The military unmanned vehicle market is set to deliver a 7% growth between 2019 and 2024, primarily driven by unmanned surface vehicles, according to GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.
The market is still overly dominated by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) but is seeing an emerging trend in unmanned surface vehicles (USVs).
According to GlobalData, there are major changes happening in the maritime domain, and the main military powers are eager to harness the potential of new technologies. As always, the American market is leading the way but is confronted by genuine dilemmas in terms of budget orientations and military doctrine.
Nicolas Jouan, Aerospace and Defense analyst at GlobalData comments, “The benefits of unmanned naval systems are numerous. A large amount of missions currently completed by manned vessels could potentially be filled by autonomous systems for smaller costs and equivalent reliability. Surveillance, transport, anti-submarine warfare, electronic warfare and area denial are potential domains of operations for unmanned naval systems.”
The US Navy is not abandoning exquisite state-of-the-art systems, but ballooning costs are forcing the Pentagon to reconsider certain orientations as the production cost of the newly launched Gerald R Ford aircraft carrier reached record-high US$13bn in 2017, and a single round of a Zumwalt class advanced gun system is marked at US$800,000.
Unmanned systems increasingly appear to be the best option to preserve operational efficiency at lower costs. The US Navy requested US$400m in FY2020 for large USVs, and is preparing the integration of such systems to the existing fleet with the announced Surface Development Squadron (SURFDEVRON).
Jouan adds, “DARPA’s Sea Hunter prototype, a 132-feet long unmanned trimaran designed to patrol the sea autonomously, successfully completed a return journey between San Diego and Hawaii late last year. Recognising the opportunity, the Australian contractor Austal displayed a range of USVs concept at Sea Air Space 2019 (Washington D.C. on May 6-8) to woo American officials. The wide array of capabilities announced by the constructor was mouth-watering indeed: replenishment and fueling at sea, missile-launch, support, self-defense etc.”
There is no question that the Navy wants to engage fully in the age of autonomous weapons, but political authorities might stand in the way. During a recent probing following its nomination as next Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Bill Moran had to defend in front of lawmakers the Navy’s decision to cancel the planned refueling of the USS Harry S. Truman carrier in order to reorient funds towards new systems, USVs included.
Jouan concludes, “The decision to retire USS Truman was actually called off the same day by Vice President Mike Pence, leaving the Navy with a complicated budget. However, beyond FY2020, the institution wants to establish a new strategic concept based on SURFDEVRON, unmanned platforms integrated to the traditional fleet and probably soon overtaking it in absolute numbers. As the most advanced military power is betting on USVs to preserve its naval supremacy, it is hard to imagine NATO allies, Russia and China, staying idle.”