3D Printing Drone Swarms, Part 15: the Always On Navy


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As we discuss in our ongoing 3D Printing Drone Swarms series, additive manufacturing (AM) will play an increasing role in the production of all manner of semi-sentient robots. This has been demonstrated by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are now being made in part with 3D printing for lightweight, custom designs. For this reason, we expect AM to be used for other drone-style bots as well, often for military purposes. We are also not advocating for the use of 3D printing for the manufacturing of weapons or military equipment, but are highlighting this as a likely inevitability. 

In the Second World War, mini-subs were never really more than suicide-with-an-excuse vehicles. They were kamikaze with a wink an a nod. However, for countries with their backs against the wall, they were an option for taking out a ship or two. Desperate times, desperate measures. Now, we can make mini-subs without people on board. Permanently scavenging, permanently at sea, permanently loitering munitions. Intelligent munitions that can be parachuted or airlifted anywhere.

An Alseamar subsea glider.

Contrast this with the U.S. now, which can’t sufficiently repair its warships in peace time and some ships out of commission for years after incidents. In other cases, repairs take much longer than anticipated, more often than not.

The overall operational readiness of the Navy is problematic. Even at the best of times, ships are docking, being serviced, retrofitted, or upgraded much of the time. Ships are reportedly at sea between two days and two weeks of every month. This is a very low utilization rate. Subs can use multiple teams, with each crew at sea between three and six months. This still means that boats will have to make it back to land every few months and are limited in their routes. Even in a rush, an aircraft carrier can be deployed between 30 and 90 days.

According to RAND, “Under the current 32-month, one-deployment cycle, for example, in which both the deployment and maintenance periods typically last six months, a carrier is deployed 19 percent of the time, able to surge within 30 days 46 percent of the time and within 30-90 days an additional 11 percent of the time, and in depot maintenance 24 percent of the time.”

The Artemis was designed to explore beneath the ice.

A carrier is maintained more than it is at sea and only actually operational around a fifth of the time. So, the U.S. has 11 carriers, with a fifth active at any one time. At the moment, the U.S. Navy has 295 ships of which 55 are classed as “deployed ships underway.” Financially, and in terms of manpower, it’s unfeasible to increase this force significantly, but this what the Navy wants. Congress and the Navy agree.

“The Navy has had, since 2017, “a 355-ship force-level goal. The new goal is expected to introduce a new, more distributed fleet architecture featuring a smaller proportion of larger ships, a larger proportion of smaller ships, and a new third tier of large unmanned vehicles (UVs).

On June 17, 2021, the Navy released a long-range Navy shipbuilding document that presents the Biden Administration’s emerging successor to the 355-ship force-level goal. The document calls for a Navy with a more distributed fleet architecture, including 321 to 372 manned ships and 77 to 140 large UVs. A September 2021 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report estimates that the fleet envisioned in the document would cost an average of between $25.3 billion and $32.7 billion per year in constant FY2021 dollars to procure.”

Remember that a 355-level goal would, in current terms, mean that the U.S. would spend around $30 billion to get 60 more vessels, of which there would effectively be an extra 15 ships at sea at any time. That’s just the procurement costs. The Congressional Budget Office estimates,

“CBO estimates that total shipbuilding costs, including costs for nuclear refueling and unmanned systems, would average about $34 billion per year (in 2021 dollars), 10 percent more than the Navy estimates. Annual operation and support costs for the fleet would grow from $74 billion today to $113 billion by 2051. The Navy’s total budget would increase from about $200 billion today to $279 billion (in 2021 dollars) by 2051.”

In this December 11, 2014 US Navy handout photo, the GhostSwimmer vehicle, developed by the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell project Silent NEMO, undergoes testing during a demonstration at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek – Fort Story in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Project Silent NEMO is an experiment that explores the possible uses for a biomimetic device developed by the Office of Naval Research. US NAVY / MC3 EDWARD GUTTIERREZ III/Released

In this 2020 expanded shipbuilding plan, the U.S. would aim to have 300 ships by 2038. Additionally, they’d have “223 unmanned undersea and surface vehicles to supplement its fleet.” Now, the U.S. is spending $3 billion a year in maintenance per ship it keeps afloat permanently, it hopes to expand this. But this is an insane level of spending. What if a conflict sinks ten ships? What would the U.S. do? How could it possibly afford a war? We’re in a strange situation where the world’s remaining superpower cannot afford a naval conflict because procuring replacement ships would be too costly and time consuming. The U.S. is in kind of a budgetary detente with itself.

As the Navy has identified unmanned vehicles (UVs) are the answer. Depending on whose doing the estimates, the Navy wants to procure anywhere from 70 to 300 large UVs. The driver here is to increase the time a vessel spends deployed and increase the maintenance interval. The dream scenario is an interesting one.

If the U.S. could buy hundreds of large capable UVs, then it would potentially become an always on Navy. This to me is a compelling vision. This would let the U.S. Navy disrupt the business of war. Shedding its debilitating procurement system, it would become more efficient and pay less per nautical mile. A kind of “missile mile” metric analogous to the seat mile used by airlines would be helpful there.

Then, like expensive Cray or Silicon Graphics machines that cost millions, they’d be replaced by cheaper rack-able, replaceable systems. The U.S. would then build up excess capability and increase its deployment ratios to something less than the catastrophic numbers of today. It would have a global drone fleet that could be at a trouble spot or flown to one quickly. It would have excess capacity to be put online, in case of a conflict or to immediately replace depleted stocks.

That would be a vision of an always-on Navy. However, in order for this to transpire, the Navy will need to look beyond its established vendors. It’s these companies that are living off cost overruns and managing bloated ships that are much too expensive. Innovative new companies could provide competition and low-cost effective vessels. A billion-dollar folly with artificial intelligence is still a folly. New firms and new designs could lead to competition. In my mind, this only can happen if the U.S. Navy focuses on $100,000 ships that are perfectly fit for a given task and super efficient, applications that 3D printing excels at. If it continues to do things as it has, the Navy may buy the present, but the future of all the oceans and what is in between will belong to the Chinese.

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