US drone ships deployed near China for first time

Two U.S. drone ships have been sent to Japan, the first time such vessels have been deployed near China.

The unmanned surface vessels (USVs) Ranger and Mariner arrived Sept. 18 in Yokosuka “as part of a scheduled port visit during Integrated Battle Problem (IBP) 23.2,” a drone exercise, according to a Navy statement on the event.  

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the deployment, which is meant to test the drone ships’ surveillance and attack capabilities that could be used to counter China in the region.  

“Unmanned and autonomous technologies are key to growing our distributed maritime operations framework,” said Rear Adm. Blake Converse, deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet. “By proliferating our presence in the Pacific and increasing the fleet’s situational awareness and lethality, we give ourselves more options to make better decisions at all levels of leadership.” 

Navy Cmdr. Jeremiah Daley, who spoke Thursday on board the unmanned surface vessel Ranger, said drone vessels could likely stand as substitutes for larger ships such as destroyers for groups of ships hunting enemy targets, according to the Journal. 

The drone ships don’t currently carry missiles but can do so, as Ranger did during a 2021 test in which the vessel fired a SM-6 interceptor missile. 

The drone capability is useful to the Navy as the ships can operate for fewer tax dollars than their manned counterparts and can also allow manned ships to keep farther back from enemy fire as the drone ships move in first. 

Such things are being considered by defense leaders as China’s fleet has outgrown the U.S. Navy’s in recent years. Beijing has also become more active in the Pacific amid fears it could move to try to take control of Taiwan, holding a major exercise in the waters between Taiwan and Guam earlier this month.  

Ranger, Mariner and several other unmanned ships are part of a project known as Ghost Fleet Overlord, which started in 2018 with the intention to integrate drone operations into the Navy.  

The Pentagon has also moved to invest more in drones and autonomous systems in the next two years, announcing the plan earlier this month. 

Prior to reaching Japan, Ranger and Mariner also participated in exercises in the Pacific with the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and other ships. 

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