Small Boats and Unmanned Surface Vessels: The Stop-gap the U.S. Navy Needs

First published: 27th October 2017 | Cris Lee



The United States Navy, given its mission of global power projection, requires a larger fleet of both personnel and vessels. As it stands, the number of vessels and sailors has generally decreased since 2001. In a congressional hearing, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Vice Admiral Bill Moran stated that considering its global obligations, the US Navy is far too small to carry out its mission effectively. In fact, Adm. Moran stated that the Navy at its current size could only meet 40% of its demand.[1] This prospect is remarkably sobering, considering the continuing tensions in areas such as Korea or South China Sea .

In response to this situation, the Trump administration declared that the Navy would be expanded to 355 ships, an increase from the current fleet of 270 and the Obama administration’s 308 ships plan .[2] The plan is laudable on paper and, with a pending new budget of $700 billion USD, may be possible.[3] However, the current state of the Navy’s infrastructure and financial requirements associated with its enlargement suggest that even with a budget increase, this project would have to be a long-term goal. What the United States should look for is a stop-gap measure that allows the US Navy to maintain a global presence and a capability to secure national interests in vital areas. One potential solution is the utilisation of unmanned surface vessels (USV).


Expansion of the Navy

The physical lack of equipment and personnel across the globe is an issue. As mentioned before, the United States Navy is already experiencing deficiencies in needed resources, and such deficiencies have resulted in a general deterioration of readiness shown by the accidents involving the destroyers Fitzgerald and McCain. Indeed , John Pendleton of the Government Accountability Office concluded that, based on the Navy’s data, there had been a growing trend of maintenance waivers and sailors who were not receiving qualification certificates quickly enough due to the frequent deployment schedule of the 7th fleet.[4] The result was the death of 17 sailors and the dry-docking of two Aegis destroyers for repairs, effectively putting them out of action. Seth Cosprey of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute noted that the loss of two Aegis destroyers in an area threatened by potential missile strikes was “deeply unhelpful and regrettably timed.”[5] The resulting operational gap caused by the collisions would require other Aegis destroyers to be reassigned to the Western Pacific, potentially leaving other gaps in other theatres.[6]

The solution for the diminished size and decreasing quality of the fleet is President Trump’s call for the expansion of the Navy and better training. Unfortunately, this resolution cannot fill operational gaps of the United States immediately. In general, a call to expand the fleet by building ships tends to be a long-term project that may outlast the duration of the presidency – it can take up to 5 years to order and build a single craft, with only a few yards being able to build capital ships [7]. A study from the Congressional Research Service pointed out that to achieve and maintain expansion to 355 ships could require an addition of more than 47 ships to the Navy’s 30 year shipbuilding period,[8] and recent findings regarding US shipyards suggests that the duration may be even longer. The Government Accountability Office found that between the fiscal years of 2000 and 2016, inadequate facilities and maintenance led to massive delays for the completion of aircraft carriers (53%) and submarines (76%) .[9] Financial insufficiencies were a primary factor in these delays and the Navy stated that it may not be able to conduct 73 of its 218 maintenance periods over the next 23 fiscal years.[10] Though expansion is the decisive solution to the current American dilemma, it cannot wait for over 3 decades.

The USV’s Role

So how do small boats solve this issue? In a historical context, the small gunboat was seen more of as a vessel which could defend coastlines and territorial waters, and not as a replacement for large, oceangoing ships. The United States learned that the small gunboat could not replace and oceangoing Navy the hard way against Britain and France in the early days of its history. [11] However, today the small boat could accommodate the strained Navy by filling in operational gaps and greater mission flexibility with easy-to-produce assets.

In 2016, a National Interest article written by Mark Tempest discussed the possibility of looking to more specialised vessels that could be flexible enough to take on the roles of larger surface forces. He states that smaller gunboats and warships could be used for more specialized missions, such as anti-pirate operations. Tempest notes that no less than an aircraft carrier, a cruiser, and two destroyers were employed to save the sailing Vessel QUEST from Somali pirates in 2011.[12] Tempest’s article points to the fact that instead of using the wrong tools for a delicate operation, the use of small gunboats could replace larger combatants and free said-combatants to a different theatre where their capabilities are more needed.

The idea of utilizing small boats may have failed in the past, but in a contemporary context, it would allow for resource conservation, effective asset distribution, and even enhance fleet capability dispersion. In this paradigm, USVs may compound such advantages that the small boat brings to the theatre. The material needs of a small boat are far less than those of carriers and even destroyers, allowing for the relatively easy mass production of such vessels. In addition, the crew sizes for small boats are relatively smaller-and nonexistent in the case of USVs-reducing the amount of training required to man them.

Secondly, and more pertinently to the central mission of global power projection, the use of small ships to replace the role of large surface combatants will allow important assets to redeploy into theatres where they are more needed. For example, if vessels that rescued the QUEST were replaced with several small boats centred around a squadron of two destroyers, it would allow the other vessels to be redeployed where their capabilities would be better utilized. Freeing up additional Aegis destroyers and Aegis Cruisers to be sent to areas such as Korea is a crucial benefit small boats may provide for the United States. USVs can further that end by giving small boats surveillance and reach that larger crews could provide.

Finally, small USVs can enhance the abilities of destroyer squadrons and similar forces by allowing for greater dispersion. USVs, such as the Sea Hunter, can engage in anti-submarine warfare, allowing for greater surveillance and in some cases, defence of the strike forces. In effect, the USV can become redundant platforms of underwater surveillance in critical geographic areas and act as auxiliary shields of the fleet, adding greater flexibility. USVs may see extensive use in operating with NATO maritime forces in the High North, or around the Straits of Malacca or the South China Sea with East Asian allies. Whatever theatre, the USVs ease to produce, substituting unsuitable combatants, and expanding the fleet’s capacity will allow the United States Navy to continue its global mission while a larger plan for expansion is implemented in its entirety.



In the long run, a larger Navy with a better trained crew is essential to supporting the mission of the US Navy and assisting allied forces. But to accomplish such a goal, the current state of American maritime infrastructure is woefully underequipped , which in turn causes systemic issues in the fleet and personnel readiness as well. It must be reiterated that the small drone boat fleet proposed in this article is only for allowing the US Navy to continue its global presence while it undertakes a long-term project. The USV at present is the most cost-effective substitute that not only alleviates the strains on the Navy’s global need to operate, but also to the flexibility of the Navy’s operations in specific areas of interest.


[1] Sam Lagrone, “VCNO Moran: Navy is Less Ready because ‘We’re too Small’”, United States Naval Institute, February 8, 2017,

[2] Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress”, Congressional Research Service, September 14, 2017,

[3] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Senate Passes $700 Billion Pentagon Bill, More Money than Trump Sought”, New York Times, September 18, 2017,

[4] Sam Lagrone and Ben Werner, “Readiness of the U.S. Ships in Japan Focus of USS John McCain, USS Fitzgerald, Collision Hearing”, United States Naval Institute, September 7, 2017,

[5] Dave Majumdar, “The U.S. Navy’s Greatest Enemy Might be Exhaustion, The National Interest, August 21, 2017,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Claude Berube and Mark Tempest, “Trump’s Gunboats”, The National Interest, December 19, 2016,

[8] O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress”, Congressional Research Service, September 14, 2017.

[9] Government Accountability Office, “Naval Shipyards: Actions Needed to Improve Poor Conditions that Affect Operations”, Government Accountability Office, September 12, 2017,

[10] Ibid.

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