On 15 December 2016, China seized an Ocean Glider, an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), used by the U.S. Navy to conduct oceanographic tasks in international waters about 50-100 nautical miles northwest of the Subic Bay port on the Philippines. Available information suggests that the glider had been deployed from USNS Bowditch and was captured by Chinese sailors that came alongside the glider and grabbed it “despite the radioed protest from the Bowditch that it was U.S. property in international waters,” as the Guardian reported. The U.S. has “called upon China to return the UUV immediately.” On 17 December 2016 a spokesman of the Chinese Defense Ministry said China would return the UUV to the “United States in an appropriate manner.”
Initial legal assessments by U.S. scholars like James Kraska and Paul Pedrozo suggest the capture is violating the law of the sea, as the unmanned glider can be defined as a vessel in international maritime law that enjoys U.S. sovereign immunity. China, by contrast, justifies the capture with reference to its national security. According to Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo of the PLA Academy of Military Science, the glider “could have threatened the interests of China’s islands, or China’s ships and submarines. It must have damaged Chinese interest that caused the seizure.”
As this incident evolves and more information will become available, it might be useful to start thinking about some of the more long-term consequences of this UUV seizure. Building on a previous analysis of the impact on UUV in the Asia-Pacific region, I would like to suggest three observations for further consideration:
Unmanned Assets are Attractive Targets that Challenge Strategic Communication
This is not the first time an unmanned asset has been captured. Defense News reported that “an ‘unknown vessel’ grabbed another underwater vehicle operated by a U.S. ship near Vietnamese waters, but the vehicle was recovered.” In 2011, Iran seemed to have downed a RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) by jamming its radar system in order to force the UAV to land in an area it was not supposed to land.
In line with these incidents, the most recent UUV capture reinforces the message that unmanned assets that have been designed with benign operating environments in mind and are attractive targets that can be easily captured or attacked. This is a prime challenge for strategic communications.
Seizing a U.S. UUV during the transition phase of the U.S. administration is a first rate headline grabbing media event, which might explain why it occurred now. It illustrates, as a Chinese scholar quoted by the South China Morning Post said, “the power of the Chinese army.” However, a UUV that hovers at the surface can be more or less easily captured. This time no one shot a picture of the “catch”, but this could be different next time. This might prompt a rethink of the media-related cost-benefit analysis of deploying UUVs in hotspots, which leads to the second thought.
Ready to Catch and Ready to Lose?
Testing the U.S. response certainly was a motive in the UUV capture. As Michael S. Chase et. al. have shown, China closely follows the U.S. use of unmanned assets also in view of justifying its own action and developing its own policies and concepts. The incident underlined China’s growing self-confidence and readiness to seize UUVs. But what about the U.S.?
At first sight, the U.S. response was measured and adequate by prompting China to return the captured asset to comply with international law. ‘We play by the rules, you don’t’ – this was the U.S. message. Apart from the question, if you can deter someone who just broke the rule by reminding him not to do so, there is a more trenchant issue at play.
Unmanned systems are attractive because they are easy pickings, but the emphasis on the need to return the U.S. UUV could undermine this very key advantage. In this case the UUV is treated like a manned asset because the overall message is about norm compliance. However, if you want the other side to hand back a relatively low-cost glider, can you credibly convey the message you would be ready to lose a much more sophisticated Large Displacement UUV?
This is the policy question the new U.S. administration and other governments using unmanned assets will need to work on, because a similar incident could occur in the Arabian Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, or the Baltic Sea.
Catch Me If You Can: Thinking About More Nuanced Counter-Responses
Emerging powers have had enough time to study the use of unmanned assets in particular by the U.S. Their first line of defense focused around mimicking U.S. practice in order to catch up. The second line of defense evolves around counter-measures. The seizure of the U.S. glider clearly signals that UUVs need to be prepared to fend off counter-measures as well. Thus more nuanced responses will be needed.
First, more thought needs to be given to when and where to deploy UUV in a non-benign naval environment. The current incident clearly shows that the tactical and strategic benefits of UUVs can quickly turn into a strategic liability if other actors are not willing to back down on their own policy line. Second, this incident should accelerate the development of swarms of Extra Small UUV (XSUUV) that would be radically smaller than current gliders and more difficult to track and trace.
Third, the XSUUV swarm could also help deconflict the policy dilemma. XSUUVs would hardly qualify as vessels enjoying sovereign immunity. Other forms of countering XSUUV notwithstanding, the risk of losing them would be much lower, which could make it far less attractive to catch them.
Fourth, self-protection will become more important in particular for more sophisticated UUVs that execute different missions at the same time. However, solutions should keep the above policy dilemma in mind: if measures to protect the UUV from adversarial interference become too demanding and thus might outstrip the benefits of using UUV, something is probably wrong about the operational concept guiding the respective UUV use.
On December 15th 2016, the Chinese Navy seized an American unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) operating in international waters off the Western coast of the Philippines. The USNS Bowditch, an unarmed T-AGS class hydro-graphic survey ship, was being shadowed by a People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) salvage vessel identified as a Dalang-III class (ASR-510).
Graphic by: CIMSEC Member Louis MV
The UUV had surfaced as part of a pre-programmed instruction, and sent a radio signal marking it’s position for pick-up. As the Bowditch was preparing to recover the drone from the water, a small boat crew from the Dalang III raced in and plucked the unmanned vessel. The incident occurred approximately 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic, Luzon.
While the exact type of drone is unknown, there have been several instances of U.S. NavySlocum Gliderssnagged in local fishermens’ nets or washed ashore on beaches in the Philippines. This type of drone is not weaponized, and is used to collect a variety of environmental readings such as water temperature and salinity, to improve forecasting accuracy of extreme weather such as typhoons. The UUV uses wave movement to propel itself without any on-board engines, with an endurance time of months. The Department of Defense estimates the seized drone’s value to be around $150,000.
The crew of the Bowditch immediately contacted the PLAN vessel on bridge-to-bridge radio asking for the return of the drone. The PLAN vessel reportedly acknowledged the message, but then stopped responding and sailed away with the UUV. On Friday the 16th, the U.S. State Department issued a formal protest, or demarche, with the Chinese Department of Foreign Affairs, demanding an immediate return of the drone. At the time of this article’s publication, the Chinese government has not responded.
Motivations behind the seizure are unclear, but tensions between the two nations have recently increased over President-Elect Donald Trump’sconversationwith Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in what Beijing considers a blatant disregard of the standing One-China Policy. It could also have been a quick riposte to undermine Head of Pacific Command U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris’recent commentsthat the US is “ready to confront [China] when we must.”
Notably, the Philippines has chosen to remain silent over the incident. While traditionally a U.S. ally, the election of President Rodrigo Duterte has brought a deterioration of relations between Manila and Washington. Thanks in no small part to Duterte’s bloody prosecution of an Anti-Drug war punctuated by high civilian casualties and accusations of extra-judicial killings, a large multi-million dollar U.S aid package was just withdrawn this week – prompting the volatile President to threatenabrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement. The Philippine Department of National Defense indicates they had no idea that the incident was ongoing; highlighting the enormous capability gap the Philippines has regarding Maritime Domain Awareness. The Philippine government became aware via communications from the U.S. State Department to their embassy in Washington D.C.
Coupled with Duterte’s increasingly close orbit of China following last month’s visit to Beijing, the United States could potentially find itself without bases that would ease the mission of maintaining a robust presence in the South China Sea. Recent analysis shows China has expanded militarizationof their Spratly Island outposts by placing what appear to be defensive anti-aircraft and close-in weapon systems on Hughes and Gaven reefs, while fortifications have sprouted on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs; the latter group are in close proximity to other claimant outposts in the region.
Taken together, China appears to be using it’s famous “Salami-slicing” techniques to slowly ratchet up its presence and capabilities within the region without crossing any significant “bright lines” leading to a military confrontation. The UUV seizure is consistent with opportunistic interference of U. .Navy operations while striking propoganda points with regional states. Notably, the unresponsiveness of Philippines to an international incident within their EEZ tells a tale that the U.S. cannot count upon its traditional ally going forward to assist in the presence mission.
Armando J. Heredia is a civilian observer of naval affairs. He is an IT Risk and Information Security practitioner, with a background in the defense and financial services industries. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, any particular nation’s government or related agency.
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.
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.
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:
– 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)