Last year, the service sent its Sea Hunter, a 132-foot-long self-driving ship, from San Diego to Hawaii and back again with hardly anyone aboard. Credit: Artist's rendition/US Navy.

Drones in the air, drones underwater and drones on the surface.

That’s right — they’re coming, and it will be the biggest unmanned fleet exercise to ever happen in Pacific waters.

According to Rear Admiral Robert Gaucher, director of maritime headquarters with the US Pacific Fleet, the US Navy will deploy the unmanned technology next year to test how the service can incorporate it into combat situations, Gina Harkins of reported.

Oh, and by the way, this will all happen right under the watchful eye of China, America’s new-found enemy in the South China Sea.

Gaucher made the comments during the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s annual defense show.

“We’re shooting for early 2021 to be able to run a fleet battle problem that is centered on unmanned,” he said. “It will … be on the sea, above the sea and under the sea as we get to demonstrating how we can align to the [US Indo-Pacific Command] directives to use experimentation to drive lethality.”

The US Navy’s MQ-4C Triton drone will likely be involved in a massive exercise in the Pacific next year. Credit: US Navy.

The Navy regularly runs fleet battle problems — which test deploying forces for high-end warfare — in the Pacific and Atlantic, Gaucher said.

But they’re typically carried out by carrier strike groups. Incorporating new drone technologies into the battle problem will be a big shift for the service, which plans to invest billions in new unmanned systems, the report said.

The Navy recently awarded almost US$42 million in contracts to six companies to develop plans for new large unmanned surface vessels. Work on the studies for those vessels is expected to be completed by May 2022.

The service wants US$2 billion to build 10 large unmanned surface vessels over the next five years.

Some in Congress though remain skeptical about whether the Navy knows what it wants out of the drone ships, leading members of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces to try to block the service from buying any of the vessels next year.

Navy Department leaders stressed that unmanned systems will play a huge role in future maritime operations — particularly in the Pacific should a conflict break out with China, the report said.

Marine Brig. Gen. Eric Austin, director of the capabilities development directorate at Combat Development and Integration in Quantico, Virginia, acknowledged during a Tuesday roundtable that there are “differing levels of confidence” in unmanned technology.

X-47B Drone Launch from carrier Sailors move an X-47B onto an aircraft elevator aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Credit: US Navy.

“It’s a pretty big cultural change for a lot of the Joint Force,” Austin said. “Some are further ahead than others, but I think as we see increasing [technology readiness levels], increasing capabilities, it makes it easier.”

The Navy has been testing a suite of unmanned systems. Last year, the service sent its Sea Hunter, a 132-foot-long self-driving ship, from San Diego to Hawaii and back again with hardly anyone aboard, the report said.

Last year, the sea services also sent a long-range unmanned surface vessel from Norfolk, Virginia, to North Carolina, where Austin said it was “able to strike targets using kinetic weapons in the Cherry Point range complex.” The vessel then went on to sail further south to Camp Lejeune, he said.

The Navy has also fielded the unmanned Fire Scout helicopter and sent a MQ-4C Triton drone aircraft, capable of flying surveillance and reconnaissance missions, to Guam. It has also developed high-tech underwater unmanned vehicles for mine countermeasure missions, the report said.

Gaucher said the Navy is still in the planning stage for its unmanned battle fleet issue, but the exercise is likely to include a command-and-control aspect, sensors and payloads.

Some portions will be run ashore and others from different ships at sea, he added, “as we go out there and try to press the advantage against our adversaries.”