Crew-Optional USNS Apalachicola Delivers to the Navy, Ship’s Unmanned Future Unclear
A logistics ship that Congress directed the Navy to build with the ability to operate autonomously delivered to the service on Thursday, Naval Sea Systems Command announced.
Spearhead-class aluminum catamaran USNS Apalachicola (EPF-13) is now set to operate in the Western Pacific in support of U.S. 7th Fleet.
“The delivery of EPF 13 comes after several successful at-sea periods for the vessel, including Unmanned Logistics Prototype Trials to assess autonomous capabilities integrated into the shipboard configuration,” said Tim Roberts with PEO Ship’s Strategic and Theater Sealift Program Manager in a statement.
“The Navy and our shipbuilding partner, Austal USA, are proud of the work accomplished and look forward to EPF 13 providing capability and capacity to Military Sealift Command, the fleet, and the U.S. Marine Corps.”
The civilian-crewed ship is the 13th in the class with the ability to haul 600 tons 1,200 nautical miles at speeds of up to 35 knots. The ships are designed to quickly move material and vehicles – like an M1A2 Abrams main battle tank – quickly within a theatre.
In the 2021 defense authorization bill, Congress added $50 million to add uncrewed features to Apalachicola, reported The War Zone.
Austal USA, L3 Harris and General Dynamics Mission Systems added the additional systems to allow the ship to operate autonomously, and the Navy conducted an extensive battery of at sea tests to prove out the modifications.
The shipyard pitched the capability for unmanned transits with systems that could safely navigate and include enough automation to operate the ship’s systems.
While NAVSEA touted successes during testing, the Navy doesn’t have a clear plan on what to do with the capability, Chief of Naval Operations Adm Mike Gilday told reporters on Thursday.
“I think one step at a time. In terms of that ship, it has the capability but we will integrate into fleet in a very deliberate manner. We won’t have a deployment and unmanned and an unmanned deployment right off the bat,” he told reporters Thursday at the WEST 2023 conference, co-hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and AFCEA.
“I think what you’re going to see in unmanned surface is a phasing where you’ll have minimally manned and then an unmanned. We want to make sure we get it right. One ship will not necessarily solve the command and control problems, the engineering reliability problems and so we’re going to want to make sure that we have it right before we move too fast – operationally and in terms of building more of them.”
The delivery of Apalachicola comes as the Navy is developing its own prototypes of medium and large unmanned surface vessels based on existing oil and gas ship supply vessels.