Sunday, December 30, 2012

Naval Drones 2012 Year in Review

What were the top stories in unmanned naval technology during 2012?  What follows is a completely unscientific count-down of the major events related to naval drones over the past year:

10. The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force captures a flock of Schiebel S-100 UAVs operating from PLAN frigate on film.
Camcopter variant operating off Chinese Frigate.
9. SAIC was awarded a contract for the planned DARPA ASW drone, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), which will autonomously hunt and track diesel subs.
SAIC rendering of ACTUV's unique tri-maran hull form.
8. DARPA *almost* conducts air-to-air refueling of UAVs.  Trials actually transferring fuel were postponed due to BAMS-D crash (See #3).
RQ-4 Global Hawks in formation for DARPA drogue and probe refueling demonstration.
7. Kongsberg Maritime's Hydroid subsidiary REMUS mine-hunting AUVs proliferate globally with orders received from UK, Japan, Belgium, Germany, Norway navies.

RN sailor launches the wildly popular REMUS 100: "It comes down to reliability and availability."
6. The MD-500 Unmanned Little Bird helicopter of "Black Hawk Down" fame completes sea trials off the US and French Coasts.
H-6U approaches frigate Gu├ępratt.
5. Who's right? Iran claims to have captured a U.S. Navy ScanEagle UAV in the Persian Gulf while the USN denies those claims. 
ScanEagle displayed on Iranian state TV's Arabic-language channel Al-Alam.
4. USN tests Spike ER missiles from Rafael Protector unmanned surface vessel 
The U.S. Navy's Precision Engagement Module (PEM) tested at sea.
3. Navy RQ-4 Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) crashes in Maryland.
This high-tech trash fire used to be a $100 million drone.
2. Northrop Grumman X-47B UCAS-D completes catapult launch at at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. while another airframe finishes deck handling and taxi testing on aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75).  
X-47B on Truman's aircraft elevator.
1. Unmanned Undersea Vehicles make a big splash in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Gulf of Aden with dozens of countries participating in 5th Fleet’s International Mine Countermeasures Exercise

Royal New Zealand Navy Operational Dive Team deploys REMUS during IMCMEX 2012.
Did we miss any?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Unmanned Systems for EM-Cyber Warfare

In the December 2012 version of Proceedings, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations discusses how the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum and cyber warfare have become intertwined into a single EM-cyber environment, one which will will have significant implications for future war-fighting.

The CNO argues that the two primary keys to commanding the EM-cyber domain are a knowledge of the environment and agility.  Naval unmanned systems' role in both aspects of this rapidly evolving warfare domain will grow in importance.

The CNO writes that knowing the EM-cyber environment requires the ability to "detect, assess,and predict in real time the activities going on in that domain." Because in most cases, unmanned systems are less expensive to procure than manned platforms, drones dedicated to electronic and cyber warfare can be deployed in large numbers, surveying a wider geographic area.  Additionally, UAVs are rapidly and easily upgraded with new sensors which collect across the electromagnetic spectrum.  Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) and Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) are now commonly used to survey the hydrographic and meterological environment, and with the addition of new sensors, these systems could also contribute to collecting data for the EM-cyber mission.


Chinese Harpy Six-Pack - #s are key in EM-Cyber
Admiral Greenert also notes that to "improve our agility we need to accelerate our shift to EM-cyber systems with software-controlled characteristics and hardware that is modular and can be quickly and inexpensively changed to operate with different EM parameters."  Unmanned platforms offer some unique possibilities to enhance the Navy's agility in the EM-cyber fight.  First, small UUVs and USVs can manuever into congested near-shore waters that submarines and surface vessels simply can't reach due to draft or the risk of enemy detection.  This ability is especially important from the cyber-standpoint, where access to Wi-Fi, cellular, and other short range networks requires close proximity.  And because they can be procured in higher numbers, unmanned platforms - some of them expendable - will work together in a swarm to jam, spoof, or otherwise deny enemy networks.  Another benefit of using off-board, unmanned systems for EM-Cyber is that emitters are removed from manned platforms, complicating an enemy's targeting process and mitigating the use of anti-radiation weapons against high value (manned) assets.
EA-18G - The Navy's Last Manned Jammer?

Electronic warfare UAVs are not new; Israeli Aircraft Industries' Harpy is a loitering anti-radiation UAV that flies one-way hard kill missions against air defense networks and has been in service for two decades.  The Israelis have also exported variants to China, India, and South Korea. A more advanced version of Harpy, the Harop, also features anti-ship capabilities.

The $67 million per plane EA-18G Growler is the Navy's newest airborne electronic attack (AEA) aircraft, gradually replacing the fleet's venerable EA-6B. Future AEA platforms will add yet another level of precision to electronic attack.  The currently planned Growler replacement is the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ), which will almost certainly be unmanned and feature advanced, long-range, electronically scanned arrays (AESA) combining radar and jamming into one antenna.  A more incremental and affordable step towards an unmanned AEA aircraft might be to add jamming pods to an existing UAV, much as the Growler leveraged jammer technology from EA-6B and the F-18F's airframe.

Unmanned platforms will eventually engage in the full spectrum of non-kinetic warfare. Most importantly, drones will expand the number of platforms available for EM-Cyber missions enabling the navy to create an asymmetry over an opponent with only a limited number of manned jamming platforms.  EM-Cyber is often a numbers game, as seen in cyber-intrusions, where hundreds or thousands of unsuccesful attempts may be made autonomously before a system can be exploited.  Future EM-Cyber battles will be no different, requiring more numerous and mobile attack nodes to defeat sophisticated enemy networks.

Friday, December 21, 2012

SAIC Reveals New Details on ASW Drone

Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) has released an updated promotional video on the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), a DARPA Tactical Technology Office project to develop an autonomous surface vehicle. ACTUV is specifically designed to conduct long duration autonomous tracking missions against diesel submarines.
The video reveals some interesting new details on the awkwardly-acronymed vessel. The computer-generated vignette shows ACTUV working in conjunction with other platforms to track and prosecute submarines using onboard sensors. These include a mid-frequency active/passive sonar mounted in a pod under the vessel's keel, two high frequency active sonars for localization, and a total-field magnetometer array along the ACTUV's hull for close-in tracking. A very high frequency sonar will then use acoustic imaging to classify the sub. Also interesting are the other possible missions ACTUV could conduct which include:
  • Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconaissance
  • Acting as a Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) surrogate, a mission currently conducted by manned platforms.
  • SOF Over-watch and support
  • Acting as a mothership for UUVs and AUVs
  • Communications relay for networked undersea sensors
  • Littoral logistics and resupply
If successful, ACTUV will be a critical demonstration of the value of unmanned surface vessels for long duration missions.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Drones of the Navy SEALs

The mystique of Navy SEALs has been heavily celebrated in the media and films due to recent real world exploits.  Yet Naval Special Warfare (NSW) sailors have been heavily engaged in combat operations for more than eleven consecutive years.  Warfare is still a decidely human endeavor, and America's naval special warriors are quick to embrace the truth that "humans are more important than hardware." Nevertheless, today's SEALs, Special Warfare Combat Crewmen, and other supporting personnel in the NSW community have benefited greatly from technology, which increasingly includes unmanned systems.

Two primary realizations within the NSW community drove the rapid introduction of UAVs for combat operations in Southwest and Central Asia.  The first realization was that even the best shooters in the world were ineffective if they were unable to locate their targets.  Simply, UAVs are a force multiplier for SEALs and enable an exponential increase in their ability to find, fix, and finish targets.  Secondly, as more and more small UAVs were added to the force, NSW began to understand that as valuable as these unmanned systems were, the skills required to operate and maintain them were a distraction for highly trained shooters. This epiphany led to the creation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Troops at Naval Special Warfare Support Activity (SUPACT) One in Coronado, California and SUPACT Two at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia. According to Naval Special Warfare Command, each UAS Troop contains three detachments of UAS operators, and a group of instructors, military and civilian maintenance technicians, for a total of 35 personnel. 

For some additional first-person historical perspective on the evolution of unmanned air systems (UAS) in NSW, listen to this podcast in which former Navy SEAL UAS expert and current lighter-than-air unmanned systems entrepreneur John Surmount discusses the origins of unmanned air systems in Naval Special Warfare in Operation Enduring Freedom.  Since those early days, the breadth and depth of unmanned systems used by Naval Special Warfare operators has expanded tremendously.

The exact tactics, techniques, and procedures for UAS use within NSW are a closely guarded secret (as well they should be), but in general, SEALs use drones to support the four core missions of NSW:
  • Direct Action (DA) - offensive missions to capture/kill enemy targets 
  • Special Reconaissance (SR)- surveillance and monitoring of enemy activity and the littoral environment to include beaches and ports
  • Counter-terrorism (CT)- conducting DA against terrorist networks
  • Foreign Internal Defense (FID) - assisting foreign military partners in developing their own special operations capacity.
UAVs are especially critical for finding and fixing the exact location of an enemy in DA and CT.  They also support, and in some cases, replace, the eyes of operators in SR missions.  On a micro-scale, a demonstration the utility of UAVs can be seen in the film "Act of Valor" where an RQ-11 Raven UAV - launched by actual operators from Special Boat Team 22 - provides ISR over-watch of SEAL operators on a mission. A more capable, marinized UAV, the Puma AE, is also part of NSW's inventory. 

The beauty of these rucksack-portable systems is that they can provide organic support to a platoon or smaller-size group of SEALs. The primary drawback is limited endurance. Enter the Small Tactical UAS (STUAS).   NSW has embraced the ScanEagle for missions where long endurance ISR is a requirement. NSW ScanEagles can be sea-launched from vessels as small as a MK V Special Operations Craft or based ashore at expeditionary sites.  Another example of the value of UAVs in the over-watch role was demonstrated in April 2009, when a ScanEagle provided a real time feed to assist SEALs in rescuing the Maersk Alabama's Captain Richard Phillips from his pirate captors.  
 
ScanEagle Launched from Mk V SOC.
More recently, NSW has benefited from the Navy's introduction of the shipboard vertical take-off and landing Fire Scout.  Requirements for the next-generation upgraded VTOL UAS, the Fire-X MQ-8C, are also being driven by special operations forces.  Future developments in Navy UAS integration for NSW will undoubtably include armed tactical UAVs providing fire support to operators on the ground and sea. 
The same concept of ISR support and armed overwatch applies to more complex operations with larger UAVs.  Land-based Air Force Predator and Reapers support NSW missions in Afghanistan and other areas.  A low-signature RQ-170 drone reportedly assisted the SEALs who conducted the raid to kill Usama bin Laden in May 2011.         

NSW is also slowly progressing in the implementation of unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV).  These systems are used for missions such as hydrographic reconaissance, reducing the risk to operators and letting them focus on other core missions.  Much as the Navy's Explosive Ordnance community has embraced autonomous underwater vehicles to help them hunt and neutralize mines, SEALs will eventually find themselves reliant on robots to survey beach landing sites. 

Along with other underwater assets such as swimmer delivery vehicles, UUVs fall under the auspices of Naval Special Warfare Group Three (NSWG-3).  In 2010, Naval Special Warfare Command ordered some Iver2 autonomous undersea vehicles for experimentation.  NSW has also purchased 18 Semi-autonomous Hydrographic Reconnaissance Vehicles (SAHRV) outfitted with side scan sonar and an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler.  SAHRV is an adaption of the REMUS 100.  On the USV side, earlier this year, Naval Sea Systems Command's Naval Special Warfare Program Office sponsored test of a Protector USV armed with Spike missiles.  The application of such a capability in support of NSW missions is unclear.

In some cases, adapting tactics will drive future unmanned systems requirements.  Regardless, the combination of the world's most proficient naval special operators enhanced by modern technology will continue to produce powerful strategic effects through tactical actions. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sea-Based Drones & the Future of Counterterrorism

In a recent Washington Post editorial, Kimberly and Frederick Kagan take a solid position on why the U.S. should maintain a troop presence to support counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan post-2014. The bulk of their argument for continued U.S. ground deployments revolves around the tyranny of distance’s impact on future counterterrorism (CT) operations against the al Qaeda (AQ) network:

North Waziristan is more than 600 miles from the nearest coastline; the other sanctuaries are farther. The U.S. Air Force reports that armed Predator drones have a range of about 1,150 miles - not enough to get to Waziristan and back again from the coast, much less to orbit and observe a target. Special mission units would have to parachute from transport aircraft because no helicopter in the U.S. inventory can fly that far. But they could not return because aircraft cannot land in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan or in Pakistan. Manned aircraft can drop precision weapons on targets in Afghanistan, but they fly too fast to loiter over potential targets. Their bombs hit precisely what they are aimed at, but fast-moving aircraft cannot ensure that the target was actually there. There is no over-the-horizon solution to targeting terrorists in South Asia.

There are nuggets of truth in this supposition, but the authors’ assumptions do not take into account future planned capabilities. The Kagans correctly point out that range constraints on current Predator models make operations from offshore problematic. More to the point, none of these aircraft can operate from sea-based platforms. Current unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operating on U.S. Navy ships include Boeing’s ScanEagle and Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8B Fire Scout. Neither of these UAVs has the range to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconaissance (ISR) into terrorists sanctuaries well inland, and neither is armed. 

It should also be noted that although special operations "night raids" killed America’s number one enemy in Pakistan and have staved off a resurgent al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, the bulk of today's counterterrorism operations against the remaining AQ core involve deadly-effective drone strikes in the FATA.  Kinetic strikes from manned and unmanned aircraft also continue aggressively in Eastern Afghanistan.  It stands to reason that these attacks will make up the preponderance of our efforts against AQ militants in the region, regardless of the continued U.S. force presence in Afghanistan.  Despite much uninformed commentary to the contrary, the efficacy of these lethal operations is indisputable, especially in the eyes of the enemy.   In January 2011, al Qaeda Pakistan spokesman Ustadh Ahmad Farooq provided just one of many admissions of this fact when he said, "there were many areas where we once had freedom, but now they have been lost… We are the ones that are losing people; we are the ones facing shortages of resources. Our land is shrinking and drones are flying in the sky."  Still, as long as instability and a violent strain of Salafist jihadi ideology plagues the region, there will be opportunities for a resurgent AQ safe haven in South Asia.  Close monitoring and CT pressure will have to be maintained for the foreseeable future to prevent further plotting against American interests.

 Given a reduced capability after 2014 to base unmanned ISR and manned strike aircraft in Afghanistan, alternatives to ground-dependent ISR basing should be pursued.  First though, some general information on on these operations.  In addition to various sensors, airborne counterterrorism platforms require two primary characteristics:
 
* Endurance - It takes time for dedicated intelligence collection - usually days or weeks, not hours - to locate targets and additional time to "fix" the target, meaning to meet various pre-established criteria such as a low collateral damage environment. Therefore, non-stop ISR coverage is an absolute necessity. Longer distances from launch and recovery bases to target areas require additional (or faster) aircraft to maintain a persistent over-watch.
* A means to "finish" the target - Neutralizing a target can be done from a platform other than the one collecting ISR; with options including tactical aircraft, cruise missiles, or special operators on the ground. However, when targets are fleeting and economy of force is required; having a means to finish the target (i.e. weapons) on the surveillance aircraft itself is often the best option.
 
As noted, current naval capabilities fall short of the endurance and weapons necessary to launch strikes from off the Makran coast. That said, the Navy has maintained an on and off carrier presence in the Indian Ocean for combat air support in Afghanistan from tactical aircraft (F/A-18s) for over a decade. The recently-publicized X-47B or another aircraft under consideration for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program could provide a viable alternative, or at least complement, the land-based aircraft executing counterterrorist strikes.   The Navy has taken a very deliberate approach to testing and acquiring this platform, and unmanned carrier surveillance/strike aircraft are not planned to achieve operational capability before 2020.
The requirement to conduct long-ranged, sea-based counter-terrorism operations might be a reason for the Navy to consider accelerating this cautious approach.  One shouldn’t trivialize the complications of fielding these aircraft onto carriers, but there is ample precedence for test and evaluation efforts leading to a rapid unmanned combat capability. For example, General Atomics' Predator and Reaper strike aircraft and their associated infrastructures have been combat-tested for more than a decade after they were quickly surged to battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan following a high demand from war-fighters. Interestingly, General Atomics has also introduced an armed, carrier-capable jet-powered Predator variant, the Sea Avenger, which has avionics and control systems in common with its widely-fielded sister aircraft.   
 
The exact make-up of manned and unmanned squadrons in future Carrier Air Wings has yet to be determined.  Certainly, an embarked squadron or two of very low signature aircraft like the bat-winged X-47B could provide a robust day-one strike capability against a nation state with complex integrated air defenses.  But for longer term missions such as servicing ground targets once air superiority has been achieved or conducting persistent reconaissance operations as previously described, a plane like the Sea Avenger may be a better (and likely, more affordable) fit to complement manned aircraft in the air wing.  Despite the distances described in the Kagan article, a 12-plane squadron of Sea Avengers operating from a carrier in the Indian Ocean should be able to sustain more than three ISR orbits (each representing 24 x 7 coverage over a single target area) in Pakistan or Afghanistan.  With tanking, an X-47B squadron might achieve similar rates.  This number pales in comparison to the dozens of ISR aircraft currently flying in Afghanistan, but many of these orbits are soley devoted to force protection of ground troops.

Nothing can substitute for the fidelity troops on the ground bring to a fight.  Though regardless of the eventual U.S. troop count in Afghanistan, airborne CT operations will remain critical.  As the Kagans note, logistics are equally important.  Maintaining air operations with a smaller U.S. footprint will require more aerial resupply and less reliance on fragile supply chains through contested territory.  In addition to expected domestic and international political friction over the future of U.S. force presence in Afghanistan, airfields there are under increasing pressure from enemy action.  Basing can be rendered unusable or even lost for any number of reasons; sea-based air will mitigate risk to these operations in the future. 

The Navy should begin planning now to augment land-based ISR and strike aircraft with sea-based drones.The introduction of long-dwell unmanned ISR to carriers will also bring a powerful reconaissance capability to complement existing strike assets. As an added benefit, basing more attack-capable ISR at sea provides operational flexibility and strategic surprise. The same long-range strike launch and recovery capability that might hunt AQ in the FATA can be rapidly relocated to the coast of Africa, Persian Gulf, or anywhere else sustained ISR presence might be required to find, fix, and finish terrorist targets or support major combat operations. Most importantly, repositioning these floating ISR airfields would not involve complicated diplomatic kabuki to secure or retain basing rights. 


The author is a counterterrorism planner.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other government agency.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Navy Looks to Small Business to Solve RMS Problems‏

Lockheed Martin's troubled AN/WLD-1 Remote Minehunting System is the key component of the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship Mine Counter-measures Mission Package (MCM MP) and  has been under development for nearly two decades.   The heart of the system is a diesel-powered, semi-submersible Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle (RMMV)  designed to tow a variable depth mine-hunting sonar.

AN/WLD-1 aboard USS Freedom (LCS-2)
Testing on RMS prototypes began in 1994, but the system has yet to mature to full operational status.  In an effort to work some of the kinks out of RMS, the Navy's Program Executive Officer for Littoral Combat Ships (PEO LCS)  has sought the assistance of industry via the most recent Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program solicitation.  
 
A solicitation released by the Remote Minehunting System Program Office (PMS 403) entitled "Anticorrosion Solution for Remote Minehunting System (RMS) Tow Cable" seeks to correct early-life saltwater corrosion problems on the stainless steel tow cable used to tow the AQS-20A mine-hunting sonar from the RMMV.   
 
PMS 403 has also requested proposals for "Semi-Autonomous, Reliable, Safe Recovery of the Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle (RMMV) in Various Sea States."  The objective of this effort is to "develop technology for an autonomous, reliable, and safe system for Littoral Combat Ship INDEPENDENCE Variant to recover the RMMV in various sea states."  Currently, recovery of the RMMV from the INDEPENDENCE class requires two operators.  Testing has demonstrated that the the RMMV's roll can cause a misalignment of the vehicle to the capture mechanism, and damage the RMMV and handling equipment.  The solicitation desires to automate portions of the recovery process to lesson the impacts of delayed human operator response time.
 
A final solicitation from the LCS Mission Modules Program Office, "Anti-Jamming Capability for RT-1944/U Radio," seeks to retrofit anti-jamming capability on the radio that allows LCS to communicate over line of sight distances with the RMMV and the Unmanned Influence Sweep unmanned surface vehicles that are also part of the LCS' MCM MP. 

SBIR is a competitive program that encourages domestic small businesses to engage in federal research and development with the potential for commercialization.  These SBIR solicitations close on January 16, 2013.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

DIY Naval Drones: Floating Quadcopter

Multi-rotors have been well-received by hobbyists and even garnered some interest from the U.S. Navy.  But up until now, these lightweight UAVs haven't mixed very well with water.  The guys at Aquacopters have changed this with a water-proofed and ruggedized simple quad-frame.  The ability to capture video above, on, and under the surface of the water with a single small drone creates an interesting range of options for hobby, scientific, commercial, or military use.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Poland's Naval Unmanned Systems Developments

Although the Polish Navy operates a range of remotely operated vehicles today, there is no yet publicly known autonomous vehicle in operation.   The situation is quickly changing, though.  Three AUV systems planned for mine-hunting use on future patrol ships were mentioned in the Navy's last modernization plan. Additionally, General Skrzypczak, responsible for modernization programs in the Ministry of Defense, recently discussed MoD interest in Unmanned Surface Vessels for port protection and surveillance. These craft are expected to have some limited offensive capability. Not surprisingly, during a visit at this year's Euronaval convention, the Israeli company Rafael introduced the Polish delegation to its latest up-armed version of Protector.  Later it was reported that after the exhibition, an agreement for potential technology transfer between companies (not mentioned by name) was signed. It is an important indication of rapid improvements coming in this long neglected area, especially, since some of the ingredients for potential solutions are already in place. As an example, during the 2011 Balt Military Expo, the locally designed USV Edredon was revealed to the public for the first time.

Edredon USV with Orkan Class Fast Attack Craft in background
 


A combined effort of Polish R&D centers and industry, the Edredon is 6 meters long, has a range of about 20 km, an endurance up to 30 hours and the ability to operate in up to sea state 4.
 
On a related note, the Spike missiles fired recently from the US Navy's Protector USV are in service with Polish Army.  Some observers believe that the main obstacle to introducing such an armed unmanned vessel in the Polish Navy is not technology but the organization and division of responsibilities between different government agencies involved in the protection of Polish border, coasts, and harbors.  Solving these kinds of conflicts and intersecting areas of interest would require significant cooperation and changes in regulations.

Indeed, it is much easier to change technology than to change institutional habits. On the positive side, such a move could be quite possible for Poland, as having no legacy systems there is no need to struggle with forced evolution toward new solutions. Starting from scratch promises a much quicker road to unmanned systems integration than an evolutionary process. 

There is a unique opportunity to make a big step forward in implementing these exciting new tools into Poland's inventory. Such a strategy is linked to another interesting question. Unmanned vehicles are an interdisciplinary technology requiring a developed industrial base in many areas. What is more promising and productive - to attempt local production of "hardware" or to focus on systems integration - from conceptual design, through command and control, down to the hardware?
 
Przemyslaw Krajewski writes on Polish Naval Issues at his blog Viribus Unitis.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Next Wave - Swarming Underwater Drones

Experimentation with large numbers of low cost quadrotors operating in swarms has produced some interesting results, including potential for future military applications.  Now some researchers in Germany are working to transition these concepts to the underwater realm, building autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that behave like fish in a school.  A team at the University of Luebeck's Institute of Computer Engineering has developed an affordable AUV designed for environmental surveys called MONitoring System and Underwater Navigation Robot (MONSUN) II.

MONSUN II is a 4 kilogram AUV equipped with a series of vertical and horizontal thrusters to maneuver and maintain orientation.  The vehicle maintains its position relative to other AUVs in the school using infrared sensors and a nose camera with a form of computer image recognition called "blob detection." 

The swarming technology demonstrated by MONSUN vehicles is designed to overcome several of the limiting factors inherent in unmanned underwater vehicles. The most important capability a swarm brings AUVs is redundancy. Rather than relying on a singular, expensive platform, MONSUN uses a number of low-cost, homogenous robots that can alter their role within the swarm.  While a portion of the AUVs conduct tasks underwater, the others act as communication relays.  If one of these vehicles has a mechanical failure or is lost, the swarm continues to operate.

Another challenge with conventional AUV operation is underwater navigation.  Because at least one of the AUVs will always be at the surface, the entire swarm can get an idea of its position relative to the fix from the surfaced vehicle's GPS. Currently, MONSUN uses very short range infrared sensors to maintain the relative position of each vehicle, but eventually, the vehicles will be equipped with acoustic modems capable of communicating with each other out to approximately 50 meters.  A second well known UUV issue is limited duration and energy consumption. The MONSUN AUVs are positively buoyant, so the surfaced vehicles can save battery power by turning off their vertical thrusters and cameras. In this manner, the energy load is balanced throughout the swarm, leaving the vehicles underwater to continue their surveys, and extending the mission duration for the entire swarm. The surfaced vehicles can also transmit data collected by the swarm to a ship or other base.

Surfaced AUVs acting as relays provide position data to the swarm.
In tank testing, the Luebeck researchers have demonstrated cooperative vehicle behavior using two of the AUVs (see above video). More complex swarm algorithms have been examined virtually with the Institute's Marine Robot Simulator.  Future improvements are planned for the software that integrates the AUVs cooperative behavior and the vehicles themselves.

This technology is interesting, and has likely scientific uses, but what about naval applications?  Force protection hull inspections  are a common task for explosive ordnance disposal divers and increasingly ROVs.  These dives require a methodical, meter by meter inspection of a ship's underwater surfaces, usually in the dirty, low visibility water of a sea port.  A dozen low-cost AUVs may be able to inspect larger numbers of ships in busy ports as they come and go.

The advent of unmanned systems continues to reduce the risk to sailors performing mine countermeasures, but these operations remain extremely time consuming. Large numbers of smaller AUV's operating together in a swarm might enable more rapid localization and identification of sea mines in a given area, allowing higher end, specialized UUVs to positively identify and neutralize them.

In the future, the ability of AUV swarms to dwell quietly, execute a coordinated hunt, and mass for an attack may enable some interesting offensive capabilities.  One tactic might involve air dropping a group of AUVs into a choke point before an enemy ship transits.  Like current generations of smart mines, the AUVs could listen silently and discriminate between targets and neutral shipping based on acoustic or other signatures.  Unlike mines however, the AUVs would move to thwart detection and mass to envelop a ship with small shaped charges.

Similarly, in an anti-submarine warfare role, underwater drone swarms could operate as a mobile sonobuoy fields, repositioning through various acoustic layers in response to the movement of a target sub, and relaying their tracking data to air platforms to prosecute the submarines.  

Sooner or later, much as UAV technology has become accessible to the masses, so will cheaper AUVs.  The resulting technical and tactical experimentation will be interesting to watch.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

U.S. CNO Makes Unmanned Systems a Priority

PALMDALE, Calif. (Aug. 8, 2012) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert observes a fly-by demonstration of a Predator C Avenger unmanned aerial vehicle. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor/Released)
In a nod to maritime tradition, the new Chief of Naval Operations set forth a "Navigation Plan" with budgetary priorities and a route to achieve the vision he set in the "Sailing Directions" for 2013-2017.  Admiral Greenert's prioritization of unmanned systems for the U.S. fleet in these documents is anything but archaic.  Seven of the CNO's 34 budget focus areas directly address unmanned systems, including:
  • "Increase near-term mine warfare capability with Quickstrike mines; the Seafox Mine Neutralization System; upgraded MCM-1 class ship sonar, hull, and engineering upgrades; and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) for shallow and bottom mine detection.
  • Improve near-term capability to counter fast attack craft by fielding enhanced gun and surface-to-surface missile systems for Patrol Coastal (PC) ships and Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and laser-guided rockets for helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).
  • Move new platforms under development and construction to the Fleet: LCS, Ford-class carrier, America-class amphibious assault ship, Zumwalt-class destroyer, P-8A Poseidon, Joint Strike Fighter, and Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UAV.
  • Improve the reach of today’s platforms through new payloads of more capable weapons, sensors, and unmanned vehicles to include: SM-6 missile, submarine-launched conventional strike weapon, long range surface-to-surface weapon, Air and Missile Defense Radar, Firescout UAVs, and the Unmanned Carrier–Launched Air Surveillance and Strike vehicle.
  • Maintain our warfighting edge and implement the Navy/Air Force Air- Sea Battle Concept through innovation in our CONOPS and tactics, and integration of the next generation of weapons, sensors, and unmanned vehicle payloads for our current ships and aircraft.
  • Continue to dominate the undersea environment with a combination of Virginia-class submarines, Virginia-class Payload Modules, improved torpedos such as the Mk-54 lightweight torpedo and P-8A High-Altitude ASW Weapon Capability, and Large Displacement UUV.
  • Field improved Firescout UAVs, LCS, and Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) to support counterterrorism and irregular warfare missions at sea and ashore."
The CNO recently released the first of regulary updated "Position Reports" to assess how well the Navy is meeting its goals.  Highlights with direct or indirect reference to unmanned systems are:
  • "We deployed (and will keep) in the Arabian Gulf new mine hunting and neutralizing equipment, improved torpedoes; advance electromagnetic sensors, "up-gunned" patrol craft, and USS PONCE as an afloat forward staging base.
  • We honed our coalition mine hunting and mine clearing skills with an international mine warfare exercise in the Arabian Gulf that included 34 international partners.
  • We improved our undersea dominance, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, introducing P-8A patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, upgraded torpedoes, and new unmanned underwater vehicles and sonars; additionally, we commissioned two new subs. 
  • We will continue developing fielding and integrating unmanned air vehicles into air wings including X-47B UCAS-D and UCLASS. 
  • We will sustain our undersea dominance by implementing a networked approach including aircraft, subs, off-board sensors, communications and unmanned vehicles."
Clearly, progress has been made this year towards reaching the goals set in the CNO's Navigation Plan.  Research and development programs, the pace of acquisitions, and operational experimentation all demonstrate an eye towards full integration of naval drones into tomorrow's fleet. 

Greenert isn't the first CNO to emphasize unmanned systems.  At the 2010 Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) Unmanned Systems North America 2010 conference, previous CNO Gary Roughead noted that "in the United States we are in the process of reimagining naval power with cyber power and unmanned systems."  On the challenges of deploying an unmanned carrier aircraft he said that "my thinking is that it’s too damn slow, seriously... We have got to have a sense of urgency about getting this stuff out there. And I am encouraged by what we are seeing with that capability and I understand the complexities.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Armed USVs: A Deeper Dive

The U.S. Navy's recent testing of a Protector unmanned surface vessel with the Precision Engagement Module (PEM) weapons system warrants deeper analysis than provided by news reporting.  The project is sponsored by the Chief of Naval Operation's Expeditionary Warfare Division (N95) and the Naval Sea Systems Command's Naval Special Warfare Program Office.  To understand the ramifications of this testing, it's worthwhile to elaborate a bit on the components that make up the PEM:
Euronaval 2012: Rafael unveils Protector variant
Protector 11 Meter Variant unveiled at Euronaval 2012 (Photo Courtesy of Shepherd Media)
Protector USV - The U.S. Navy's Protector is a joint development between Israel's Rafael, BAE Systems, and Lockeed Martin.  Originally conceived as a platform for force protection and port security, the 11 meter vessel's new armament opens up a range of possibilities for future employment (discussed below).  Much like a UAV, the Protector requires two operators based ashore or at at sea; one to drive the vessel and the other to operate the sensors and armament.

Toplite EOS - The Protector's Electro-Optical Surveillance, Observation, and Targeting System consists of a four-axis gimbal stabilized turret housing a FLIR, low-light television camera, an eye-safe Laser Range Finder (LRF), and a Night Vision Imaging System (NVIS) compatible, laser target illuminator.  The system interfaces to the USV's radar, navigation systems (Inertial Navigation System and GPS), and the MK 49 weapons mount.

MK 49 Mod 0  - Based on the mini-Typhoon family of lightweight, stabilized, remote controlled weapons mounts, the MK 49 is a joint venture between Rafael and General Dynamics.  The Navy's MK 49 features a .50 caliber machine gun in addition to the dual-missile pod.  A larger version of the Typhoon forms the basis of the Navy's Mk 38 Mod 2, 25 mm remotely operated chain guns currently installed on several classes of warships.

Spike LR - The 13 kg fire-and-forget weapon is derived from Rafael's original Spike anti-armor weapon.  The Spike missile uses electro-optic and infrared sensors to identify and lock onto the target.  The missile can be guided en route to the target by a thin fiber optic tether that is spooled up and uncoils automatically during flight, providing the operator with a real time first person view.  The Spike's 4 kilometer range and tandem warhead makes it effective against moving or stationary targets at sea or ashore, including boats and armored vehicles.  Six Spikes were fired on October 24, all of them hitting their target.

How could such a platform be employed tactically?  In a counter-swarm scenario, a GEN I Mothership would deploy with four to six Protectors in the well deck.  Operating in conjunction with UAVs, helicopters, or maritime patrol aircraft, the Protectors would be cued towards a group of enemy fast attack craft (FAC) or fast inshore attack craft (FIAC).  When the appropriate engagement criteria were met, the USV would launch its salvo of two SPIKE missiles into the enemy swarm, leaving "leakers" for armed UAS, helos, or a ship's defensive weapons.  Other perturbations of this scenario involve the use of USVs to draw a manned boat swarm away from high value units, or towards an airborne ambush.  Similar to the way UAVs are operated, the USVs would patrol in 24 hour "orbits" each watching a sector oriented to a potential threat (such as a known FAC/FIAC operating base).  The USVs would also screen high value units (carriers, lightly armed supply ships, etc.) during strait or chokepoint transits.

Another way this type of compact weapons system could be employed is to provide economical, rapidly-deployable anti-surface firepower in an inland sea or riverine environment.  As an example, the oil rich Caspian Sea is currently undergoing somewhat of a naval arms race, with Iran, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan all adding bases and warships there.  The ability of the U.S. Navy to engage in that environment is limited, but flying in armed USVs to a near-by friendly base would provide at least a minimal anti-surface surveillance and engagement capability.  The craft could even be modified for air-drop, like the similarly-sized 11 meter RHIB Maritime Craft Aerial Deployment System (MCADS) in use with the Navy's Special Boat Teams.

With additional autonomous features, a USV like the Protector could perform as a lethal autonomous robot (LAR). Jeffrey S. Thurnher argues that the pace of future warfare against threats such as Iranian boat swarms warrants the speed enabled by automous decision making in USVs. Although the Protector uses Rafael's Lightlink jam-resistant communications system, in a future conflict, adversary jamming and cyber-attack capabilities will require drones to autonomously identify, track, and target enemy vessels without the interface of a manned operator.

The PEM testing follows the Navy's recent trend of providing additional firepower to existing surface ships. In addition to the above-mentioned MK 38 chain guns installed across the fleet, the Navy's Patrol Coastal class currently operating in the Persian Gulf will soon be fitted with the Griffin short-ranged missiles. These improvements indicate a degree of urgency in preparing for the counter-swarm mission.   According to NAVSEA, the "USV PEM project was developed in response to recent world events involving swarms of small attack craft, as well as threat assessments outlined in recent studies conducted by the Naval Warfare Development Command."

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Evolution of Drone Motherships - Part I


As long as physical limitations constrain the range and endurance of unmanned air, surface, and sub-surface vehicles, they will need to operate in conjunction with larger platforms.  These motherships serve a wide variety of functions besides simply transporting, launching, and recovering unmanned vehicles.  They maintain and repair the drones, recharge or refuel their propulsion sytems, and they enable data collected from unmanned sensors to be downloaded, analyzed, and disseminated beyond the line-of-sight.  Characterizing the evolution of these unmanned vehicle motherships can help extrapolate how they might be used in the future.

ScanEagle launching from Mk V SOC Generation I - Ad hoc platforms: This category includes legacy naval vessels ranging in size from patrol craft (US SOCOM's MK V at right, with ScanEagle) to large amphibious ships, and likely some day, aircraft carriers.  Minesweeping and hunting vessels have carried remotely operated vehicles for decades now, and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) for the past several years.  Larger legacy vessels, such as the ackwardly-redesignated USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15), offer numerous advantages over their smaller counter-parts, including the ability to carry drones for multiple missions -- ISR and mine-hunting in the case of Ponce -- and ample manpower to operate the drones and act on the data they have gathered. 

Generation II - Designed for drones: These platforms were designed to accomodate unmanned systems "from the keel up." Examples include the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and the United Kingdom's Type 26 frigate. The advantages of this generation of drone-carrying ships include tailor-designed and modular space for the unmanned systems;  compatible launch/recovery, power, and network sytems.  Importantly, dedicated crew detachments to operate and maintain drones remain necessary in an unforgiving ocean environment where operations can, and often do, go wrong.
 
Generation III - Drones carrying drones: The newest generation of unmanned vehicle motherships are drones themselves.  France's innovative Espadon system, the U.S. Navy's CUSV (video at right), and a few other unmanned surface vessels have demonstrated unique capabilities including launch, recovery, and recharge of automous undersea vehicles.  Future long endurance AUVs, such as the LDUUV will carry smaller AUVs as payload, in addition to weapons.  These Gen III platforms will in many cases require their own larger Type I or II motherships to transport them to operational areas and for upkeep.

These technologies and associated operational concepts are maturing at a rapid rate, accelerated by the past decade of war. A subsequent post will cover the implications of  this evolution on future naval operations.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

China's Expanding Maritime UAS Fleet


S-100 Camcopter on DCNS Landing Grid (DCNS Photo)
 
Unmanned systems have not been excluded from China's rapid naval expansion and modernization program.  Last month, China's State Oceanic Administration (SOA) announced it would establish a string of UAV surveillance and monitoring bases in provinces along China’s coastline by 2015.  The SOA will also use drones to increase surveillance of the disputed Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands in the South China Sea. 

In keeping with this announcement, China Maritime Surveillance (CMS), a law enforcement agency under control of SOA responsible for law enforcement within the PRC's territorial waters, exclusive economic zones (EEZ), and shores, awarded two contracts this week to the French DCNS Group.  CMS will purchase landing grids for two planned CMS 1,500 ton off-shore patrol vessels to be delivered in 2013.  The DCNS landing grids allow helicopters and vertical take-off-and landing (VTOL) UAVs fitted with a harpoon to land or take off from a ship's deck in adverse sea conditions.   It is possible that these new OPVs will be equipped with Schiebel's S-100 Camcopter, which is compatible with the DCNS landing grids.  The S-100 is in widespread use primarily with European navies (including France's) and works well on offshore patrol craft and other vessels too small for a conventional helicopter flight deck.

This acquisition is not the first evidence of S-100 use in the PLAN. China reportedly acquired 18 S-100s in 2010. In May of this year, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) released images of a Chinese Type 054A missile frigate with what appear to be at least three S-100s aboard.

credit japan maritime self defense force
Likely S-100s on Chinese Frigate (Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force Photo)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What You Can’t Find…

A frequently cited fact in my days training to be a naval officer was that the most common weapon for damaging a warship since World War II was the naval mine. The recently concluded International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2012 (IMCMEX 12), held in 3 distinct OPAREAs throughout the U.S. Fifth Fleet Area of Responsibility (AOR), demonstrated both the difficulty of mine countermeasures (MCM) operations (detecting and clearing mines) and the potential of new technology to mitigate those dangers.
PBS’ News Hour quotes a retired naval officer and observer of the exercise, Capt. Robert O’Donnell, stating of the 29 simulated mines in the exercise, “I don’t think a great many were found…It was probably around half or less.”

The response from the Navy is a little confusing:
The Navy declined to provide data on how many practice mines were located during the two-week naval drill but did not dispute that less than half were found. However, a spokesman insisted that the figures do not tell the whole story and that the event was “‘not just about finding” the dummy mines.
“We enjoyed great success,” said Cdr. Jason Salata, the top public affairs officer for the 5th Fleet. “Every platform that was sent to find a shape found a shape. We stand by that.” Salata asserted that “there were no missed mines, each platform that had an opportunity to find the mine did so.”
While it is true that a 100% detection rate is not what the exercise was all about, that rate is still an interesting figure. It could indicate that every mine was found, but perhaps not by every platform – instead as a result of the cumulative MCM effort. It’s likewise unknown how the success rate broke down by platform and nation – more than 27 international partners operated with U.S. Fifth Fleet as part of the exercise. What is known is that MCM remains a difficult and deadly business, particularly in the context of some of the most likely future conflict scenarios, including Iran and North Korea. 
 
While the exercise results will disappoint some (again, we don’t know who or what had difficulty finding what types of mines), they will also serve to reinforce the arguments for recapitalizing the Avenger-class MCMs, outfitting the USS Ponce as an Afloat Forward Staging Base, and placing rigorous demands on getting the LCS MCM mission package right. As mentioned above, the exercise was additionally an opportunity to test out some new kit. Before the exercise got underway, NavalDrones provided a preview of some of the Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) slated for testing in the drill, as well as a recap of other drones designed for MCM duties. Furthermore, a pair of similar threats might spark the development of crossover technology for use in MCM.

In addition to the more traditional types of naval mines, detecting and defeating the waterborne IEDs and enemy drones (AUVs and ROVs) of both state and non-state actors is seen by some as increasing in importance, and may rely on many of the same technologies used in MCM. Like the land-based IED/counter-IED arms-race of the past decade, we could be witnessing the start of a similar set of opposing innovation escalations. Foreign Policy earlier this week reported that the creation of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), is executing its own Pivot to the Pacific to focus on the typically lower-tech threats of waterborne terrorists and IEDs. Meanwhile NavalDrones last week highlighted some of the detection and clearance technologies that could be used against the evolving undersea drone fleets. The next decade is shaping up to be an interesting time for technology under the waves.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
 
Reposted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Naval Drone Tech: Countering UUVs

As the recent Israeli shootdown of a Hezbollah UAV reminded us, it is relatively easy to destroy an unmanned aircraft. But what about the proliferating numbers of unmanned undersea vehicles?  The growth in these systems for naval applications will inevitably result in the requirement to counter an adversary's underwater drones.  Detection of a small man-made object moving underwater is not trivial, but also becoming easier with the advent of technologies such as high-resolution imaging sonars and Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) systems.

However, once an AUV is detected, how can it be destroyed?  This problem set isn't new. Mini-subs and combat swimmers have threatened ships in port since World War II.  The old school way of dealing with frogmen is to drop a concussion grenade over the side of a boat.  Alternatively, some navies have experimented with dolphins to counter swimmers.  These sorts of mammal-based systems could conceivably be trained to work against AUVs.  Other advanced technology developments will allow mammals to stay out combat.

Super-cavitating bullets, like those produced by US-based PNW Arms and Norway-based DSG Technology (see video) offer a potential weapon for defeating AUVs.  According to PNW Arms, "supercavitation is the use of cavitation effects to create a bubble of gas inside a liquid large enough to encompass an object traveling through the liquid, which greatly reduces friction drag on the object and enables the achievement of very high speeds."  DSG Technology's Multi-Environment Ammunition allows ordnance ranging in size from 4.5 mm through to 155 mm to transit from air to water or vice versa.  Conceivably, AUVs could be detected and engaged from the air.  The U.S. Navy's AN/AWS-2 Rapid Airborne Mine Clearance System (RAMICS) technology demonstrator used a helicopter equipped with a blue-green LIDAR to locate mines near the surface, then a 30 mm super-cavitating round to neutralize them at depths of up to 60 meters.  The program was cancelled in 2011 due to technical and budgetary issues.

Super-cavitating rounds also open up the possibility of hunter-killer unmanned undersea vehicles, guarding a port from other AUVs, mini-subs, and swimmers.  Submariners often remind other sailors that the best ASW weapon is another submarine and the same may be true with AUVs.  However, discriminating between an AUV and a similarly sized fish or marine mammal before pulling the trigger might be difficult without some sort of corroborating data, or image recognition algorithms.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Future Drone Power - Part III: Fill'r Up

Bluefin-9 AUV (Bluefin Robotics)
As a follow-up to our posts on powering drones in the future, Bluefin Robotics recently announced a unique concept: deep sea stations that recharge autonomous underwater vehicles.  The system is designed to wirelessly charge a Bluefin 9 AUV's 1.5 kWh lithium-polymer Subsea Battery using inductive coils. In addition to recharging the vehicle, the system has the added bonus of downloading data from the vehicle and transmitting it back to a home base.  The glut of data collected by modern 2 and 3D imaging sonars will require this sort of flexibility on long endurance AUV missions.

The future naval implications of this technology are expansive, however the actual implementation might be challenging.  The system would work well in a permanent installation with AUVs on patrol keeping keep a navy port clear of mines or swimmers.  In an expeditionary environment for say a mine-hunting mission, recharging stations might be installed by buoy tenders and kept powered from surface buoys with solar panels.  Alternatively, a variant of the system could be installed aboard submarines, in which a UUV could swim in, charge up/download data, and swim out.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Israeli Shot-Down Drone Sea Launched?

Sea-launched Ababil UAV
Much speculation has occured regarding the mystery UAV the Israeli Air Force shot down over the Negev Desert last Saturday.  A number of interesting theories have been proposed, including those connecting the drone with naval activity:
  • The Hezbollah-affiliated al-Mayadeen channel reported Sunday that the drone originated in Lebanon and flew 100 km into Israeli airspace, however the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon did not detect any UAVs leaving Lebanese airspace.  Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) has been bolstering its UAV force with Iranian built tactical UAVs, so it might be possible that an aircraft flew undetected through across the border.  The Israelis confirmed the drone did not originate in Gaza and some sources to point to Lebanon.  The problem is that the aircraft would have flown at least 200 km and LH probably doesn't possess any UAVs in the inventory capable of this range.
  • Twitterati @drunkenpredator speculates that the aircraft might have been an Ababil 3, launched at sea from a small fishing boat or other craft.    Some reports indicate that the aircraft arrived in Israeli airspace from over the Mediterranean, flying west to east. The Ababil (max range likely 150 km) can be launched from a tiny footprint using a pneumatic rail or rocket boosters and has been tested at sea by the Iranians.  This theory seems unlikely though, in that it appears there is no way for the Ababil to recover at sea.  Non-state actors, even those as well-kitted as LH, would be unlikely to use a limited inventory of these valuable assets for one-way trips.  And although LH has demonstrated maritime capacity in the form of anti-ship missiles and cargo ships to smuggle said weapons, they likely don't have a real surface capability, even using small craft.
  • It was an American carrier-launched UAV!  This would be interesting indeed, but completely implausible given there are currently no U.S. CVNs in the Mediterranean.
  • Here, more speculation that the unidentified aircraft came from a ship - a space ship.  I'm going go with a no on this one.
Israeli CH-53s examine UAV wreckage. (Hiam Horenstein)
So where exactly did the mystery UAV orginate?  The UAV's wreckage has been recovered and forensics are underway, and it's likely there is some close-up gun-camera footage (possibly from the F-16 that fired the missile, rather than the one that filmed the released video of the shoot-down) which would enable the Israelis to identify the type of UAV.  Whether or not they publicize that information is another question. The Lebanon origin point sounds like the most likely option.  LH may have flown the UAV over the sea to avoid land-based air detection and vectored it into shore once it reached the target area in Israel.  It would not be far-fetched that LH lost communications with an Ababil or other tactical UAV and the drone just kept flying to its maximum physical range.  Alternatively, the UAV might represent an Ababil modified to fly longer ranges or some other identified vehicle.