Unmanned surface vessels may be key to how the Corps fights and supplies its force across the expanse of the Indo-Pacific region.

While aerial drones have captured much of the spotlight over the years, the Corps has also been experimenting and testing a number of surface and subsurface autonomous ships.

In July, the Corps tested the Expeditionary Warfare Unmanned Surface Vessel during an experimental exercise known as the Advanced Naval Technology Exercise held aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, according to a command release.

And in 2016, the Office of Naval Research conducted a swarming experiment with unmanned rigid-hull inflatable boats, according to a release. The naval research group used four boats in the swarming experiment as the vessels tracked and trailed a target.

An unmanned rigid-hull inflatable boat operates autonomously during an Office of Naval Research-sponsored demonstration of swarmboat technology held at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story. (John F. Williams/Navy)
An unmanned rigid-hull inflatable boat operates autonomously during an Office of Naval Research-sponsored demonstration of swarmboat technology held at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story. (John F. Williams/Navy)

Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, the commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said the Corps was looking at all autonomous platforms from aerial to surface and subsurface systems, according to National Defense Magazine.

“We’re testing 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boats," Smith said, according to National Defense Magazine.

“The technology is actually fairly simple. You can put it on really any platform. But what we’re looking for is a long-range vessel that has the ability to do resupply, move personnel or ... move cargo,” Smith said, National Defense Magazine reported.

Smiths remarks were made Tuesday at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference held in Washington, D.C.

Smith said the Corps has also partnered with MITRE Corp. in its pursuit of unmanned surface vessels, National Defense Magazine reported.

MITRE Corp. is a nonprofit aimed at helping solve complex problems through research and development in the fields of artificial intelligence, defense and cyber, among other specialties.

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger called on the Corps to “aggressively research, innovate, and adapt to maximize the potential” of unmanned systems in his planning guidance published in July.

“Autonomous systems and artificial intelligence are rapidly changing the character of war,” Berger said in his planning guidance. “Our potential peer adversaries are investing heavily to gain dominance in these fields.”

Berger noted in his planning guidance that the Corps will “prioritize short-term fielding of proven technology” for unmanned systems.