleet Program Ends, Its Four Unmanned Ships Will Be Transferred To The Navy

The ships are slated to join the Navy's experimental surface warfare squadron which is exploring ways to incorporate unmanned vessels into the fleet.

Ranger and Nomad Ghost Fleet Overlord
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The U.S. Navy will take possession of four unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, developed by the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) as part of its Ghost Fleet Overlord program. The transfer marks a milestone in the Navy’s continuing push for a fleet that incorporates a significant number of unmanned vessels and vehicles alongside its existing manned platforms. After the transfer of the four unmanned ships, along with all their underlying hardware and software, to the Navy’s experimental Surface Warfare Development Squadron, the SCO will now shut down its Ghost Fleet Overlord program.

Capt. Pete Small, program manager for unmanned maritime systems at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), says the Navy is now essentially getting the vessels “free of charge” because the funding for the unmanned ships came from SCO, not from the Navy itself. Breaking Defense reports that Small made the comments at this year’s Surface Navy Association symposium, an annual meeting of industry partners, lawmakers, and military professionals. 

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The Ranger, one of two known USVs tested as part of the SCO's Ghost Fleet Overlord project.

Small said the unmanned vessels completed a capstone demonstration event in December 2021 that was focused on evaluating their levels of autonomy and reliability, “We got a good sense for where we are [and] we found some shortcomings in those areas of reliability and operability,” Small told SNA symposium attendees. The 2021 demonstration also included a fleet exercise to determine to what extent the vessels can fit into existing Navy operations. An unnamed Navy official revealed to Breaking Defense that the SCO’s Ghost Fleet Overlord program will now close, having successfully completed its work and delivered the vessels to the Navy.

Earlier Ghost Fleet Overlord demonstrations include a successful transit in which a USV traveled over 4,000 miles from the Gulf Coast to the West Coast, passing through the Panama Canal. The Navy claims that 98% of the voyage was conducted with the vessel in “autonomous mode.”

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The Nomad USV, one of the Ghost Fleet Overlord demonstration vessels, in 2019.

Despite these successful demonstrations and the transfer of the four vessels, Breaking Defense reports that some lawmakers have doubts about how these new USVs fit into the Navy’s operations or what deterrent value, if any, they might have. There has been frequent Congressional criticism about these new programs, but Navy leadership has remained outspoken about the emerging need for unmanned surface platforms

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A briefing slide from NAVSEA's Unmanned Maritime Systems program.

It’s not yet clear exactly how the ships developed through Ghost Fleet Overlord will be used, although they are likely to inform the development of the Navy’s broader plans for incorporating a variety of unmanned craft into its fleet. The Navy stood up a specialized unit, Surface Development Squadron One (SURFDEVRON), in 2019 to explore new tactics, capabilities, and operational concepts, including those based around unmanned surface vessels. Potential roles for these vessels include conducting electronic warfare missions, intelligence-gathering, anti-submarine or mine-sweeping missions, or even serving in stand-off roles. The Navy held a first-of-its-kind experiment last year that saw a wide variety of manned and unmanned platforms, including unmanned aerial vehicles, working together during a live-fire missile exercise against a surface vessel. Finding new ways to conduct remote targeting in highly contested areas is a high priority for the Navy, and a mix of unmanned platforms both on the sea and in the air could serve valuable roles as distributed sensor nodes for tracking or targeting enemy assets.

It may be that these unmanned vessels eventually gain the ability to conduct kinetic operations themselves, too. In September 2021, the Department of Defense released a video of one of the Ghost Fleet Overlord ships firing an SM-6 missile from a modular launcher. The versatile SM-6 is capable of engaging a wide range of threats including cruise missiles, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and even ballistic missiles during the terminal phase of their trajectory. The missile can even be fired at targets on land or at vessels on the sea, and there is talk of the SM-6 being used as part of a multi-layered defense against hypersonic weapons. The Navy’s envisioned unmanned vessels could be armed with these containerized launchers in order to serve as distributed weapons platforms that could be spread out across great distances, putting targets located across huge areas of the globe at risk.

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The SM-6 launcher aboard Ranger in a Navy video.

The Navy also previously signed a contract with Raytheon aimed at developing versions of Raytheon’s Coyote drones that can be launched from USVs and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and serve as loitering munitions or defeat other drone swarms. Previous Navy budget requests have also included plans for large displacement unmanned surface vessels, or LDUSVs, that can carry advanced sensor suites or even stand-off missiles to provide additional firepower for surface task forces. 

With the Ghost Fleet Overlord ships turned over to the Navy, it will be interesting to see if the service's testing and integration trials provide the insights required to begin rolling big money into the unmanned surface vessel concept. Much still remains to be seen if these assets can be effectively integrated into widespread Navy operations and what potential vulnerabilities or challenges come with doing so.

Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com