U.S. Navy Stands Up New Unit to Run Small Drone Boats by the Hundreds

GARC drone boats in operation (USN)

Published May 21, 2024 2:48 AM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has set up another unmanned vessel squadron in California, and it will operate a large fleet of speedboat-sized drone boats designed for reconnaissance payloads. 

The newly-formed Unmanned Surface Vessel Squadron 3 (USVRON 3) will operate the Global Autonomous Reconnaissance Craft, or GARC. This drone system is built by Maritime Applied Physics Corporation, and it shares a general hull form with the former Greenough Advanced Rescue Craft (also known as GARC), an experimental craft that was originally developed as a payload for the Littoral Combat Ship program.

According to Pacific Fleet, GARCs are 16-foot USVs that will be used for research, testing, and operations, and are designed to spearhead unmanned-systems integration into the rest of the surface fleet. The Navy is still early in its journey of rolling out unmanned vessels in front-line operational roles, and the squadron will pioneer new applications. 

“With challenging obstacles to overcome, we have put the right team in place at USVRON Three, and I believe we have done just that,” McLane said. “The Navy is placing unmanned systems in the hands of 400 of our most talented warfighters to help integrate, scale, experiment, and employ these systems.”

The new squadron will also be among the first units to benefit from the new robotics warfare (RW) rating, a recently created specialty that recognizes the unique skillsets of unmanned-system operators and maintainers. It will be housed under Surface Development Group One, the test-and-evalution unit that houses all three Zumwalt-class destroyers and the Navy's midsize USVs, the DARPA-developed Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk and the Pentagon-developed Ghost Fleet Overlord crewboat conversions. 

“There are currently no boundaries, and we have an incredible opportunity to determine what right looks like within our sphere of influence,” said group commander Cdre. Shea Thompson, emphasizing that the squadron will be writing the rulebooks for unmanned-operation as it goes along. 

The Pentagon is pushing to field low-cost, high-volume unmanned assets at scale under its "Replicator" initiative. Ukraine's experiments with drone boats have shown defense operators the value of small and simple unmanned vessels, so long as they have sufficient range and payload capacity. GARC will be able to travel up to 700 nautical miles at six knots, and 400 nautical miles at 30 knots. For comparison, this is enough range to reach Taiwanese waters from the U.S. base in Okinawa. 

USVRON 3 is starting up with 24 members, but could scale up to 400 as more equipment delivers to the fleet, according to USNI. The small craft cost less than $1 million apiece and will eventually number in the hundreds. Potential first customers could include Marine Corps units and special warfare operators.