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Where is the trust? Are we dragging our feet on USVs?

The medium displacement unmanned vessel Sea Hunter transits the Pacific Ocean (Source: US Navy)

Autonomous systems are rapidly changing the nature of the contemporary battlespace and the maritime environment is at the forefront with several successful trials in recent months, so, where is Australia’s urgency?

Autonomous systems are rapidly changing the nature of the contemporary battlespace and the maritime environment is at the forefront with several successful trials in recent months, so, where is Australia’s urgency?

When former defence industry minister Christopher Pyne unveiled what would become known as the MQ-28 Ghost Bat at Avalon in 2019, it seemed like Australia was on the verge of a major transformation in its risk appetite for rapid innovation in the defence space.

Equally, it seemed like Australia had emerged as one of the world’s leaders in the space of autonomous systems and the concept of crewed/uncrewed teaming as a means of providing tactical and strategic mass for the future.

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While the Australian government and Australian Defence Force do have a host of programs designed to test autonomous systems, think the Navy’s Exercise Autonomous Warrior, and others – there appears to be a very real disconnect when it comes to the rubber hitting the road.

In stark contrast, the US Navy is rapidly progressing uncrewed surface vessels as a means of complementing the crewed surface fleet, even in highly contested and congested environments. This enables more task groups to be generated, as fewer crewed ships are required to create the same cumulative effect. The US Navy is already confident enough to have uncrewed vessels operating with their aircraft carrier strike groups.

Highlighting this, the US Navy recently successfully completed a paradigm-shattering exercise, which saw four uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) attached to Unmanned Surface Vessel Division ONE (USDIV-1) complete a crossing of the Pacific.

Proof of concept

Commencing in August, the two large USVs, Ranger and Mariner, and the two medium USVs, Sea Hunter and Seahawk, departed US Naval facilities in San Diego, travelling via Pearl Harbor and across the vast expanse of the Pacific to arrive in Yokosuka, Japan following a series of exercises with elements of the US Navy’s seventh fleet.

The MUSVs are completely uncrewed, showing the ability to reliably cross oceans and deliver missions without human presence onboard. Given Australia’s challenges with recruitment, retention, and burnout of Navy personnel, this is an attractive way to provide a degree of presence without the need for sailors at sea or in harms’ way.

US Navy Rear Admiral Blake Converse, deputy commander of the US Pacific Fleet, highlighted the groundbreaking capabilities delivered by the USVs during the exercises, saying, “Unmanned and autonomous technologies are key to growing our distributed maritime operations framework.

“By proliferating our presence in the Pacific and increasing the fleet’s situational awareness and lethality, we give ourselves more options to make better decisions at all levels of leadership,” RADM Converse added.

Importantly, the integration of the USVs with the USS Carl Vinson-led Carrier Strike Group 1, one of the linchpins of America’s global and Indo-Pacific power, serves to provide the concept, procedures, and tactics such platforms bring to a naval force.

Rear Admiral Carlos Sardiello, Commander, Carrier Strike Group 1, highlighted this, saying, “Through the integration of unmanned platforms in our operations, we continue to forge a culture of learning and innovation within our Navy and with joint partners to deliver warfighting advantage.

Testing and integrating emerging technologies in a demanding, real-world operational environment is vital to providing feedback that informs our progress in this domain,” RADM Sardiello added.

Getting to this point hasn’t been a protracted process either (sorry to burst naysayers’ bubbles), the USDIV-1 was stood up as a “pre-commissioning” unit in 2021, so getting to this point is hypersonic in pace when compared to traditional defence research and development and procurement.

US Navy Commander Jeremiah Daley, commanding officer of USDIV-1, highlights this, explaining, “Our approach is focused on integrating, exercising, and refining tactics, techniques, and procedures for immediate application into real-world operations with the fleet.

“Since standing up USVDIV-1 as a pre-commissioning unit in 2021, we continue to turn fleet feedback from exercises into adapting technology and requirement generation in order to provide realistic and impactful capabilities that future USV programs of record will bring to the Navy,” CMDR Daley said.

Amid this growing trust in USVs, one has to ask, is Australia dragging its feet?

USVs and the surface fleet review

While we await the release of the government’s independent review into the make-up of the Navy’s surface fleet (urgency questions there aside), one has to wonder what role USVs could play in beefing up the surface fleet’s capability.

Equally, it is important to understand that USVs are designed to complement existing surface vessels, providing a suite of capabilities in low-cost, mass-producible hull forms rather than supplanting them.

The range of capabilities, specialties, and technology insertions (both existing and currently in development) provide a high degree of tactical and strategic flexibility for these platforms that would, in the Australian context, allow for our crewed platforms to fulfil more sensitive, strenuous missions.

This adds yet another question for further discussion and consideration in the Australian context, can these innovative platforms enhance the tactical and strategic capability of the Royal Australian Navy at a time when we will need it and should we accelerate our development and acquisition of these low-cost platforms?

Final thoughts

The rapidly deteriorating geopolitical and strategic environment that is transforming the global and regional security paradigm requires a realistic analysis and assessment by Australia’s policymakers.

Equally, while taking shortcuts to end up with 50 per cent of something, as opposed to 100 per cent of nothing is an admirable goal, however, ultimately it will only prove more costly in the long run as we scramble to rapidly develop high-end warfighting capability.

Equally, both the Australian government and the Australian public have to accept and understand that we will need to dramatically increase spending in our national defence and do so over the long term, rather than short-term sugar hits or sleight of hand that push money out over the forward estimates and allow inflation to account for “increases in spending, despite there being little-to-no new money in real terms.

Ultimately, this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “balanced force” towards “focused force” as championed in the Defence Strategic Review. It equally fails to account for the planned increase in ADF personnel by 2040 and places ultimate hope in a series of as yet to be developed “wunderwaffe” or wonder weapons, like autonomous systems, cyber or tactical weapons like HIMARs and others to provide both “impactful projection” and deterrence against “any potential adversary”.

Importantly, no one has said that defending the nation in this era of renewed and increasingly capable great power competition will be cheap or easy and we have to accept that uncomfortable reality.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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