The United States has sent two multi-purpose unmanned surface vessels (USVs) to its naval bases in Japan in a move that defense analysts say could signal plans to use unmanned vessels in Washington’s deterrence strategy against Beijing regarding Taiwan.
The US Third Fleet Mariner and Ranger set sail from California for Yokosuka, Japan, last month as part of the US Navy’s Integrated Battle Problem 23.2 (IBP23.2) exercise, according to a statement from the 7th Fleet. US Fleet, which has its headquarters in the Japanese city.
Before arriving in Yokosuka, Mariner and Ranger stopped at the Indo-Pacific headquarters at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where two smaller USVs – the Hunter and the mid-sized Sea Hawk – participated in another test later in the year. past
IBP23.2 is an exercise focused on testing the use of USVs alongside manned vessels in the Indo-Pacific.
It was the first time that the US Navy had sent its unmanned ships over such a long distance. According to the US 7th Fleet, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Shoup accompanied the Ranger when she crossed the Pacific.
Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Kaohsiung naval academy, said sending unmanned vessels to accompany warships was a new approach in naval combat, just like the modern air combat tactic of pairing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) with fighter aircraft during dogfights.
Lu noted that the Ranger also appears to have stopped in Guam and Okinawa, according to a photo published by the Japan Times last month that showed the ship’s navigation route on a screen in its control room.
“Satellite imagery and automatic maritime traffic identification systems from Guam and Okinawa showed that the two USVs and the destroyer USS Shoup were operating together on their long voyage, with markings on the Mariner that appeared worn after experiencing strong winds and waves in high seas,” Lu said.
He added that the two unmanned vessels were loaded with combinable weapons modules, such as the US Navy’s Standard 6 missile, which can perform air defense, terminal ballistic missile defense and anti-ship attack functions.
The development of unmanned aerial vehicles was highlighted in the Pentagon’s Replicator initiative, a military technology innovation plan announced by US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks in August. Under this plan, the Pentagon aims to develop thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles, which is seen as a response to the rapid rise of Chinese warships in recent decades.
According to the Rand Corporation, the United States has the most powerful navy in the world, with a combined tonnage of about 4.6 million tons. But it only has about 280 warships, compared to China’s 425 active warships as of August 2023, which the Pentagon expects to increase to 440 by 2030.
The US Navy Chief of Naval Operations (CNO)’s 2022 Navigation Plan foresees the US naval fleet growing to about 523 ships in 2045, with 373 manned and 150 unmanned ships.
“There is no way that the capacity of the US naval industry can match that of China to mobilize an entire nation in a single task,” Lu said, adding that the replicator initiative and the IBP exercises, the first of which celebrated in May, were Washington’s best options to catch up with Beijing.
Scott Savitz, a military expert at the Rand Corporation, said Taiwan should work with the US to launch swarms of explosive USVs to deter Beijing from attacking the self-ruled island.
The Ukraine war has demonstrated the progress of explosive USV technology. Savitz noted that while Ukraine has had the support of Starlink, the satellite Internet network operated by SpaceX, Taiwan does not have its own satellite network that allows drones and unmanned ships to communicate and connect. But this obstacle can be overcome.
“Communications will not be an insurmountable barrier, even if Starlink declines to participate. Other companies provide satellite communications, and more will appear,” Savitz said.
“The US military also has capabilities of this type, potentially allowing Taiwan to use. Additionally, the required volume of communications will likely decrease as USV autonomy becomes more advanced.”
Beijing considers the self-governed island part of its territory, which it intends to reclaim – by force if necessary. Most countries, including the United States, do not recognize Taiwan as an independent state but oppose any unilateral change to the status quo across the Strait by force.
The mainland has also made significant progress in unmanned aerial vehicle technology. In March last year, the state-owned China State Shipbuilding Corporation presented a 340-ton multipurpose unmanned combat surface vessel (UCSV) model with a maximum speed of 42 knots and a range of 4,000 nautical miles (about 7,410 km). ), according to Janes Defense News.
A photo released by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation earlier this year showed a smaller USV prototype equipped with highly advanced radar. Radar systems will make it difficult to detect the unmanned vessel, allowing it to hit targets with precision when it operates as a “suicide vessel” or performs reconnaissance tasks at close range.
But Savitz said the US Navy, which has more current combat experience than its Chinese counterpart, had some advantages in developing USV technology.
“Any precise assessment of the relative advantages of different systems would be confidential,” he said. “China claims some successes, although I have long observed that authoritarian systems are much more likely to exaggerate military capabilities than democracies.”