What We Know About Future Maritime Wars

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — Remember the April 13, announcement that the U.S was sending Ukraine “unmanned coastal defense vessels” from U.S. Navy stocks as part of an $800 million security assistance package?

At the time, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters, “Coast defense is something that Ukraine has repeatedly said they’re interested in. It is particularly an acute need now, as we see the Russians really refocus their [Ukraine] efforts on the east and in the south.”

“It’s an unmanned surface vessel (USV) that can be used for a variety of purposes in coastal defense. I think I’ll just leave it at that,” Kirby said.

The inclusion of an unknown number of unidentified, unmanned Navy vessels to Ukraine caught my interest, so I looked into the growing role that these unmanned maritime systems seem to be playing in Navy strategy. The Navy had already integrated manned ships with unmanned aerial systems, such as the MQ-4C Tritons, the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator (BAMS-D) systems and MQ-1 Predators.

Back in September 2021, in order to help rapidly integrate unmanned vessels and artificial intelligence (AI) into the Navy’s maritime operations, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command established Task Force 59 in Bahrain, headquarters to the 5th Fleet.

Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, named head of Task Force 59, described his plans last September when the task force was formed. “We’re going to take today’s unmanned systems – which are largely in the air,” Cooper said. “They will be augmented with unmanned surface vessels…We haven’t had them in the past. We have them now. It will be augmented with even more unmanned undersea vessels.”

Task Force 59 has since served as a test bed for the Navy’s first employment of unmanned sea vessels (USV), and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) in numbers that combine their capabilities with manned platforms for multi-domain operations in all areas of the maritime battlespace from air to below the sea.

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“We’re taking off-the-shelf emerging technology in unmanned, coupling with artificial intelligence and machine learning, in really moving at pace to bring new capabilities to the region. I think in 2022, we’re going to see continued efforts in this regard into the operational realm and impacting operations. It will be exciting,” Cooper said.

The task force has also been a test bed for handling personnel. Its commodore is Capt. Michael Brasseur, an expert in maritime robotics, and its early roster has included reservists, such as the CEO of a 1,000-person cyber security company; a D.C. think-tanker working toward a Ph.D. from Harvard and an advisor who was one of Snapchat’s earliest employees, according to a Navy press release.

“This is not the B team,” Brasseur said in an interview. “I was floored by the caliber of people,” Cmdr. Tom McAndrew, the task force’s No. 2, said in a separate interview.

Having such high caliber people may be hard to replicate. Ten of the 21 early Task Force 59 members were reservists, including McAndrew, meaning eventually they will go back to their day jobs outside the Navy.

To help the Navy expand its unmanned systems testing across domains, Task Force 59 developed working relationships with regional partners, first with Bahrain, and later with Jordan. Late last year, it planned International Maritime Exercise (IMX 2022) as an opportunity to demonstrate use of unmanned systems along with allies and partners in various operational scenarios.

Beginning January 31, 2022, IMX 2022 took place in various Middle East waters as an 18-day training event — the largest unmanned maritime exercise in the world with more than 80 unmanned systems and 9,000 personnel from 10 nations participating.

One day after IMX 2022 ended, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told the U.S. Naval Institute WEST 2022 conference in San Diego, “Based on the integrated battle problem that we just did over in 5th Fleet [IMX 2022] with some 100 unmanned platforms over the past few weeks, I’ve concluded, consistent with the analysis, that we need a naval force of over 500 ships…[and] looking into the future, 150 [would be] unmanned.”

The eventual aim, Gilday said, was to take an “evolutionary approach” where the service introduces smaller, less sophisticated unmanned platforms into the fleet in the near term, but will be ready to scale up in the next decade.

Gilday said he wants “to get to the point, hopefully in the 2030s, where we really do have a hybrid fleet, where we can make Distributed Maritime Operations come alive in a way that would be highly effective if we actually had to fight.”

The unmanned ships would extend the range of the sensors and provide remote weapons magazines that could fire when cued by a crewed warship. Those ships – some as large as a 2,000-ton corvette – are subject to the Congressional land-based testing requirement.

Meanwhile, the questions remain, what unmanned U.S. Navy USVs had been sent to Ukraine and where are they being used?

The most obvious place is the north portion of the Black Sea near Odessa.

Last Friday, Russian Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekayev stated that one of Russia’s goals was, “full control of the Donbas and southern Ukraine.” He said that would allow Russia to control Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, “through which agricultural and metallurgical products are delivered” to other countries.”

In short, Moscow’s aim has become to turn Ukraine into a land-locked country.

Up to now, despite repeated attacks, Russia has failed to seize Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, including Odessa, a fortified city of one million people. Last Saturday’s Russian missile attack on Odessa appeared to illustrate Minnekayev’s new set of military objectives, and will require Ukraine to increase its maritime defenses in the northern portions of the Black Sea.

As of January 2022, Ukraine had three armed former-U.S. Mark VI patrol boats based in Odessa to help Ukraine “patrol and defend its territorial waters.” According to Ukraine’s navy, these Mark VIs carry short-range missile systems. The crew members for the last Mark VI obtained were trained in the U.S. At that time, the Ukrainian crew received some coaching on the USVs being sent to Ukraine in the April 13, $800 million package, according to a Pentagon spokesman.

Among the U.S. Navy USVs tested during IMX 2022 was the Mantis T-12, a 12-foot long vessel that can carry a 140-pound payload at speeds up to 30 knots. Its modular design allows for rapidly tailoring sensor packages to meet specific operational requirements. It was operated alongside manned U.S. patrol craft and Bahrain Defense Force maritime assets during IMV 2022 according to a Navy statement.

Brent Sadler, senior fellow for naval warfare at the Heritage Foundation, told the FEDSCOOP website that the Mantas T-12, might be what was sent to Ukraine. “If there was a system that could be provided to Ukraine, it’s going to be something that was in that [IMX 2022] exercise, in my mind, and this Mantas T-12 comes to mind as an unmanned surface vessel,” Sadler said.

It was one thing to use unmanned Mantas T-12 in an exercise, it would be another to see how the Ukrainians use them in real wartime situations.

Sadler recognized that benefit saying, “What it does for the United States is it allows us to better refine how we [might] actually use these systems in combat, too. So we also learn and are able to benefit from the combat experience that the Ukrainians get from these and how they employ them.”

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