US Navy Unmanned Surface Vessel division visits Australia

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The four USVs, part of Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One, were accompanied to Sydney by the Independence variant Coastal Combat Ship USS Oakland (LCS-24) and a chartered crew boat.

The Ranger unmanned surface ship passes under the Sydney Harbor Bridge as part of a planned port visit during Integrated Battle Problem (IBP) 23.2, Oct. 24, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Ensign Pierson Hawkins)

Commander Jerry Daley, commanding officer of Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One, said Navy news that their visit to Australia was partly a result of an invitation from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) to participate in Exercise Autonomous Warrior 2023.

The USVs, plus USS Oaklandwere the largest ships in their respective classes to participate to date in the historic RAN exercise that brings together many countries, companies and units to push the boundaries of unmanned and autonomous systems.

Several ships in the unmanned surface ship division

Although all four USVs are different, they can be broadly split into two types; Sea Hunter type trimaran platforms and Ranger type conventional ships. While the former were designed from the ground up to support unmanned operations, the latter were adapted for that purpose later in their lives.

Within both groups there are also a number of differences between the ships. For example, Mariner has installed a number of systems internally that must be transported externally in containers on board the Ranger. Similarly, Seahawk has a more advanced container handling rail system than its predecessor Sea Hunter.

Mariner, the newest of the four USVs, is also the only ship in the group equipped with an autonomy system developed by L3 Harris, rather than Leidos.

USV Mariner at HMAS Waterhen
USV Mariner at HMAS Waterhen

Because of these differences, each ship put different concepts to the test during IBP 23.2.

Sea Hawk And Sea Hunterfor example, have worked closely with USS Oakland to demonstrate how manned ships can function as “Afloat Control Units (ACU)” for USVs with minimal modifications.

During one test, CDR Daley said, a crew of six personnel from Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One boarded the USS Oakland and checked the two USVs of Oakland‘s Combat Information Center (CIC). This, he said, only required the addition of several boxes of hardware assembled in the CIC.

Unmanned Surface Vessel Division
USS Oakland at HMAS Kuttabul in Sydney

Mariner and Ranger, meanwhile, have been testing more advanced autonomy features under the supervision of a civilian crew tasked to observe but not interfere unless absolutely necessary. In addition to autonomy, the two ships tested several ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) payloads mounted in containers aft. While the USN declined to discuss the details of the cargo, Navy news understands that they include radars, communications systems and other ISR instruments.

Sea Hunter undergoing maintenance in Australia

Unmanned Surface Vessel Division

However, the deployment has not been without problems. Shortly after arriving in Australia from his transoceanic voyage, Sea Hunter suffered damage which necessitated an unplanned dry dock at HMAS Kuttabul.

USV Seahawk at HMAS Waterhen
USV Seahawk at HMAS Waterhen

UPS Sailor looks better too, but paint is missing on the front fuselage Navy news understands that this is the responsibility of the civilian contractor involved and not the USN.

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