The Sea Hunter represents a glimpse into the future of naval warfare – an unmanned trimaran warship measuring 132 feet in length, capable of reaching speeds of 27 knots, weighing 135 tons, and possessing an impressive range of 10,000 nautical miles. What sets this naval vessel apart is a crucial detail: it operates without any human crew and is guided by a specially designed artificial intelligence (AI) system, drawing data from a suite of sensors, radars, and cameras installed on the ship.
While AI has made inroads into various aspects of our lives, this AI is extraordinary. It confronts complex challenges such as changing wind conditions, varying water depths, and unpredictable sea currents. Beyond environmental factors, the AI is responsible for steering the ship, avoiding collisions with other vessels, and even conducting military operations. After seven years of development, the Sea Hunter has finally become a reality.
Leidos, a company based in Reston, Virginia, is the architect of this pioneering vessel. The Sea Hunter is an exemplar of autonomous navigation, capable of staying at sea for extended periods, performing diverse tasks such as tracking enemy submarines, mine clearance, torpedo detection, and acting as a communication relay. What’s striking is its cost-effectiveness; operating the Sea Hunter costs just $20,000 per day, a fraction of the daily operating expenses of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer at $700,000. Moreover, it’s significantly more affordable to produce, with a price tag of $20 million compared to the $1.6 billion required for a destroyer. Importantly, it’s important to note that the Sea Hunter isn’t designed to replace manned vessels but rather to serve as a versatile support vessel during wartime operations.
At present, the Sea Hunter is unarmed, but there are plans to arm it in the future. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) continues to test the vessel, with future plans to equip it with weapons, such as missiles, which would be remotely controlled by human operators to ensure human decision-making in the use of lethal force.
Much about the Sea Hunter is shrouded in secrecy, from the intricacies of its technology to the precise applications in naval warfare. Nevertheless, one thing is clear: while the ship itself isn’t entirely new, its AI system continues to evolve and adapt. In January of this year, the Sea Hunter achieved a remarkable milestone by autonomously navigating from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and back without a single crew member on board.
The U.S. Navy’s trust in Leidos is evident, as it has awarded the company a potential three-year, $43.5 million contract to develop a second version of the vessel, fittingly named Sea Hunter II. Leidos has noted that the sister ship will be an evolution of the first Sea Hunter, incorporating lessons learned, evolving mission requirements, and further enhancing its autonomy features. Given the potential to transfer the onboard AI to other ships, it’s likely that the Sea Hunter is currently undergoing upgrades.
In summary, the Sea Hunter embodies the direction of modern warfare, where both manned and unmanned vehicles, and human-AI collaboration, work in tandem to achieve objectives and missions in the theater of war.
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