Getting supplies to Marines ashore is growing more complex as new threats reach the space between ships and the beach, so leaders are looking to high-tech self-driving ships to get the job done.
The Navy's mysterious 132-foot-long autonomous Sea Hunter vessel could move fuel, ammunition and other heavy supplies from large ships out to small teams of Marines, sea service leaders said Wednesday at the Sea-Air-Space expo outside Washington, D.C.
"If we can do what we've demonstrated with Sea Hunter ... with logistics, to program that connector to meet that force at a location to sustain them and provide them with what they need, that is where we're going to have to practice, practice, practice and learn and adapt our structure to be responsive to that," said Rear Adm. Jim Kilby, director of warfare integration.
Sea Hunter recently traveled from California to Hawaii and back again with hardly anyone operating aboard the vessel.
Marines and sailors recently practiced sustaining ground troops operating at various points ashore during a massive amphibious exercise called Pacific Blitz. During that exercise, it became clear they must leverage the distance unmanned vessels can travel without risk to personnel, Brig. Gen. Stephen Liszewski, director of operations for Marine Corps Plans, Policies and Operations, told Military.com.
"The unmanned piece is the untapped potential," Liszewski said. "We know that is one way we can get after this ability to operate in a more distributed and lethal environment."
Ideally, the services would use a mix of drone aircraft and unmanned ships to get the job done, he added. There are times when they'll need the speed and range of unmanned aircraft, he said, but they can't carry everything.
"With a surface connector, you're going to be able to move larger volumes of things, particularly if you're talking ammunition or bulk liquids like water or fuel," Liszewski said. "Clearly, aviation speed or range is what you get, but it's not one or the other. You've got to have both [surface connectors and air assets]."
The Navy Department is planning big investments for unmanned technology. Its $23 billion shipbuilding budget request for 2020 included funds for two large unmanned surface ships.