The unmanned surface vessel (USV) Ranger steams alongside the USV Mariner as both ships transit the Pacific Ocean during an exercise on Sep. 7, 2023.

Two prototype U.S. drone ships have arrived in Japan for their first deployment in the western Pacific, testing surveillance and attack capabilities that the Navy might find useful against China’s larger fleet.

U.S. Navy Cmdr. Jeremiah Daley said unmanned surface vessels that operate autonomously could substitute for larger ships such as destroyers in groups hunting enemy targets. “For example, one destroyer and two USVs could replace three destroyers. It’s a force multiplier,” he said. 

Daley spoke Thursday on board the unmanned surface vessel Ranger, a 190-foot-long ship originally designed for the oil industry that resembles a flatbed truck. It sat docked at the port of Yokosuka, near Tokyo, home to the U.S. Seventh Fleet. 

Cmdr. Jeremiah Daley said unmanned surface vessels that operate autonomously could substitute for larger ships.

While the Ranger doesn’t currently carry missiles, it can carry and launch missiles in modules loaded onto its flatbed rear section. 

China has overtaken the U.S. Navy in number of ships in recent years and has sent its navy into the Pacific more frequently for exercises. A Chinese aircraft carrier and an unusually large cluster of around two dozen warships recently held exercises between Taiwan and Guam. 

The Pentagon said earlier this month it planned to invest in a network of AI-powered technology, drones and autonomous systems over the next two years, in large part driven by China’s moves to develop autonomous systems across its military.

Ranger and five other unmanned American ships are part of a project known as Ghost Fleet Overlord that originated in 2018 and aims to integrate autonomous operations into the Navy. Advocates of the program say such ships could operate relatively inexpensively inside the range of enemy fire, allowing manned ships to remain farther away. 

China’s missiles, ships and planes make it increasingly risky for the U.S. and its allies to operate in the seas around China. Across the U.S. military, efforts are under way to develop new strategies for any conflicts in the western Pacific, such as a possible war over Taiwan.

The U.S. Navy’s Ranger.

The Navy is still experimenting with unmanned surface vehicles, but their potential potency has been demonstrated in Ukraine, where drone attack boats have proven effective in countering Russia’s more powerful navy.  

In a project known as Task Force 59, the U.S. has deployed small surveillance drone boats in the Middle East to monitor Iran’s navy in coordination with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

The six American ships in the Unmanned Surface Vessel division are larger and have more sophisticated sensors than the simple drones used in the Middle East. They often still have crew. Ranger had 16 sailors on board during its transit to Japan, monitoring the ship and gathering data.

In a test in 2021, an SM-6 interceptor missile was fired from Ranger. The missile can be used to destroy enemy ballistic and cruise missiles, or to attack other ships.

Before heading to Japan, Ranger and sister ship Mariner took part in exercises in the Pacific with the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and other vessels.


The U.S. Navy’s medium displacement unmanned surface vessel Sea Hunter.

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