Navy Takes Major Step Toward Building Its Drone Ship Fleet

Sea Hunter completed an autonomous sail from San Diego to Hawaii
Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned sea surface vehicle developed in partnership between the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), completed an autonomous sail from San Diego to Hawaii and back—the first ship ever to do so autonomously, Oct. 31, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo)

Dozens of companies will vie for nearly $1 billion in Navy contracts as the service works toward building a fleet of new high-tech, self-driving unmanned ships.

Naval Sea Systems Command selected 40 companies that will compete for work in developing payloads, sensors, autonomous systems and other technologies for the Navy's future fleet of unmanned surface vessels.

The service has some $982.1 million in available contracts over up to a 10-year period. Selecting the 40 companies that will compete for the work is meant to increase marketplace participation, Navy officials said in a recent statement.

"The [multiple-award contracts] ... ensure faster and more efficient turn-around time," the statement adds.

Related: Here's What the Marines Want in the Navy's Fleet of Unmanned Drone Ships

The companies are pursuing the chance to produce systems on some of the Navy's newest experimental ships and those still in development. That includes platforms such as the Sea Hunter, which last year sailed from California to Hawaii and back again with hardly anyone aboard, and future unmanned medium- and large-unmanned surface vessels the Navy is investing billions in over the next several years.

Unmanned vessels were again prioritized in the Navy's 2021 budget request. The service has plans next year to fund a large unmanned surface vessel, which "will ultimately serve as a sensor and shooter," budget documents state.

The Navy wants 10 of those ships by 2025. It also wants six extra-large unmanned undersea vessels.

Navy and Marine Corps leaders have over the past year stressed the need for unmanned vessels that can operate on and below the surface as the services face new threats at sea. The services have continued experimenting with platforms such as the Sea Hunter and the Expeditionary Warfare Unmanned Surface Vessel, which leaders have said could revolutionize naval warfare, some have told reporters.

A lot is still unknown about how the services would use the vessels or what capabilities they would have, but officials have said they want them "sniffing and recording" and even tricking the enemy.

"It can't just be a drone," Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, head of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said in September. "... It has to be able to look like something it's not."

The companies selected by the Navy to compete for the new contracts include several that have already produced unmanned maritime systems for the military. The full list of organizations can be found here.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Read More: Navy's Plans for Unmanned 'Ghost Fleet' Remain Shrouded in Secrecy

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