GULFPORT, Miss. — For the first time, the Navy allowed the media into a nondescript compound on the Mississippi coast, offering a glimpse of an unusual vessel slated to join the fleet by the end of the year.
It's here — with its high ceilings, dusty floors and machinery hum — where the Navy's second drone warship, Sea Hunter II, is being built and bred for battle.
"Right now we are about six months from the water," Barry Dreyfus, CEO of United States Marine Inc., said as reporters walked alongside the vessel's narrow hull. "This long and skinny hull means it will cut through the water with less drag and be able to stay out at sea for a long time," he said.
Unlike a traditional warship, Sea Hunter II and its predecessor, Sea Hunter, are designed to traverse open waters without a single crew member. The deck is clear of handrails and ladders. Below deck, computers and neatly layered cables take the place of mess areas, heads and a galley.
"Everything has to be completely automated and redundant because there is nobody on board to fix it," said Dan Brintzinghoffer, vice president of maritime business development at Leidos, as we stood on top of the deck.
Dreyfus explained that Sea Hunter II's design is expected to shave 25% to 30% off the life-cycle cost over a 10-year period.
"The advantage of composites is that you can make more complex shapes in a less expensive way than if you were welding and bending steel," he said tapping the opalescent composite hull.
In 2017, the Navy awarded Leidos a $35.5 million contract to build Sea Hunter II. With another drone ship on the way, it remains to be seen what missions the Navy has envisioned for the vessels.
"They may carry weapons one day, that's a choice the Navy will have to make, their value is out there and being widely distributed in large numbers, they have to go off by themselves and in harsh, unpredicted environments, they have to sense and make decisions," Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, vice president and U.S. Navy senior account executive at Leidos, told CNBC.
"The point is, they really function more like satellites, than ships," Carr said, adding that the autonomous platforms would not replace naval vessels but collaborate with them.
The concept for the unmanned vessel was born in 2010 out of the Pentagon's so-called mad science wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
The Pentagon's request from DARPA was colossal: Develop a drone warship capable of hunting submarines, detecting torpedoes and avoiding objects at sea while traveling at a top speed of 27 knots, or 31 mph.
Six years later, the crewless, 140-ton, 132-foot-long robotic ship was christened as Sea Hunter on the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon.
On hand for the ship's 2016 christening was then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, who referred to the vessel's narrow bow as a "Klingon Bird of Prey" from the "Star Trek" series.
"This will operate wherever the United States Navy operates," Work told a group of reporters after the ceremony. "It can operate in the South China Sea. It can operate in the Baltic Sea. It can operate in the Persian Gulf. And it can operate in the middle of the Atlantic or the middle of the Pacific."
"These will be everywhere," he added.
After its unveiling in 2016, Sea Hunter was transferred to the Navy for testing off the coast of California. Two years later, Sea Hunter became the first ship to successfully navigate autonomously from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and back without crew onboard.
"Right now, the Navy is looking at different payloads they can put on it, how easy is it to integrate things and thinking of, what's next, what are the options for missions," Donnelly Bohan, vice president and division manager of maritime systems at Leidos, told CNBC.