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."