Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Relay Race: Communication Relay Drones

Much of the conversation surrounding the advent of naval drone warfare has focused on those platforms performing the more ‘kinetic’ types of warfare – anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, air warfare – and those of the voyeuristic surveillance variety. However, a quick look at the composition of the carrier air wings of the U.S. Navy or the dispersed air units of a land campaign reminds us that supporting elements such as electronic warfare and command and control (C2) remain an integral part of modern combined operations. While it may not be as “sexy” as the ability to deliver a missile on target, the ability to maintain battlefield communications is arguably more important as it is an enabler of nearly all other actions.
 
In January, The Aviationist described the U.S. Air Force’s reiteration of the importance and utility of airborne assets providing communications by developing a new line-of-sight system:
The U.S. Air Force is trying to turn the targeting pods carried by some of its legacy fighters and the B-1 Lancer bomber, into flying wireless routers that would allow ground troops to communicate each other.
The U.S. military and associated defense contractors have experimented in the use of UAVs as communication relays over the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, outfitting extant UAVs with communication relay packages (CRPs) to extend the range of terrestrial communication – primarily radios. At sea, UAVs outfitted to act as communications relays could fill a variety of roles.
 
First, as their name suggests, aerial communication relay drones (CRDs) could act to expand the reach of vessels and shore facilities to either additional unmanned aerial, surface, or subsurface vehicles; or to outlying manned vessels such as RHIBs or other small craft. Even if not the primary means of communication, or necessary for a second craft’s operation, CRDs could provide dedicated data paths with enhanced exchange rates to pass more information on more reliable connections. This would be all the more important in an operational environment with disbursed tactical components – such as the mothership concept – with increasing competition for limited communication paths.
 
Second, CRDs could act to re-establish communications with outlying stations, between vessels, or between vessels and shore facilities in the event primary comm paths are degraded, denied, or compromised. Whether it’s the effects of jamming, environmental interference, data corruption, equipment malfunction, or the outright loss of that equipment (such as the perennial fear of anti-satellite actions) the ability to restore secure and reliable communications is critical capability.
 
Once again, the more a navy follows a distributed model of naval warfare, the more it will rely on comm paths to effectively wage war, and the more crucial it will be to be able to restore them. Drone autonomy can help mitigate this reliance with built-in protocols in the event of loss of comm, but it does not prevent the loss of information flowing to the C2 nodes (i.e. decision makers lose sight of what’s going on) or between units, with a potential loss in tactical efficiency. In truth, the more comfortable a navy becomes with autonomous drone operations, the more units a single C2 node will command, and the more expansive an operational area it will need to communicate across. Adding to the problem, the more modern naval warfare relies on these comm paths and the more fragile they appear, the likelier they will be the target of adversary actions.
 
A third role for CRDs would be as a critical tool during humanitarian assistance/disaster response (HA/DR) efforts. Natural disasters have a nasty habit of taking down communication infrastructure such as cell towers, and even when they don’t, humans have a less nasty habit of trying to get in touch with their loved ones – thereby overwhelming what remains of the communications grid. CRDs could help fill the gap. Observation of recent international calamities has in fact led the U.S.’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to explore the use of UAVs to do just that, pressing ahead with ideas for the Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture. Such an ability would also be useful in case of expeditionary operations into areas where such infrastructure never existed.
 
Communication relay drones could provide life-saving cellular and wireless service in an area decimated by a natural disaster.
Communication relay drones could provide life-saving cellular and wireless service in an area decimated by a natural disaster.
 
The capacity to restore comm paths, or establish alternates, could be achieved in a variety of manners. CRDs could be purpose built or they could be so designated when a communications relay package/payload is fitted on to a multipurpose drone. Depending on the mode of communication, CRDs could be designed to enhance extant communications past its normal quality, range, or security or they could provide simple bare-bones back-up. CRDs could operate continuously in orbit or they could be held in reserve. There are a lot of options to explore and a lot of tactical considerations to experiment with. Perhaps the most important from a technical feasibility and cost/benefit analysis standpoint will be to parse through the various modes of communication that might be improved or restored – from radio to infrared to wireless to cellular.
 
While they haven’t received nearly as much attention as their sub-hunting, rocket-launching, or enemy-peeping kin, CRDs could fill a role just, if not more, important in the future of naval warfare.
 
This article by Scott Cheney-Peters is reposted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Tactical Employment of Drone Motherships

As discussed in an earlier post, dynamics between unmanned naval systems and the platforms that carry them are changing rapidly to accomodate new technologies and tactics.  Arguably, various types of drone motherships have the potential to transform mine countermeasures more than any other warfare area and the evolution in mine-countermeasures tactics towards the mothership-unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) partnership is already underway.  One of the first major demonstrations of this concept occurred last summer during 5th Fleet's International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) when a number of UUVs were tested from large amphibious motherships including USS Ponce ((AFSB(I)-15).

Essentially, the Navy is moving from dedicated MCM ships such as the Avenger class minesweeper, to a trio of platforms: a Generation I mothership, carrying Generation II platforms (a RHIB specially modified to carry UUVs; seen below), and the UUVs themselves. The Gen I mothership provides the endurance and sustainment to the package. The RHIBs take the mine-hunting or neutralization payloads off-board to minimize danger to the larger mothership, and the payloads - in this case, high resolution imaging sonars - are delivered to the target area via a small UUV.  Drones carrying drones, or Gen III motherships, such as the Littoral Combat Ship's (LCS) Fleet-class Common Unmanned Surface Vessels (CUSV) and French Espadon, are another option for getting the sensor/sweeping delivery systems to their operating area. 


Another example of an innovative drone carrier was revealed during the January 2013 Surface Navy Association's annual meeting, when Major General Timothy C. Hanifen, USMC, Director, of OPNAV's Expeditionary Warfare Division (N95) discussed how the U.S. Navy will demonstrate the forthcoming MK VI Coastal Patrol Boat to carry and launch UUVs for mine hunting and neutralization. 

There are likely a couple of reasons for this movement towards alternative motherships such as USS Ponce and smaller platforms like the MK VI to carrying MCM drones.  Clearing an area of mines is a complicated, methodical operation.  Simply described, mine clearance involves getting equipment (sonar, sweeping gear, and/or neutralization charges) on target to locate, classify, and neutralize mines as rapidly as possible in a port, shipping lane, or other expanse of water.  Generally, more sensors moving, more quickly over a wider area will complete the mission in less time, which is why airborne mine-sweeping and hunting operations have proven so important.  Deploying smaller manned and unmanned craft from a larger ship, each carrying more than one mine-hunting or mine-neutralization vehicle will get more mine-hunting equipment in the water.  A single minesweeper can utilize one sonar and moves slowly through the water from mine to mine.  The mothership/drone combination multiplies the number of sonars in the water by several times.  This unconventional platform experimentation is also likely a response to the technical problems and delays in deploying a viable mine warfare mission package on the Littoral Combat Ship, especially with the RMMV. 

The Chief of Naval Operations' push for "payload over platforms" will lead to additional experimentation with other mothership/drone pairings.  Expect to see new combinations of unmanned vehicle carriers expanded into other warfare areas, including anti-surface, anti-submarine, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconaissance.
U.S. 5TH FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (Aug. 27, 2012) Civilian mariners aboard Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) Ship USS Ponce (ASFB(I) 15) lower an 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) to conduct tests on two M18 Mod 2 Kingfish Unmanned Underwater Vehicles. Ponce, formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock (LPD) ship, was converted and reclassified in April to fulfill a long-standing U.S. Central Command request for an AFSB to be located in its area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Blake Midnight/Released)