The US Navy's first drone warship just hit the waters for testing

Actuv speed test 2 2 1200x800 cDARPADARPA’s ACTUV (Antisubmarine warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel) conducting speed testing.

The Pentagon’s autonomous warship designed to hunt foreign stealth submarines just began its open-water trials.

ACTUV (Antisubmarine warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel) — a crewless, 140-ton, 132-foot-long robotic ship, which was unveiled in Portland’s Willamette River in April, will undergo two years of testing in the waters off of San Diego with the Navy.

If all goes well, the Pentagon’s drone vessel named “Sea Hunter” will enter service by 2018.

“This is a big, big, deal,” Deputy Secretary of Defence Robert Work said.

“It looks like a Klingon Bird of Prey,” he added, admiring the vessel’s narrow bow.

“It’s extremely inexpensive compared to a manned system and it takes men and service women out of harms way. So why wouldn’t we want to do this?”

The ACTUV, pronounced “active,”costs $15,000 to $20,000 a day to operate, according to the Department of Defence. It was conceived in 2010 by DARPA, the Pentagon’s developmental wing responsible for testing emerging military technologies.

And those expenses are chump change compared with the operating costs of an aircraft carrier or submarine.

For example, the USS George Washington, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, costs a cool $1.1 million a day to operate, the Navy told The Wall Street Journal.

Staffing the ACTUV costs an estimated $684,900 a day.

“You can afford to use it in ways or think about using it in ways that would be too dangerous for a manned vessel,” Scott Littlefield, the ACTUV’s program manager, told Business Insider. “Like taking it into a minefield or taking it within range of somebody else’s weapons.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever get away from sailors on big ships,” he added, “but I could imagine a future in which we have a mixture of manned and unmanned systems working together.”

In short, ACTUV advances the US’s robotic-warfare abilities by supplementing the Navy’s manned fleet.

‘These will be everywhere’

The ACTUV’s completion comes as Russia and China, near-peer adversaries to the US, expand and update their navies.

According to NATO Vice Adm. Clive Johnstone, there is now more reported activity from Russian submarines in the North Atlantic than at any time since the Cold War. At the same time, China claims the majority of land in one of the most disputed areas on the planet: the South China Sea, which is home to $5 trillion in annual global trade.

To that end, the tit for tat over crumbs of territory in the South China Sea isn’t for nothing.

“This will operate wherever the United States Navy operates,” Work told Business Insider. “It can operate in the South China Sea. It can operate in the Baltic Sea. It can operate in the Persian Gulf. And it can operate in the middle of the Atlantic or the middle of the Pacific.”

“These will be everywhere,” he said.

The ACTUV’s sophisticated sonar system allows the unmanned vessel to hunt submarines, detect torpedoes, evaluate threats, and avoid small objects at sea — all while traversing the ocean at a top speed of 27 knots, or 31 mph.

This animation from DARPA depicts how ACTUV will hunt targets at sea:

While at sea, ACTUV will communicate information back to a military control center as well as to nearby Navy vessels and aircraft.

“There is no reason to be afraid of a ship like this,” Work said. “This is a ship that’s going to do what we tell it and nothing more.”

“The US military doesn’t really have the luxury of picking where it has to go, and the fact that the Navy has to be in all of those environments, that is what national security is all about, being able to do all of that,” Dr. Arati Prabhakar, the director of DARPA, told Business Insider.

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