Robot warships hitting targets in the open sea.

Popular Science reported on “ghost ships,” a.k.a. USVs (Unmanned Sea Vehicles), passing their latest targeting tests on maneuvers in the Middle East:

The tests, dubbed Exercise Digital Talon, took what essentially looked like a small speed boat fitted with a weapons system in open international waters in the Arabian Peninsula on Oct. 23. The ship, called a MARTAC T38 Devil Ray USV, took its orders from a human operator who was on shore.

The Digital Talon tests were carried out by Task Force 59, a Navy group focused on building out USV capabilities and integrating them with crewed ships, in conjunction with Special Operations Forces Central Command.

The vessel used in the test was fitted with a small missile launching apparatus called a Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System. The USV specifically fired a Switchblade 300 loitering munition, according to Switchblade maker AeroVironment. Loitering munitions function essentially like a drone with a camera, able to provide surveillance—but then operators have the option of having them hit a target like a missile. US special operations forces have increasingly used the Switchblade in recent years. Thanks to its versatility for surveillance and offense, the weapons were also sent to Ukraine as part of the American effort to arm Kyiv with an array of drones and powerful missile systems. The War Zone (which is owned by PopSci’s parent company, Recurrent Ventures) noted that the boat appears to have a Starlink satellite antenna module mounted on it.

The Digital Talon test marked the Navy’s first live-fire exercise with a USV in the Middle East, where the US military has increasingly deployed uncrewed surface vessels in recent years. Alongside testing the weapons systems themselves, Digital Talon was meant to examine the Navy’s capabilities for “manned-unmanned teaming.” And although the Switchblade munitions— while destructive—are much less powerful than the wider weapons capabilities of the Navy’s crewed vessels, the Digital Talon test is another benchmark in the Navy’s goal of building out its ghost fleet of USVs in the coming decades.

In fact, the Navy wants to deploy a lot of USVs in the next two decades. The Chief of Naval Operations Navigation Plan 2022, published in July 2022 by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday, outlined a goal of essentially doubling the size of the current combat fleet by 2045, with 350 new crewed vessels by 2045 as well as 150 new vessels that are totally crewless.

You can watch video of the Digital Talon tests here, on DVIDS.