Future Navy drone boats will get advanced weapons and radar

A large, armed, surface-patrolling, submarine-hunting unmanned vessel, operating in a distributed capacity teamed with manned combatants and ops centers, launches a small fleet of autonomous drone boats well forward in the fight to counterattack newly discovered enemy missile launch facilities at previously undetectable ranges … made possible by a new generation of highly-sensitive, discriminating ship-based radar technology.

Or … perhaps a medium-range ballistic missile, small enemy attack drone or approaching anti-ship cruise missile was detected by unmanned vessels at ranges well beyond current line-of-sight radar systems? Manned vessels, operations centers, or even ground control stations at safe stand-off distances, would be in a position to destroy enemies with much lower risk and have a greatly expanded time window with which to make crucial attack and defense determinations.

These scenarios, wherein large, medium and small drone boats could autonomously search, find and track enemy threats with unprecedented range and precision, amid massive distributed maritime warfare, is precisely why the U.S. Navy is moving so quickly to integrate and expand a new family of breakthrough, highly-sensitive radar systems called AN/SPY-6. The radars, which bring exponential improvements in detection, tracking and fire-control effectiveness, are already being integrated into Navy destroyers, frigates, carriers and amphibs. Now, the service is exploring the feasibility of integrating Raytheon’s SPY-6 radars onto drone boats.

“We are looking at unmanned surface vessels and what the Navy might want to scale to meet those types of requirements,” Scott Spence, director for naval radar systems for Raytheon Missiles & Defense, told Warrior in an interview.


File photo – In this photo provided by U.S. Navy, the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and USS Nimitz (CVN 68) Carrier Strike Groups steam in formation, in the South China Sea, Monday, July 6, 2020.
(Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jason Tarleton/U.S. Navy via AP)

Arming drone ships with new levels of integrated air and missile defense radar could enable the platform to detect, track and possibly even take out or intercept incoming enemy ballistic missiles as well as cruise missiles or drones or fighter jets. Larger, forward operating unmanned systems could operate as defensive or command and control nodes operating in high-risk, major warfare areas, enabling manned crews to operate at safer distances. A drone ship, equipped with SPY-6 radar, might be able to see approaching attacks from beyond the horizon or radar detection envelope of a manned ship operating at greater distances.

Yet another interesting developmental possibility, it would seem, could involve decreasing the form factor or size configurations to enable high-powered SPY-6 integration onto smaller surface drones. Such a prospect certainly seems feasible given current technical trends now succeeding with efforts to engineer smaller, more mobile, yet high-power density applications of expeditionary electrical power.

Interestingly, the idea of using power-density innovations, such as those used for SPY-6 radar systems, into drone ships of various sizes is taken up in a 2019 RAND Corp. study called “Advancing Autonomous Systems: An Analysis of Future and Current Technology for Unmanned Maritime Vehicles.”

The RAND study, throughout its discussion of possible hardware and software adjustments to tailor radar systems to unmanned vessels, discusses the merits of radar power density regarding system range. “Increased transmission power increases the power of reflected signals, increasing the likelihood that reflected signals are received by the originator,” the study says.


The study’s discussion of increased power-density output is consistent with Raytheon’s scientific emphasis, a series of studies and inquiries over the years that ultimately led to engineering the principal power-density increasing technology for SPY-6, Gallium Nitride (GAN) semiconductors. GAN is the technology primarily responsible for SPY-6’s massive increase in radar range and sensitivity and has much higher power density when compared with previously used Gallium Arsenide modules.

— Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Warrior Maven and the defense editor of The National Interest –

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