The Navy quietly conducted a landmark flight this month that offers clues to the future of one of its strangest and most underappreciated ship classes.
The service conducted the first operational flight of Textron Systems’ Aerosonde Unmanned Aircraft System off the deck of the expeditionary mobile base (ESB) USS Miguel Keith while the ship was conducting operations in the Western Pacific. The small, fixed-wing multi-mission drone is designed to operate from land or aboard ships, and can provide up to 14 hours of airborne scanning, providing the ship with intelligence and forward reconnaissance at ranges of up to 75 nautical miles, or 86 land miles.
Textron officials said the company is working with the Navy to build enhanced mission payloads for the USS Miguel Keith, as well as extended-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
“Having an unmanned aircraft system operational aboard the ship acting as a remote sensor contributes to overall maritime domain awareness and mission success,” Wayne Prender, senior vice president of Air Systems for Textron, said in a released statement. “The Aerosonde system is providing added reach beyond the horizon and an ability to operate [multiple-intelligence] ISR consistently, both great examples of the benefits of teaming unmanned aircraft with manned ships.”
While launching surveillance drones from the decks of ships is not a new phenomenon, this development sheds light on the service’s plans for the Miguel Keith and its sister ships.
Related: Navy eyes drone ‘Mothership’ to launch smaller sea-based drones
Based on the design of the civilian Alaska-class oil tankers, these ships have had a bumpy journey to finding their current place in the fleet. At 239 meters long, they feature a large central helicopter deck and berthing for 250. The ships were originally known as Afloat Forward Staging Bases, signifying their envisioned purpose as a miniature base at sea for expeditionary Marines who expect to operate in smaller units and dispersed at greater distances in a future fight in and around the Pacific.
The Navy made two variants of what it called mobile landing platforms. The first two of the class, the Montford Point and John Glenn, were known as expeditionary transfer docks and joined the fleet as Military Sealift Command ships in 2013 and 2014. They had a submersible center deck designed to launch Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCACs), the Navy’s speedy ship-to-shore hovercraft. In essence, their ability to stage gear and deliver it to shore made them a “pier at sea.” It was a fresh and innovative idea, but in practice, it didn’t deliver the way the Navy and the Marine Corps anticipated.
In 2022, Jim Strock, a former director of the Marine Corps Seabasing Division, told me that the ships had key limitations as they weren’t able to participate in skin-to-skin moorings with military sealift vessels in wave swells above three feet, which meant they could only receive and transfer gear with these vessels in specific and carefully monitored conditions. He added that cost-saving measures led to decreased fuel capacity, payload, and berthing space, all of which limited how and where the ships could be used.
Ultimately, the Montford Point and John Glenn never saw much action in deployments and training exercises, and the Navy in 2022 announced plans to send them to mothballs after less than a decade of service.
Related: These speedy new Navy medical ships are designed with the Pacific in mind
The Lewis B. Puller class of expeditionary mobile bases, of which the Miguel Keith is the third of five ships to enter service, have had a much better debut in the fleet. The non-submersible helicopter deck and larger below-deck storage space for military equipment or humanitarian aid supplies increased their value and utility, and they proved able to extend the presence of the thinly spread fleet of amphibious ships that support Marine Corps operations.
The ships “have proven that they have tremendous value,” Shon Brodie, the head of the Marines’ Expeditionary Warfare Division, told this me for Military Times last year. “We’re able to put those ships into positions where we are not able to keep a Marine expeditionary unit or amphibious ready group all the time. So special operations forces love the ESB, and they just have tremendous utility as well.”
While originally the three expeditionary mobile bases to enter the fleet had the “USNS” auxiliary support ship designation, they have since been commissioned into the fleet and received the “USS” prefix.
So where do unmanned systems enter the picture? It turns out that these strange retrofitted tankers may have a drone-heavy future mission that puts them at the center of cutting-edge plans for the future fleet. The expeditionary mobile bases will get a new mission as escort ships for the Marine Corps’ long-range unmanned surface vessel, a new class of drone ship that will focus on ISR missions, but may also be equipped to launch loitering munitions, or kamikaze drones. A “tender” ship will be needed to perform maintenance on these long-range drone ships and troubleshoot any issues that arise, and Brodie told me last year that expeditionary mobile bases fit the bill.
“We need to start thinking about the ESB as an unmanned systems tender, because these unmanned systems may have great range,” Brodie said at the time. “It would be good for us to have a sea base for unmanned systems, just like we have a sea base for manned systems.”
The Aerosonde drone, which will increase the ESB’s situational awareness and ability to monitor its surroundings – or a drone ship in the region – can be launched from the deck of the ship and recovered, following its mission, via a soft net on a swivel. Another ESB, the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, is now also equipped with the Aerosonde USA, as are two Navy guided-missile destroyers.
The Marine Corps has already received five long-range unmanned surface vessel prototypes from U.S. company Metal Shark for testing and evaluation. The company has said it will build a network of these vessels to operate autonomously and deliver loitering munitions within range of sea- and land-based targets.
Meanwhile, the ESBs continue to prove their value in the fleet. In December, the Lewis B. Puller, the first of the class, served as a launching platform for troops in the U.S. 5th Fleet to seize “more than 50 tons of ammunition rounds, fuses, and propellants for rockets” from smugglers operating around the Middle East. The illicit cargo was discovered during a “flag verification boarding” of a fishing trawler in the Gulf of Oman.
In the U.S. 6th Fleet, the waters around Europe and Africa where the “Woody” Williams operates, U.S. troops last July successfully tested the ability to embark a 34-foot patrol boat. That effort represented “an increased capability to provide maritime security while traveling in the 6th fleet… where host nation support is nonexistent,” Navy officials said at the time.
Last August, the Miguel Keith observed another first in the Philippine Sea when it served as the landing platform for the transport of a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle via CH-53E Super Stallion from shore to ship and back to shore again. This experiment, too, helped move the Marine Corps closer to its “expeditionary advanced base operations” future that will continue to deliver mission opportunities for the ESBs.
Feature Image: Aerosonde UAS conducts first operational flight from the deck of the USS Miguel Keith. (Textron)
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