By Jennifer Rizzo
Future unmanned ships could be retrofitted with missile-firing systems following successful prototype tests, but how long before the technology can be deployed remains a question, U.S. Navy officials say.
Six long-range missiles were fired during three days of testing last month, marking the first time missiles have been fired from any unmanned ship.
The seafaring drone, called the NUWC-4, is a smaller craft developed to defend against a potential attack of ships swarming toward naval vessels, according to the Navy. Terrorists and pirates have been known to use these tactics.
The "project was developed in response to recent world events involving swarms of small attack craft, as well as threat assessments outlined in recent studies conducted by the Naval Warfare Development Command," said NAVSEA Special Warfare Program Manager Capt. Thomas D. Gajewski. "Technology demonstrated in this project can provide a capability to combat terrorists who use small low-cost vehicles as weapons platforms."
The smaller size of the unmanned ship allows it to operate fairly close to shore in shallow water. A larger vessel would use multiple missile-armed systems to protect itself in a congested waterway or in harbor defense in model scenarios, according to Mark Moses, an assistant program manager at Naval Special Warfare.
He says the missile precision represents an advancement.
"Most of these craft have small-caliber weapons systems," Moses said, referring not only to the unmanned ship but manned vessels of a similar size. "Essentially, the largest weapon system a combatant craft has is a .50-caliber (machine gun), which is not the most accurate weapon," Moses said. "This new capability could potentially provide the war fighter with a more accurate system, since its effective range is five times that of current systems."
In the test, the missiles hit a target over two miles away, but the system could be equipped with longer-distance missiles.
The on-land operator is able to track a missile while it's in flight, see what the missile sees and divert it toward another target if needed.
The prototype is technologically ready to go, pending a few more tests, but Department of Defense money and resources would have to be allocated for the weapon program before it can officially join the fleet.
The testing was part of a joint project between the United States and Israel as part of a counterterrorism effort. The missile weapon system and missiles were both manufactured by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., an Israeli company.