THE ‘GHOST FLEET’
CONCEPT FOCUSES ON PUTTING NETWORK
OF UNMANNED PLATFORMS TO WORK
BY DANIEL P. TAYLOR, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
The Navy has kicked off an effort to create
an autonomous network of unmanned vehicles that could conduct a range of operations
in the maritime domain. Called the “ghost
fleet” by the service, this new concept that
is rapidly developing would involve multiple
surface, air and underwater systems working together to conduct operations while
keeping Sailors at a safe distance.
Capt. Jon Rucker, program manager for unmanned
maritime systems in the Littoral Combat Ship Program
Office, gave a sneak peek of the concept April 3 at
the Navy League’s 2017 Sea-Air-Space Exposition in
National Harbor, Md.
“The ghost fleet is a project we’ll be kicking off
shortly that includes UUVs and USVs,” Rucker said,
referring to unmanned underwater and surface ves-
sels. “So we’re looking at unmanning manned craft,
or potentially building up a new purpose-filled USV.”
The concept is very much in the early stages.
Rucker and his team will be focused on defining it in
the coming months, but the goal is clear: to find some
path toward creating a network of unmanned and
potentially autonomous platforms to accomplish naval
tasks without input from a human at all.
Rucker said he is focusing on whether they should
build a new USV from the ground up, or take a manned
vessel and equip it with sensors and software — either
converting it into an unmanned platform or one that is
“Those are the types of questions we’re going to
consider as we move forward,” he said.
Rucker added that it was a collaborative effort that
was kicked off by the Office of the Secretary of Defense
and involves multiple partners “working together
collaboratively” through the Department of Defense.
“We’re still trying to figure out what the requirements are, but the whole intent of the program is to
get unmanned systems out quickly, into the hands of
the fleet,” Rucker said. “One of the key tenets of the
ghost fleet program is to have USVs and UUVs cooperate together. So how do we tie in multiple unmanned
platforms to work with each other autonomously?
That’s an area we haven’t gotten very far with.”
You might say Peter Singer, a strategist and senior
fellow at the New American Foundation, wrote the
book on the concept. Singer, a scholar on 21st-century
warfare, co-authored the novel “Ghost Fleet” with
August Cole in June 2015.
The novel is set in 2026 and paints a picture of
what a war between two global superpowers, like the
United States and China, might look like in the not-so-distant future. While the Navy probably does not have
a looming battle with China in mind with its “ghost
fleet” concept, the service is wrestling with the future
of warfare by tackling the issue, Singer told Seapower.
“It’s part of a larger question,” Singer said. “The
question is not, ‘Are robots coming?’ It’s ‘how do I
weave them into what I’m doing, what roles are to be
replaced, what roles are to be used in teaming, and in
what ways do they fundamentally change how I structure organizations, how I plan operations?’”
There are two very distinct trend lines when it
comes to robotics and unmanned assets, Singer said.
One is a physically large and very expensive intelligent
system taking on tasks that formerly would been filled
by a manned platform, such as the unmanned MQ- 25,
which is aimed to be the successor to manned platforms like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
Another trend line involves disaggregating tasks and
intelligence from one platform into many platforms.
“You could turn it into a network or a ‘swarm,’”
Singer said. “It’s the idea of how each little ant is not
all that intelligent, but together they can do incredibly