DARPA is working with the U.S. Navy to create a class of ships that would be completely unmanned.
If successful, it would represent a ten year leap over the current pace of technological development.
The Navy is still working on a separate project to develop optionally, or lightly manned warships.
The U.S. Navy is teaming up with DARPA to develop autonomous, robotic ships that are completely human free. The NOMARS (No Mariners Required Ship) concept, if successful, would be a huge leap over current unmanned surface vessel development efforts. The result could be a warship able to do the tedious, dangerous, and dirty jobs all by itself, keeping human-crewed ships safe from harm—and boredom.
The Navy, struggling to grow the fleet on a flat defense budget, is making a big push into unmanned surface vessels, or USVs. The Navy plans to build ten Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle ships, 200 to 300 foot long vessels displacing 2,000 tons, in five years. LUSV would act as a scout, sailing ahead of the fleet to detect threats early, or floating magazine, carrying a large load of missiles. LUSV would ideally be autonomous, or optionally manned with a small crew.
NOMARS is a separate, parallel effort to develop an entirely autonomous ship. While LUSV is based on existing ship designs and will have built-in accommodations for humans, NOMARS will be an unmanned ship from the ground up. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) told C4ISRNet that the project will take what the Navy wants to do with the ship, hull size requirements, and other factors and try to make a ship out of it.
NOMARS promises to be a totally different breed of ship. NOMARS would likely be much smaller than a similarly capable human crewed vessel, as designers could strip out everything related to human habitation. The ship’s bridge, combat information center, living accommodations, mess, recreation room, bathrooms, and even hallways would all become redundant, shrinking the size of the ship dramatically. LUSV, based on small ships used to resupply offshore oil rigs, will still have all of these features but with hardly anyone to use them.
An artist’s depiction of NOMARS shows the sharp difference between a completely unmanned ship and an optionally manned one. The NOMARS concept ship sits low in the water with a high mast for sensors and communications. The robo-ship has what looks like four angled launchers for missiles, possibly reloaded from within the hull. The ship lacks windows, rails, walkways, or anything supporting a human crew.
DARPA admits that “taking people completely off ships” may not even be possible but if it is, NOMARS would be a huge asset to the Navy of the future. A robotic ship could dutifully do the boring work of sailing and down the coastline of countries such as North Korea, eavesdropping on radar, radio, and cell phone communications. In wartime it could use its missile launchers to enhance the firepower of the U.S. fleet or outmaneuver an enemy fleet, presenting a threat from a different direction. It could even electronically impersonate warships such as cruisers or even aircraft carriers, luring incoming anti-ship missiles away from manned warships.
A NOMARS-type ship is inevitable. Until recently, the primary driver to build an unmanned warship was to build an inexpensive ship that did not require an expensive human crew. Now the COVID-19 coronavirus has given the Navy another reason to go unmanned: humans get sick. The coronavirus sickened sailors on more than two dozen warships, including more than a thousand on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. The virus sidelined the Roosevelt and several others while the Navy struggled to take care of its sailors.
An unmanned warship does not get sidelined by illness and would be unaffected by a pandemic. In 30 years when robo-warships ply the seas for the U.S. Navy, a virus will partially be responsible.
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