Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Unmanned-Centric Force Structure

By Javier Gonzalez 
The U.S. Navy is currently working on a new Fleet Structure Assessment, the results of which will eventually help inform the long-term force structure goals of the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan. This ongoing analysis was generated due to the realization that some of the assumptions used to develop the current goal of 308 ships have changed significantly since its proposal in 2014. The Russian resurgence and China’s rapid military buildup defied expectations, and a review of the Navy’s force structure was absolutely warranted. The conundrum and implied assumption, with this or similar future force structure analyses, is that the Navy must have at least a vague understanding of an uncertain future. However, there is a better way to build a superior and more capable fleet—by continuing to build manned ships based on current and available capabilities while also fully embracing optionality (aka flexibility and adaptability) in unmanned systems. Additionally, and perhaps the better argument is that a new, unmanned-centric fleet can be more affordable while maintaining its relevance over the expected service life.

A relevant fleet is one that is robust, flexible, and adaptable—one that embraces optionality to anticipate uncertain and changing requirements. The author Nassim Taleb describes optionality as “the property of asymmetric upside with correspondingly limited downside.” The implication here is to clearly identify which options will provide the best ability to achieve this “asymmetric upside.” Systems such as the vertical launch system provide a certain degree of flexibility by allowing for the rapid fielding of any weapons that fit inside a missile. In addition, the concepts of modularity (Littoral Combat Ship program), modular hulls, containers interfaces, flexible infrastructures, and electronic modular enclosures are other examples of the Navy’s explicit efforts to add flexibility and adaptability into the Fleet. The upsides of adding flexibility are self-evident—by having options added early in the design process, the Navy can quickly and affordably react to new geo-political situations and adjust to technological innovations. However, adding optionality is not an easy proposition, especially because today’s capabilities fielding process values optimization, affordability, and a discernible return on investment over adaptability and flexibility.
Optimization is contrary to optionality, but it is a main factor in today’s ship design. For instance, space optimization is intuitive—the better optimized a space, given today’s capabilities, the smaller the ship needs to be and, consequently, the more affordable it should be. However, this approach infers a level of certainty and inflexibility to change, contrary to optionality. The reality is that optimization is at times necessary on a manned warship. However, new unmanned system designs can provide a canvas to shift this focus to one that values optionality and takes advantage of uncertainty. The suggestion is to make the long-term investment on the unmanned “bus,” not the capabilities. These new unmanned buses must be designed to maximize power generation, cooling, and space availability. The design also needs a robust command and control system to enable the employment of multiple unmanned systems in a cooperative environment.
Affordable Fleet
The affordability of the fleet is not simply a function of budget availability. In 2014, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, testified to Congress that the Navy needed a 450 ship Navy to meet the global demands by the Combatant Commanders. This 450 ship number is likely better equipped to meet future Combatant Commanders’ needs than the current proposal of a 308 ship Navy. At a minimum, a 450 ship Navy provides more options to fulfill future requirements. However, the current and expected future fiscal environment suggests that building more ships is not an option unless a radical change occurs. Also, the enemy has a crucial vote on the affordability of the fleet. The fall of the USSR can be traced back to the U.S. strategy, in the 1970s and 1980s, to impose great costs on the Soviets by making investments to render their war-fighting systems obsolete. This seemed obsolescence created an incentive for the Soviets to make costly investments in an attempt to match the technology introductions by the United States. This strategy’s success was achieved in great part due to the U.S. apparent technological advantage over the Soviets. Today, the United States finds itself in a similar predicament as the Soviets in the Cold War, where technology is leaping in new and unexpected ways and China, in particular, is fielding systems that make many U.S. systems obsolete. The rapid fielding of “game changing” technology by China, such as the first quantum communications satellite or the DF-21D missile, results in a predictable reaction by the DoD to invest in more capable and expensive advancements to counter their efforts. If the Soviets are any indication of the dangers of this strategy, especially if the United States acknowledges that the technological edge over near competitors in the 20th century will no longer be assured, then the United States needs to shift its competitive model to one flexible enough to rapidly and affordably adjust to unforeseen challenges.

Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned ocean-going vessel gets underway on the Willamette River following a christening ceremony in Portland, Oregon. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released)

 Additionally, long-term shipbuilding is inherently expensive and dependent on current and mature capabilities. Trying to build a ship with immature technologies can result in unacceptable acquisition blunders. For instance, the Navy’s next-generation nuclear carrier, Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), has resulted in massive cost overruns due in great part to the risk incurred in trying to include new and immature technologies into the shipbuilding plan. An unmanned-centric fleet provides the flexibility to value building manned ships based on current and available capabilities while also fully embracing optionality in unmanned systems. An added benefit of having optionality combined with unmanned systems is that it allows for prospective capabilities to be more rapidly prototyped while offering a robust means for experimentation both for technology and future concept of operations development. Unmanned systems could function similarly to a smartphone and its many applications. The benefit of this approach is that it provides an environment with stressors that will allow new technology to fail early and facilitate rapid change, evolution, and dramatically quicken the research and capabilities fielding cycles. The next Fleet Structure Assessment should also embrace optionality by finding the optimal mix of manned and unmanned vessels that will yield an asymmetric upside.
An unmanned-centric force structure will be dramatically different than today’s Navy, and it will require a departure from the 450 ship manned Navy ideal or the current 308 ship goal. The right mix of manned versus unmanned systems can be derived from a concept of operations that promotes judicious force structure discussions. The basis of this new concept is a fleet with more unmanned systems than manned systems where these platforms are fully integrated. For instance, instead of having a Surface Action Group (SAG) comprised of three manned ships, new SAGs could be comprised of a manned ship and at least two unmanned surface vehicles. Incorporating vehicles like DARPA’s ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel or General Dynamics’ Fleet-class unmanned surface vessel could add capabilities that will immediately increase lethality and adaptability. In the amphibious realm, the Navy could leverage unmanned platforms as resupply distribution systems for Marines on the beach. This could be of particular importance in a contested environment while supporting multiple fronts in an archipelago-like scenario. Further in the future, instead of having eleven 100,000-ton aircraft carriers, a mix of eight traditional carriers with eight to ten smaller (~40,000 ton) all-unmanned combat air vehicle carriers will provide the flexibility and presence that all Combatant Commanders are desperately seeking.
Presence is about having the right capability, in the right place, at the right time.  To accomplish this the Navy will essentially need more assets. A plausible solution could be a force structure where the main employment of unmanned systems will be around unmanned-centric Surface Action Groups as the smallest force package to fulfill theater needs. The current 308 ship Navy plan is structured as follows:
CVN – Carrier, LSC – Large Surface Combatants, SSC – Small Surface Combatants, SSN – Fast attack submarines, SSBN – Ballistics Submarines, AWS – Amphibious Warfare Ships, CLF – Combat Logistic Force, Supt – Support vessels.
A future force structure could start with trading large and small surface combatants for a new fleet of Unmanned Vessels. The affordability comes from the added presence afforded by the nature of an unmanned autonomous system and the need for fewer personnel to support their operations. The added capability comes from the introduction of 19 capable Surface Action Groups comprised of a manned ship with two unmanned vessels as depicted below and further explained in table I:
CVN – Carrier, LSC – Large Surface Combatants, SSC – Small Surface Combatants, USV – Unmanned Surface Vessel, SSN – Fast attack submarines, SSBN – Ballistics Submarines, AWS – Amphibious Warfare Ships, CLF – Combat Logistic Force, Supt – Support vessels.
– Rule of thumb used: 3 ships at home for every one deployed (for repairs, maintenance, training, and other requirements).
-Out of the 140 surface combatants (large and small) proposed in current 308 ship plan, 35 could be deployed at any time (based on rule of thumb).  Assuming 4 carriers deployed with an escort composition of three manned surface combatants per deployed carrier – the Navy could have 23 manned surface combatants available for tasking.
-Based on GAO yearly operational costs of a DDG ($70k per day) and assumed cost of DARPA’s ACTUV  ($15-20k per day) then one DDG is equivalent to 12 USVs (no personnel = affordability). Force structure was determined by trading 4 DDGs to provide 38 USVs. Four less DDGs = 19 very capable Surface Action Groups (a manned ship and two unmanned vessels).
The most important attributes for future force structures are relevance and affordability. This goal can be achieved by pivoting from the traditional to place the emphasis on developing unmanned capable buses that can accommodate all current technologies and have the capacity to flex and adapt to future technologies. Optionality to ship-building and unmanned systems integration can provide the flexibility and adaptability the Navy requires to remain relevant in an uncertain future. The result is a force structure that is more capable and conceptually more affordable. All great plans start with the end in mind – the upcoming Fleet Structure Assessment needs to showcase what the end of the Navy’s 30-year vision looks like. The suggestion is an unmanned-centric, man-led fleet.
Commander Javier Gonzalez is a Navy Federal Executive Fellow at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and a career Surface Warfare Officer. These are his personal views and do not reflect those of John Hopkins University or the Department of the Navy.
Featured Image: An artist’s concept of ACTUV (DARPA)
Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

After Distributed Lethality - Unmanned Netted Lethality

By Javier Gonzalez
Distributed lethality was introduced to the fleet in January 2015 as a response to the development of very capable anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) weapons and sensors specifically designed to deny access to a contested area. The main goal is to complicate the environment for our adversaries by increasing surface-force lethality—particularly with our offensive weapons—and transform the concept of operations for surface action groups (SAGs), thus shifting the enemy’s focus from capital ships to every ship in the fleet. Rear Admiral Fanta said it best: “If it floats, it fights.” The real challenge is to accomplish this with no major funding increase, no increase in the number of ships, and no major technology introductions. The Navy has successfully implemented this concept by repurposing existing technology and actively pursuing long-range anti-ship weapons for every platform. An illustrative example of the results of these efforts is the current initiative to once again repurpose Tomahawk missiles, currently used for land strikes, as anti-ship missiles. The next step in the evolution of distributed lethality will be to deploy similar force packages and introduce new technology. The introduction of  Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) technology is the kind of technological advancement that enhances distributed lethality. NIFC-CA combines multiple kill chains into a single kill web agnostic of sensors or platforms. In the near future, hunter-killer SAGs will deploy with these very capable networks and bring powerful and credible capability into the A2/AD environment.

The first hunter-killer SAG deployed earlier this year. It was comprised of three destroyers and a command element. This recent SAG mirrors the World War II “wolf pack” concept—not just a disaggregated group of destroyers in theater under a different fleet commander, but a group of ships sailing together with an embarked command element. The embarked command element is key because, coupled with the concept of “mission command,” it allows the hunter-killer SAG the autonomy required to fully realize effects in a command and control denied environment.
While there is no argument that distributed lethality is a sound short-term strategy, the enemy has a vote and will adjust. The real challenge for the Navy then is to continue finding ways to innovate and rapidly incorporate new technologies such as unmanned systems to ensure that distributed lethality does not yield to distributed attrition. The best way to prevent distributed attrition is to fully integrate unmanned technologies into the fleet to ultimately transform distributed lethality into a new concept, hereby referred to as Unmanned Netted Lethality. 
Evolving Distributed Lethality
In the near future, a hunter-killer SAG will bring a more powerful and lethal force package into the fight with the partial integration of unmanned systems. A near-future force package could include a NIFC-CA capable DDG with an MH-60R detachment, littoral combat ships with scan eagle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and an anti-submarine warfare continuous trail unmanned vessel (ACTUV)- DARPA’s latest unmanned vessel built with a sensor package optimized to track submarines. These new capabilities bring  unprecedented flexibility to  warfighters, and commanders in theater will have additional options to tailor adaptive force packages based on the perceived threat or mission.
The next step in the evolution of distributed lethality will be to add more advanced weapons to every ship—from energy weapons to the rail gun—and fully incorporate unmanned systems into  future force packages. The ultimate vision is hunter-killer SAGs comprised of unmanned underwater vehicles, unmanned surface vehicles, and UAVs under the command of a single manned ship. These unmanned platforms will create a massive constellation of sensors and weapons that will transform every ship in the Navy into a lethal, flexible, and fully distributed force to reckon with—the Unmanned Netted Lethality concept.
It is evident that the Unmanned Netted Lethality concept relies on the aggressive development and integration of unmanned, and eventually fully autonomous, systems into the fleet..  Controlled autonomy is fundamental for the Unmanned Netted Lethality concept to be effective.  While autonomy brings many benefits, there are concerns as well—unintended loss of control, compromise by adversaries, accountability, liability, and trust, to name a few. The solution to mitigate these concerns is to manage the level of autonomy with a manned ship as an extension of the commanding officer’s combat system. Employing various levels of autonomy control, from completely manual to completely autonomous, gives the power to the decision makers to set the level of autonomy based on the prevailing circumstance and allows unmanned system utilization in any environment.   

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 19, 2015) – Sailors assigned to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 35, Detachment 2, prepare an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned autonomous helicopter for flight operations aboard the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Conor Minto) 

The mission will drive the level of autonomy. For instance, 20 years from now, during the first Unmanned Netted Lethality hunter-killer SAG deployment and while transiting in safe waters, the command ship will control the operations of an unmanned vessel until it is in restricted waters. Then, the commanding officer will change the level of autonomy into a cooperative mode in which the unmanned systems quickly create a constellation of passive and active sensors to increase overall maritime awareness. Once a crisis transitions into combat operations, the commanding officer will place the unmanned systems into a fully autonomous status with two primary missions: sense and destroy  enemy forces while protecting the manned ship by creating a lethal cluster around it. This layered approach to autonomy increases overall trust in unmanned systems in a responsible and palatable way for decision makers who are unquestionably accountable for the performance of these unmanned systems.
Cooperative independence is also an important feature, in which unmanned systems will perform complex tasks, both individually and in groups under the supervision of a commanding officer. Not one unmanned system should rely on another; if a system is destroyed or is taken off-line, each system should be able to continue with the mission independently but cooperatively with remaining systems.
Without a doubt and due in great part to the proliferation of unmanned systems, interoperability remains the hardest challenge to overcome. The bottom line is that these systems need to be developed with common and open software architecture to minimize interoperability challenges and maximize employment opportunities. The need to convey these requirements early in the acquisition process is fundamental so that new unmanned systems are designed with three primary characteristics: controlled autonomy, cooperative but independent functionality, and complete interoperability.
A Roadmap to Guide Change
Distributed lethality’s initial charter was to increase performance with no technology leaps, significant funding increase, or number of ship increases while having immediate to near-future effects. In the short term, this goal is achievable. However, in the near to long-term future, the Navy should continue to follow former General Electric’s CEO Jack Welch’s advice “Change before you have to.” The Unmanned Netted Lethality concept provides the Navy with a vision and a roadmap to guide the evolution of distributed lethality into the future. Incorporating unmanned systems into an Unmanned Netted Lethality concept will transform every manned ship in the Navy into a force package with a credible conflict changing capability.
Commander Javier Gonzalez is a Navy Federal Executive Fellow at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and a career Surface Warfare Officer. These are his personal views and do not reflect those of John Hopkins University or the Department of the Navy.
Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Unmanned Systems: A New Era for the U.S. Navy?

By Marjorie Greene
The U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Systems Directorate, or N99, was formally stood up this past September with the focused mission of quickly assessing emerging technologies and applying them to unmanned platforms. The Director of Unmanned Warfare Systems is Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, who was recently interviewed by Scout Warrior, and outlined a new, evolving Navy Drone Strategy.
The idea is to capitalize upon the accelerating speed of computer processing and rapid improvements in the development of autonomy-increasing algorithms; this will allow unmanned systems to quickly operate with an improved level of autonomy, function together as part of an integrated network, and more quickly perform a wider range of functions without needing every individual task controlled by humans. “We aim to harness these technologies. In the next five years or so we are going to try to move from human operated systems to ones that are less dependent on people. Technology is going to enable increased autonomy,” Admiral Girrier told Scout Warrior.
Forward, into Autonomy
Although aerial drones have taken off a lot faster than their maritime and ground-based equivalent, there are some signs that the use of naval drones – especially underwater – is about to take a leap forward. As recently as February this year, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the Pentagon plans to spend $600 million over the next five years on the development of unmanned underwater systems. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) recently announced that the Navy’s newest risk taker is an “unmanned ship that can cross the Pacific.”
DARPA’s initial launch and testing of Sea Hunter. (Video: DARPA via YouTube)
Called the Sea Hunter, the vessel is a demonstrator version of an unmanned ship that will run autonomously for 60 – 80 days at a time. Known officially as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), the program started in 2010, when the defense innovations lab decided to look at what could be done with a large unmanned surface vessel and came up with submarine tracking and trailing. “It is really a mixture of manned-unmanned fleet,” said program manager Scott Littlefield. The big challenge was not related to programming the ship for missions. Rather, it was more basic – making an automated vessel at sea capable of driving safely. DARPA had to be certain the ship would not only avoid a collision on the open seas, but obey protocol for doing so.
As further evidence of the Navy’s progress toward computer-driven drones, the Navy and General Dynamics Electric Boat are testing a prototype of a system called the Universal Launch and Recovery Module that would allow the launch and recovery of unmanned underwater vehicles from the missile tube of a cruise missile submarine. The Navy is also working with platforms designed to collect oceanographic and hydrographic information and is operating a small, hand-launched drone called “Puma” to provide over-the-horizon surveillance for surface platforms.
Both DARPA and the Office of Naval Research also continue to create more sophisticated Unmanned Aircraft Systems. DARPA recently awarded Phase 2 system integration contracts for its CODE (Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment) program to help the U.S. military’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) conduct dynamic, long-distance engagements against highly mobile ground and maritime targets in denied or contested electromagnetic airspace, all while reducing required communication bandwidth and cognitive burden on human supervisors.

An artist's rendition of DARPA's CODE concept, designed to enable operations in a electromagnetically contested environment. Illustration: DARPA
CODE’s main objective is to develop and demonstrate the value of collective autonomy, in which UAS could perform sophisticated tasks, both individually and in teams under the supervision of a single human mission commander. The ONR LOCUST Program allows UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to stay in formation with little human control. At a recent demonstration, a single human controller was able to operate up to 32 UAVs.

The Networked Machine…
The principle by which individual UAVs are able to stay in formation with little human control is based on a concept called “swarm intelligence,” which refers to the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, as introduced by Norbert Wiener in his book, Cybernetics. Building on behavioral models of animal cultures such as the synchronous flocking of birds, he postulated that “self-organization” is a process by which machines – and, by analogy, humans – learn by adapting to their environment.
The flock behavior, or murmuration, of starlings is an excellent demonstration of self-organization. (Video: BBC via YouTube)
Self-organization refers to the emergence of higher-level properties and behaviors of a system that originate from the collective dynamics of that system’s components but are not found in nor are directly deducible from the lower-level properties of the system. Emergent properties are properties of the whole that are not possessed by any of the individual parts making up that whole. The parts act locally on local information and global order emerges without any need for external control. In short, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
There is also a relatively new concept called “artificial swarm intelligence,” in which there have been attempts to develop human swarms using the internet to achieve a collective, synchronous wisdom that outperforms individual members of the swarm. Still in its infancy, the concept offers another approach to the increasing vulnerability of centralized command and control systems.
Perhaps more importantly, the concept may also allay increasing concerns about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence without a human in the loop. A team of Naval Postgraduate researchers are currently exploring a concept of “network optional warfare” and proposing technologies to create a “mesh network” for independent SAG tactical operations with designated command and control.
…And The Connected Human
Adm. Girrier was quick to point out that the strategy – aimed primarily at enabling submarines, surface ships, and some land-based operations to take advantage of fast-emerging computer technologies — was by no means intended to replace humans. Rather, it aims to leverage human perception and cognitive ability to operate multiple drones while functioning in a command and control capacity. In the opinion of this author, a major issue to be resolved in optimizing humans and machines working together is the obstacle of “information overload” for the human.

Rear Admiral Girrier, Director of N99, delivers a presentation on the future of naval unmanned systems at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Rear Admiral Robert P. Girrier, Director of N99, delivers a presentation on the future of naval unmanned systems at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 29, 2016. See the presentation here. (CSIS)

Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr, U.S. Navy (Ret.), a professor in the Department of Operations Research at the Naval Postgraduate School, has already noted the important trend in “scouting” (or ISR) effectiveness. In his opinion, processing information has become a greater challenge than collecting it. Thus, the emphasis must be shifted from the gathering and delivery of information to the fusion and interpretation of information. According to CAPT Hughes, “the current trend is a shift of emphasis from the means of scouting…to the fusion and interpretation of massive amounts of information into an essence on which commanders may decide and act.”
Leaders of the Surface Navy continue to lay the intellectual groundwork for Distributed Lethality – defined as a tactical shift to re-organize and re-equip the surface fleet by grouping ships into small Surface Action Groups (SAGs) and increasing their complement of anti-ship weapons. This may be an opportune time to introduce the concept of swarm intelligence for decentralized command and control. Technologies could still be developed to centralize the control of multiple SAGs designed to counter adversaries in an A2/AD environment. But swarm intelligence technologies could also be used in which small surface combatants would each act locally on local information, with systemic order “emerging” from their collective dynamics.

Yes, technology is going to enable increased autonomy, as noted by Adm. Girrier in his interview with Scout Warrior. But as he said, it will be critical to keep the human in the loop and to focus on optimizing how humans and machines can better work together. While noting that decisions about the use of lethal force with unmanned systems will, according to Pentagon doctrine, be made by human beings in a command and control capacity, we must be assured that global order will continue to emerge with humans in control.
Marjorie Greene is a Research Analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses. She has more than 25 years’ management experience in both government and commercial organizations and has recently specialized in finding S&T solutions for the U. S. Marine Corps. She earned a B.S. in mathematics from Creighton University, an M.A. in mathematics from the University of Nebraska, and completed her Ph.D. course work in Operations Research from The Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed here are her own.
Featured Image: An MQ-8B Fire Scout UAS is tested off the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf near Los Angeles, Dec. 5 2014. The Coast Guard Research and Development Center has been testing UAS platforms consistently for the last three years. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Future of Sea-Air Drones and Protecting Maritime Assets

By Jack Whitacre

What are some of the ways the U.S. and other countries could defend maritime assets against swarms of Sea-Air drones? Consider a convoy system with human centered technology, algorithms from nature, and elements of gaming.
Oakland University’s Loon Copter works equally well above and below the water’s surface. Photo: Oakland University
The FAA estimated that one million drones would be sold during this 2015 holiday season. This estimate was based primarily on the proliferation of flying drones, however new domains of operation may open up soon. Premiering in 2015, the Loon Copter proves that, in time, these devices will be capable of traditional aerial flight, on-water surface operations, and sub-aquatic diving. Embedded Systems Research at Oakland University created the Loon Copter in 2014. In 2016, the design placed third in the UAE Drones for Good competition. The system works in air as well as in water because the four rotors balance and cut through air and water equally well.  
A map of nations with a drone program as of 2011. Courtesy Defense One, via RAND Corporation.
According to the New America Foundation, at least 19 countries possessed or were acquiring armed drone technology as of 2015.The Washington Post and The Aviationist reported in July of 2014 that even non-state actors like Hamas have manufactured drones capable of firing rockets or missiles. At the time of reporting it was unknown whether this specific group had the ability to launch missiles, but the story does show the willingness of non-state actors to weaponize technology. The same Washington Post article describes how low-tech “suicide” drones effectively function as guided missiles. With the history of state actors increasingly acquiring armed drones and non-state actors weaponizing drones, Sea-Air drones could open new realms of battlespace.
“The profound influence of sea commerce upon the wealth and strength of countries was clearly seen long before the true principles which governed its growth and prosperity were detected.” –Alfred Thayer Mahan 
Sea-Air drones are not currently available off the shelf, so their ramifications are not yet recognized. If non-state or state actors designed suicide drones with sufficient range, it would be very difficult to defend global maritime trade against these threats due to the sheer size of the oceans. The Canadian Military Journal hypothesized that it is only a matter of time before pirates use drones offensively. Articles like these contemplate an important issue, but are limited by only considering the skies. Currently, our ability to detect air drones far exceeds capabilities to detect devices beneath the surface of the ocean. Even by diving ten or fifteen meters beneath the surface, Sea-Air drones may be able to elude satellites. NASA’s Ocean surface topography site describes how the best satellites measuring ocean temperature pierce only one inch below the ocean’s surface.
Shrouded by shadowy depths, would-be aggressors could potentially take down or ransom large freight vessels and trade flows that are so essential to many countries’ survival. According to Rose George in Ninety Percent of Everything,” nearly 90% of goods are transported by sea. The stakes are high and the arena is huge. While it’s unlikely that every inch of the sea will become a combat zone, NOAA estimates that there are nearly 321,003,271 cubic miles of water in the world’s oceans. To this end, DARPA is re-thinking distributed defense by creating small aircraft carrier cooperatives. In the face of such a large and deep strategic chessboard, what are some of the ways the U.S. and other maritime nations could defend shipping from Sea-Air Drones? One option would be to revive the convoy system. The tipping point for such a decision may have to unfortunately be a tragedy with lives lost at sea. By contemplating these scenarios now, we could build in defenses before deaths occur.
“When [the enemy] concentrates, prepare against him.” –Sun Tzu
The cost of drone technology, like other innovations, continues to decrease; beginners models are available for less than $100. As this trend is likely to also occur in the maritime arena, it would be wise to match high-value vessels with an accompanying group of friendly Sea-Air drones offering constant defensive protection. In other words, a convoy must have the ability to destroy or electronically neutralize attacking drones. A ship with a 24/7 security presence would likely be safer than standard battle group coordinated operations. This is because there are simply too many ships at sea at any given time to protect them all through traditional means. The International Chamber of Shipping estimates there are least 50,000 merchant ships plying the oceans at any given time. Having constant convoys would reduce vulnerability amidst the uncertainty of when, where, and how an enemy might attack.
These convoys could be combinations of complex programmable drones capable of truly autonomous decisions and human operated systems. The most successful formations might be inspired from millions of years of evolution and derived through phenomena like flocks of birds and schools of fish. In such swarms it would be possible to make a human operator the “lead,” balancing machine autonomy with human decision-making. To this end, P.W. Singer and August Cole’s futuristic Ghost Fleet novel describes human helicopter pilots flying missions in conjunction with drones. The video below shows many different formations that could be programmed for swarms.
In order to recruit talent, the defense community might consider incorporating crowd-sourcing and gaming to meet increasing demands, at least until convoy defense systems can function in fully automatized ways. Pilots could be given a convoy interface (like Eve Online) and point systems tied to real world rewards to incentivize behavior. With this approach, the U.S. could capitalize upon large reserves of talent to protect trade, coasts, and even fishing vessels. This is merely an opening suggestion. There would, of course, be clear difficulties with such a strategy, such as ensuring a clearance system, similar to that of the Merchant Marine, payments to operators, and contract stipulations surrounding the use of force. However, the proliferation of third-party defense contracting proves that new types of defense arrangements can be made quickly in the face of emergent threats. 

Hybrid Drones - the Advantages of Operating in Multiple Domains

It may be many years before Sea-Air drones, suicide drone piracy, and other forms of maritime threats emerge in full force. However, there are already clear modes of attack and high valued targets. The future may be hard to predict but that shouldn’t it preclude it from strategic thinking.  
Jack Whitacre is an entrepreneur and former boat captain who studied international security and maritime affairs at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).