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LOSV – joining the dots…

Defence’s announcement that it would acquire six Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels (LOSV) took many observers, including this one, by surprise. Digging into the program, however, this is a more logical move than it may at first seem.

First of all, it piggy-backs on an existing US Navy program, the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV) program, which is designed to put just such a ship into service, with the first purchase scheduled for 2025.

Secondly, it will carry a 32-cell Mk41 Vertical Launch System; this will enable anything from 128 quad-packed Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM) for self-defence, to single-packed SM-2, SM-3, SM-6 or Tomahawk missiles for long-range anti-aircraft, anti-missile and strike purposes.

Thirdly, the LOSV will be equipped with the Lockheed Martin Aegis Baseline 9 combat system: Aegis comes with the coveted Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) which the US Navy has only ever shared with Japan and Australia; the Baseline 9 version enables anti-ballistic missile defence – essentially, it enables protection of a sea or contiguous land area against hypersonic ballistic weapons.

Fourthly, one of the missiles which would conduct such an operation is the AMRAAM-based SM-6 – which conducted a successful CEC-enabled trial as long ago as 2021 aboard the US Navy’s Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) Ranger.

And fifthly, USV Ranger self-deployed from San Diego to Sydney late last year to participate in Defence’s EX Autonomous Warrior 2024.

The US Navy plans to issue its requirement for a production LUSV soon. It will be “capable of autonomous navigation, transit planning, and COLREGS [collision regulations] compliant maneuvering and will be designed with automated propulsion, electrical generation, and support systems,” according to the FY2024 US defence budget.

However, Western Australian shipbuilder Austal has been experimenting with similar optionally manned, autonomous ships for more than a year. In late-2022 the company announced it was participating in the RAN’s Patrol Boat Autonomy Trial (PBAT) and was modifying a former Armidale-class patrol boat, renamed Sentinel, with robotic, automated and autonomous systems.

The trial was originally kicked off by the Trusted Autonomous Systems Defence CRC; other participants include the RAN’s Warfighting Innovation Navy (WIN) Branch, L3Harris and Greenroom Robotics. It was designed to provide a proof-of-concept demonstrator for optionally crewed or autonomous operations for the RAN into the future, Austal said at the time. The trial is also exploring the legal, regulatory pathways and requirements of operating an autonomous vessel at sea.

The PBAT project aims to:

  • Significantly progress the concept of remote operations and the autonomous certification approach
  • Increase the understanding of fuel management, communication, and navigation systems to be made autonomous
  • Investigate and understand the sustained operation of shipboard mechanical systems without crew intervention, including systems of redundancy and reliability to support operations at sea for extended periods
  • Provide input to long-term risk reduction for future naval projects, considering remote or autonomous vessels. This will be extended to other sensors and autonomous vehicles once the initial trial is complete
  • Transfer lessons learned on the application of remote or autonomous systems to the Royal Australian Navy’s current fleet to potentially optimise crew workload. Remote and autonomous operation has the potential to reduce crew workload and increase operational safety by reducing human error.

However enticing the LUSV program looks, the PBAT trial is also designed to address Australia’s own sovereign requirement for a trusted autonomous system, especially an armed one – which is one reason why TAS DCRC initiated the project.

As for building the ship in Australia, Defence’s clear preference is that construction will take place at Henderson in WA. Austal could build to print, if necessary, in its Henderson yard or at the much larger CIVMEC facility just down the coast. As long as Australia doesn’t require too many differences from the US version to satisfy our own sovereign need for trusted autonomy then this might be the best and quickest way to do it.

Back in the USA, about twelve months ago, Austal USA delivered the largest autonomous capable surface ship in the US Navy, USNS Apalachicola (EPF 13); and last month it launched the US Navy’s newest Overlord Unmanned Surface Vessel Vanguard (OUSV3). Vanguard is the first Unmanned Surface Vessel purpose-built for US Navy autonomous operations from the keel-up.

And as long ago as 2020 the US Navy awarded LUSV study contracts worth US$42 million ($64 million) to six companies: Austal USA; Bollinger Shipyards; Fincantieri Marinette; Gibbs & Cox, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Lockheed Martin. In FY2024, according to the US Naval Institute, the service asked for US$117.4 million ($179.2 million) in R&D funding for the program. So on both sides of the Pacific, Austal is involved in some capacity with the LOSV and LUSV programs.

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