Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014: The Year in Naval Drones

It's time for our annual wrap-up of the stories on unmanned naval systems that most resonated on this site, social media feeds, and the public writ large.  Here are the top naval drone stories of the year:

The introduction of UAVs for maritime missions by non-state actors, specifically migrant rescue and anti-piracy, became reality.


The Royal Navy established a UAV Squadron to intitutionalize its ScanEagle operations.


Despite continued operational testing with the X-47B prototype, politics and indecision created further delays with the U.S. Navy's UCLASS RFP (still not released by the way).


Unmanned systems were key in the Malaysian Airlines Flight #370 Search.


The MQ-8C Fire Scout made significant strides towards its first operational deployment.

The U.S. Navy's Swarming USV program, really a plug and play unmanned craft system, garnered significant interest.


Interestingly, the story that seemed to pick up the most momentum in non-military circles was the Navy's Ghostswimmer UUV.  And that's interesting because this system is neither really new, nor particularly likely to ever be employed operationally.


Friday, November 28, 2014

Chief of Naval Operations Continues Focus on Unmanned Systems

2 May 2014 - Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert tours Pennsylvania State University's Applied Research Laboratory facilities to see firsthand their innovative anti-torpedo torpedoes and unmanned undersea vehicles. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Peter D. Lawlor/Released)
Since he assumed office in 2011, the development of unmanned systems payloads has been a priority during the tenure of U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathon Greenert.  His recent Position Report provides updates to several programs discussed in his original Navigation Plan.

Highlights related to unmanned systems include:

Undersea Warfare
"In the fall of 2014, our large displacement unmanned undersea vehicle (LDUUV) program reached
its first acquisition gate, Milestone A, which initiated technology development."

Unmanned Air Systems
"We continued testing the X-47B Unmanned Carrier Aircraft System Demonstrator, and for the first time, we executed simultaneous flight operations with manned and unmanned aircraft in the carrier
environment." Interesting, there is no mention of the oft-delayed UCLASS program request for proposal.

 "MQ-8B Fire Scout completed its 10th deployment aboard FFGs. Nineteen larger and longer endurance MQ-8C Fire Scout vehicles are now on contract, and the first MQ-8C deployment aboard LCS will occur in 2015."

Target Systems
"To improve combat readiness at sea, we also delivered 111 high speed surface targets (small craft), which are used to enhance the realism of fleet training events involving “swarm tactics.” To provide
continued training against air threats to our surface forces, we awarded a contract for a new Aerial Target Operations Facility at Dam Neck, VA. When it opens in 2017, it will consolidate all aerial target operations into a single facility, and provide an increased capability to operate three different types of aerial targets."
15 November 2014 - Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert examines a Switchblade UAS during a recent visit to AeroVironment Inc. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Peter D. Lawlor/Released)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Minehunting Robots in the Middle East: IMCMEX 2014

This year's United States FIFTH Fleet's International Mine Countermeasures Exercise is well underway in Middle East waters, running until 13 November.  This third iteration of the exercise will be the largest ever, with 6,500 sailors from 44 nations and 38 ships participating.  As with past exercises, unmanned undersea vehicle detachments from several countries will show off their latest hardware in a realistic operating environment.  A total of 19 UUVs will take part in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the northern Red Sea.  On the U.S. side, a focus will be placed on overcoming unmanned mine-countermeasures challenges including the transfer of sensor data at sea, reducing unmanned mission duration, and enhancing trust in autonomy. 

One of the new unmanned technologies to be demonstrated during the exercise is Northrop Grumman's Mine-Hunting Unit (MHU) .  The MHU unmanned surface vehicle tested its ability to deploy, tow, and retrieve the AQS-24A Mine Detecting Sensor in the Arabian Gulf earlier this year. Other unmanned vehicles participating in the IMCMEX are highlighted below.

KUWAIT (Oct. 29, 2014) Sailors assigned to Commander, Task Group(CTG) 56.1 inform members of the Kuwait Naval Force about the Kingfish Underwater Unmanned Vehicle and dive gear scheduled to be used during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX). (U.S. Navy Photo).
GULF OF AQABA, Jordan (Nov. 1, 2014) British Royal Navy Clearance Diver Leading Seaman David Taylor, left, and Clearance Diver Leading Seaman Jim Craker, both from Fleet Diving Unit 3 and assigned to Task Group 522.3, monitor the progress of the REMUS underwater sonar system while participating in International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX).  (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Daniel Rolston/ Released)

MANAMA, Bahrain (November 3, 2014) A SeaFox mine neutralization vehicle is lowered into the Arabian Gulf from the British Royal Navy mine hunter HMS Atherstone (M38) - (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Mui/Released)


Monday, November 3, 2014

Private Security Drones for Anti-piracy Ops

Depiction of ATAC Anti-piracy UAV.
We've talked about privately-funded drones for maritime eco-activism and  humanitarian operations, so it's not surprising to see another naval mission where unmanned air vehicles have bled into the private sector.  Now, at least one private security company has offered UAV services as an anti-piracy solution.

Commercial shipping companies embraced private security as a means for protecting their ships after piracy in the Indian Ocean expanded significantly in the late 2000's, putting crews at risk and costing shippers billions in dollars in increased insurance premiums.

Incidents of Somali piracy have been virtually non-existent since 2012, primarily due to the hardening of commercial shipping targets by embarked security teams. Other counter-measures, such as fire hoses, razor wire, and hardened crew citadels were too easily defeated by pirates, but to date, no ship with an armed security team has been successfully hijacked. UAVs make a lot of sense to enhance the effectiveness of these teams. According to Advanced Tactics and Countermeasures Global, "acting as a forward scout and transmitting a live video feed of possible threats, the ATAC UAV simultaneously video documents each step from the identification to even the escalation of force, if necessary." ATAC's video depicts a quadcopter launching from a container ship, which would work in conjunction with their designated marksmen onboard the ships to deter and neutralize a pirate attack.  The ability of the UAV to get much closer to suspicious skiffs will also help security teams to reduce liability and mistaken identification of fishermen as pirates.
Skeldar UAV integration team is board Spanish Navy Offshore Patrol Vessel BAM Relámpago for anti-piracy operations in September 2013. (Photo: Armada Española)






If deployed, these private sector UAVs will join the ranks of the increasing number of naval drones flying anti-piracy patrols in the Indian ocean.  The Italian Air Force's 32nd Wing flies the MQ-1 Predator out of Djibouti for EUNavFor.  Among other navies operating ship-board UAVs against Somali piracy, Dutch and American ships have flown ScanEagle and the Spaniards the Skeldar. U.S. ships have also deployed the Fire Scout against pirates.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Groping in the Dark - Unmanned Underwater Navigation

One of the more pressing technical challenges with today's unmanned underwater vehicles is maintaining an accurate navigational position.  Because GPS signals will not penetrate the water's surface, UUVs typically rely on inertial navigation systems and periodic trips to the surface to gain an accurate satellite fix.
Aquanauts with REMUS AUV - NPS Photograph
Bathymetric navigation, or finding one's ways through the contours of the sea floor, has been a tool used by mariners - both surface and subsurface - since the advent of sonar.  But accuracy was hampered due to inaccurate underwater charts and the processing limitations.

Advances in sensors and computing may change these dynamics as explored in Ensign Jacob T. Juriga's recent Naval Postgraduate School Thesis. Juriga's research
focused on terrain aided navigation (TAN) through a series of autonomous vehicle trials near the Aquarius Underwater Research Station located in Islamorada, Florida.  There, using two REMUS 100 AUVs and a SeaBotix vLBV300 Tethered, Hovering AUV (THAUS) contributed by the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research, more than 3,046 sonar images were collected with a BlueView MBE 2250 micro-bathymetry sensor.  Then, the vehicles attempted to navigate using the previously created underwater map. The best run achieved a locational difference of only 2.846 meters from a GPS-aided fix.

Ensign Juriga's work isn't the only Navy effort to improve UUV positioning using TAN. But his thesis also emphasized the importance of autonomy, which "enables the vehicle, through exteroceptive sensing, to make intelligent navigational decisions such as obstacle avoidance and navigation in cluttered, dynamic environments."  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Navy's Swarming Robot Boats: Sorting Through the Hype

By now, most readers are familiar with the U.S. Navy's new swarming drone experiment using the CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing)  system for automating small surface craft. The hype surrounding this development is significant, and some of it is rightfully deserved. Automated boats will find a place in future naval operations, but their capabilities and limitations must be more fully understood before that happens. 


August 2014 - A swarm of CARACaS equipped patrol boats on the James River - U.S. Navy image.
Capabilities
The primary benefits of autonomous unmanned vessels are longer endurance than manned patrol boats, and of course, a reduction in risk to human sailors.  Naval budgeteers consistently lament the cost of personnel, so ostensibly, automated boats will be less expensive than training and maintaining human crews.  On the other hand, the Navy's force protection boat crews, most of them resident in the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command are a trivial component of the overall budget, and many of them are part time reservists, which cost even less than their active duty counter-parts.

Perhaps the biggest advantage is that CARACaS is basically "plug and play" and platform agnostic. That means that the system can be rapidly forward deployed by air in a small package and fitted on whatever patrol boats are available versus having to transport a much heavier dedicated USV via expensive air or sealift. And since it reportedly only cost about $2,000 to outfit a patrol boat with CARACaS, outfitting several existing boats might be orders of magnitude cheaper than dedicated USVs. So creating a small boat swarm could be achieved fairly rapidly and cheaply if one were needed.

Myths & Limitations
The CARACaS boats have so far been employed from inland ports, limiting their utility to the fleet. It would be a non-trivial technical feat to launch such a large and recover a swarm of boats from a navy ship at sea.  Only a handful of ships in the fleet could realistically embark more than a couple of unmanned vessels. The U.S. Navy's cruisers and destroyers usually only carry two rigid hull inflatable boats, which are dedicated for other missions such as boarding operations.  Larger amphibious ships could carry several more boats in their well decks, but then would be unable to embark their usual load of landing craft.  That is not to say that several combatants couldn't launch their boats simultaneously and then the swarm would aggregate, but that is unlikely given how disbursed ships operate these days.  Of course, these autonomous boats could also be launched from a coastal base as they were during the experiment, but that would limit their employment to fairly close to shore.  Moreover, new software algorithms will need to be developed to help these boats safely approach their motherships, launch, and recover in any sort of sea states.

As with any unmanned system, options to fix mechanical malfunctions about CARACaS-equipped craft would be significantly limited. Minor engine problems or weapons jams that could be easily corrected by an onboard crewman will likely render an unmanned platform ineffective without some form of redundancy.

This technology is still immature and close-in maritime force protection as demonstrated in the James River involves high speeds and rapid decision making.  The ethical issues concerning lethal automated drones have been covered extensively elsewhere.  But even with experienced human boat operators, making a decision whether or not to engage a suspicious contact vessel is difficult. Generally, when threatened with a suspicious contact, a gradual escalation of force occurs that can take anywhere from a couple of minutes to a handful of seconds.  Warnings, shouldering, non-lethal, and lethal weapons, can be employed in various combinations to deal with a threat. In a fully unmanned or even autonomous system, communications latency, jamming, and operator inattentiveness could all play a role in this system failing to protect its escorted high value asset, or in creating an undesirable escalation of force.

Concerning the CARACaS swarm, Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research commented that "If [USS] Cole had been supported by autonomous unmanned surface vessels, they could have stopped that attack."  This statement could be theoretically, true, if USS Cole had been capable of carrying and deploying a number of USVs (it couldn't) and if no other counter-measures were available.  These defensive measures could have been as simple as enhanced rules of engagement, better intelligence on the threat at the time in Aden, one or more manned picket boats, or simply avoiding Yemen as a refueling stop all together.  

CARACaS patrol craft escort a simulated "high value" vessel near the Navy's Ghost Fleet - U.S. Navy Photo.
Possibilities
The future addition of “automated target recognition” systems will help the USVs discern the difference between friendly and potentially hostile craft.  Additional automation will also enable CARACaS-equipped boats to follow internationally-recognized rules of the role which will enable them to operate in more congested maritime environments.  This level of autonomy will be necessary before the system can operate in any sort of constrained waters, which is generally where force protection missions occur.

Aside from the force protection mission demonstrated by ONR, automated small boat swarms could support a number of other naval missions.  A better use of this technology than for force protection might be to enable autonomous swarms of mine hunting craft, such as the Mine Hunting Unmanned Surface Vehicle.  Mine hunting and other underwater searches, such as that performed for the missing MH370 jetliner, are more laborious and painstaking than coastal patrol and interdiction.  This sort of technology could enable them to be completed more efficiently and rapidly.  

Offensive unmanned boat swarms could harass, impede, and attack enemy shipping without risking the lives of friendly sailors.  Depending on the sea state, these swarms could remain dormant for some time in a maritime choke point, then activate as an enemy vessel began to transit through the area. They could also serve as forward observers to target enemy craft for destruction from airpower or ship-launched missiles. 

The collection of intelligence is another mission for which this technology might work well. Semisubmersible or indigenous autonomous craft are low visibility and could be outfitted with sensors and the CARACaS package.   For example, a small unmanned fishing vessel equipped with sensors could probably infiltrate an adversary's port of interest without causing any alarm much easier than a recognizable naval patrol boat.  USVs can even be equipped to carry UAVs to extend their sensor range, which is one of the options under consideration for the Littoral Combat Ship's mine-sweeping CUSV.

Bottom line, CARACaS is a worthwhile research effort, but probably not for the reasons the Navy currently envisions.  The demonstrations thus far have been impressive, but also highly scripted and controlled.  Future tactical employment of automated boat swarms in any meaningful manner is likely at least a decade away.  But the plug-and-play nature of singular CARACaS-fitted boats will probably happen much sooner.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

On Defending Ships With Counter-Measure Drones

Lieutenant Matt Hipple, United States Navy has begun a full court press to use unmanned systems as a form of defense against anti-ship missiles.  Here in Proceedings, he discusses the concept of unmanned aerial vehicles as a decoy to draw fire away from naval vessels.

Matt sees these systems as a viable alternatives for shipboard defense to those currently in use, to include missiles, close-in-weapon gun systems, active electronic jamming, and passive distraction measures such as chaff. Here, he presents his case to Athena East,



When considering the ever-increasing numbers of sea and shore-based anti-ship missiles versus a smaller inventory of expensive defensive Standard missiles, the concept sounds reasonable.  The idea of aircraft as defensive ship decoys certainly isn't new.  In the Falklands conflict, Prince Andrew flew his helicopter in this manner to defend against Argentina's Exocet missiles.  "The helicopter is supposed to hover near the rear of the aircraft carrier, presenting a large target to attract the missiles," he said in a 1982 AP interview.  Drones would present a number of benefits over manned aircraft for this purpose, starting with the fact that an aircrew would not be placed at risk.  Drones provide considerable endurance advantages over manned helicopters, with some models able to fly up to 24 hours at a time. Additionally, smaller, more affordable UAVs can be deployed in numbers, protecting a ship along multiple threat axes. They could carry their own passive counter-measures, such as chaff or obscurants, while emitting electromagnetic radiation of various frequencies to draw in radar-seeking missiles.  They might even be equipped with compact high power radio frequency payloads to fry an incoming missile's electronics.

Across the history of warfare, improvements in offensive and defensive technology have driven innovation and cost-benefit trade-offs.  Counter-measures beget countermeasures, so inevitably the effectiveness of these defensive drones would be eclipsed by new offensive technology.  But in the interim, the U.S. Navy might want to invest some time, money, and energy in small scale concept validation experimenting with existing relatively affordable VTOL UAVs such as the S-100 or Skeldar.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

NGO Uses Drones for Maritime Rescue

An S-100 UAV Approaches Motor Vessel Phoenix (Image courtesy MOAS)
We've written about the use unmanned air vehicles by maritime conservation organizations.  We've also highlighted the use of drones by European navies to support naval forces in interdicting the stream of refugees moving across the Mediterranean from North Africa.  In a predictable evolution of this trend, the non-profit Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) group has flown its first unmanned aircraft maritime patrols 30 nautical miles Southeast of Lampedusa, Italy from the motor vessel Phoenix. The two S-100 UAVs embarked on Phoenix and operated by Schiebel technicians will be able to locate and assess migrants in distress. According to MOAS co-founder Chris Catrambone, the drones will act as a "force multiplier" during their 21 day mission to assist navies in rescuing vessels along the most traversed migrant route.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Paul Scharre on Robot Swarms

On June 11, at the eighth annual Center for New American Security’s National Security Conference, Paul Scharre, Fellow and Project Director for the 20YY Warfare Initiative discussed the future of robotics in warfare to include the use of unmanned swarms, which have been discussed extensively here.  The video (below) is thought-provoking, and worth watching in its entirety, but we've provided the highlights, especially as they relate to naval systems.

He describes several naval scenarios, including the use of unmanned surface vehicles to disrupt small boat swarm attacks on larger combatants and UAV counter-swarms. He also proposes that unmanned missile barges could work in tandem with the U.S. Navy's fleet of guided missile destroyers are limited in magazine capacity for missile defense.

In the undersea realm, Scharre alludes to DARPA's Hydra project, in which unmanned vehicles would sit dormant on the sea floor until required to awaken for their missions.  Also of note, is the discussion on the Army's multi-aircraft control, increased automation, and that technology's potential to enable drone swarms.

During the Q&A, he addresses one of the primary criticisms of unmanned aircraft skeptics; that is, the requirement for constant bandwidth, which could become a liability in an electromagnetically-contested environment.  In addition to increased autonomy mitigating that issue, Scharre notes that only a small percentage of bandwidth in use today is devoted to vehicle control; most is dedicated to transmitting real-time full motion video from the UAV's sensors.  In some scenarios, such as hunting for military targets with specific signatures, that sort of bandwidth would be unnecessary.

Perhaps most interesting was his reference to the forthcoming study on swarming that the 20YY Warfare Initiative will produce later this year.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Autonomous Submarine Drones: Cheap, Endless Patrolling

The US Navy recently announced that it will make more use of submarine drones, contracting with marine technology developer Teledyne Benthos to re-purpose the Slocum Glider as an instrument used for military activity. The contract is worth $203.7M.
 
If you haven’t heard of it yet, here is what the Slocum Glider is: a 5 foot-long autonomous underwater vehicle capable of moving to specific locations and descending to depths of 4,000 feet. It is driven by variable buoyancy, and it can move both horizontally and vertically.
 
The Slocum Glider can be programmed to patrol for weeks at a time, collecting data on its environment, surfacing to transmit to shore while downloading new instructions at regular intervals.
Compared to traditional methods, the drones have a relative small cost: the need for personnel and infrastructure is reduced to its minimum and the vehicle is able to work around the clock and around the calendar. It works very well: in November 2012, an autonomous glider set a Guinness World Record by traveling over 14,000 kilometers on an autonomous journey of just over one year duration!
 
Many Navies and ocean research organizations already use a wide variety of gliders, which cost around $100,000. But the US Navy now plans to increase the number of those drones from 65 to 150 by 2015. In its 2015 budget request, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency even claimed for $19 million to develop drones “that can provide non-lethal effects or situational awareness over large maritime areas.” This represents a spending increase of nearly 60 percent over 2014!
 
The good news for us is that these submarine drones, unlike the majority of airborne drones, won’t use environmentally unfriendly fuel. Instead, the glider is propelled by the thermocline, which is thermal energy found between the upper and lower mixed layers of sea water. The upper surface has a near atmospheric temperature while the deep water ocean has a temperature situated between 2 and 4 °C.
 
Those new submarine drones can be used to predict the weather by collecting an enormous amount of data at various spots in the ocean. In 2011, a US Government Accountability Office report warned that without improvements to their earth-monitoring capabilities, the USA would “not be able to provide key environmental data that are important for sustaining climate and space weather measurements”; data for warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods would then be less accurate and timely. This led the US Navy to make a deal to share the Navy Ocean Forecast System software with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.
 
But that’s not all: another autonomous submarine drone, the Bluefin-21, created by the American company Bluefin Robotics, has scanned just over 300 square kilometers of Indian Ocean seabed searching for the wreckage of the lost Malaysian plane, whichdisappeared from radar screens on 8th March. The drone was launched from the Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield.
 
Bluefin-21 is an autonomous underwater vehicle, 4.93 meters long and 53 centimeters in diameter, specially designed for detection, recognition and statements in the seabed.It is capable of carrying various sensors and payloads. This technology, called side-scan sonar, builds a picture of the seabed at a 4500 meters depth.
 
This drone also has a significant autonomy, 25 hours at 3 knots average, which allows it to achieve extended underwater missions.It weighs 750pounds, which makes it easily transportable by a wide range of boats.
 
From all this, it is clear that submarine drones will become an important part of the navies’ equipment!
 
By Alix Willimez. Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Most Realistic Fish-bot You've Ever Seen - and What it Could Mean for Naval Warfare

Bio-inspired maritime robotics is an emerging field gaining significant traction. Two examples the U.S. Navy has funded include Boston Engineering's Bioswimmer, and the odd robotic jellyfish, Cyro.  Both of these projects look clumsy compared to a robotic fish recently developed by a consortium of Polish researchers from the Technical University of Krakow, the marine technology firm  FORKOS, and the Polish Naval Academy.  The group's CyberRyba ("Cyber-fish") autonomous underwater vehicle can move along a preset route, but will eventually be able to autonomously avoid obstacles and log data from a sonar or video camera. The carp-like CyberRyba's uncanny realistic movement is aided by an articulating body and tail as well as independently moving pectoral fins allowing it to hover in place.

The ultimate goal of the research is to support the European Defence Agency's "Swarm of Biomimetic Underwater Vehicles for Underwater ISR" (SABUVIS) program beginning in 2015.  The EDA currently runs a €53.7 million Unmanned Maritime Systems (UMS) program, in which 11 countries are focused on improving mine-counter measures and related naval technologies.



How might such swarm of life-like robo-fishes be employed tactically by a Navy? There are several possible future scenarios, with the most obvious case being environmental characterization. Hydrography, the study of the physical features of the ocean, and oceanography are critical for nearly all naval operations. An understanding of a body of water's temperature, salinity, bottom composition, acoustic properties, etc. supports amphibious landings, anti-submarine warfare, and mine counter-measures.  Autonomous underwater vehicles are rapidly becoming the go-to technology for these operations, and a swarm of AUVs communicating with each other and perhaps a mothership or base station would complete survey missions more rapidly than individual drones or divers. To conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), schools of cyber-fishes might emplace, monitor, and relay data from unattended underwater sensors or be the sensors themselves.  In support of future anti-submarine warfare, AUVs positioned at various places in the water column could each carry a single hydrophone, enabling them to triangulate the acoustic signals from an enemy submarine.

See these posts for more information on how drone swarms will impact future naval warfare.

Friday, May 2, 2014

OPVs and Drones: An Affordable Match

Unmanned systems are finding use on a larger variety of naval vessels, including those normally too small to operate helicopters.  Navies and coast guards operating Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) in particular, are finding that unmanned systems can greatly extend the reach and versatility of these compact combatants. OPVs as a category are not well-defined; they're generally smaller than a corvette, larger than a patrol boat, and feature efficient diesel engines for long endurance,though generally at slower speeds than larger combatants.  They sometimes feature small flight decks (but usually not hangars), small-to-medium caliber naval guns, and a few have short-range surface-to-air missiles for self defense.  Though often conceptualized for coastal defense, the endurance and sea-keeping ability of OPVs often allows them to support global, open ocean missions.

Skeldar operating on a Spanish OPV.
The list of Navy OPVs operating as drone motherships is growing rapidly.  The new Irish Offshore Patrol Vessel  LÉ Samuel Beckett recently conducted sea trials and is equipped to operate both Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs). OPVs like the 1,900 ton Beckett support a variety of missions including coastal security, counter-narcotics/counter-piracy patrols, search and rescue, and fisheries enforcement. The 1,800 ton Blohm+Voss' MEKO OPV advertises the capability to launch and recover unmanned surface vessels at up to sea state 5 and embark 4-6 UAVs. DCNS' Gowind-class L'Adroit OPV has flown the S-100 CAMCOPTER and can also operate USVs. Spain flew Saab's Skeldar UAV from the deck of the OPV BAM Meteoro during its anti-piracy deployment in the Gulf of Aden last year. Finally, the U.S. Coast Guard's future "Offshore Patrol Cutter" will be designed from the keel up to accommodate UAVs, UUVs, and USVs.

Navies are embracing these smaller, more lightly armed, long range ships quite simply because they are more affordable for many missions than larger surface combatants. And whereas just a few years ago, ships of this size were limited to detecting only what their surface search radars could see, UAVs give them the ability to detect, identify, and track contacts well over the horizon. The addition of UUVs will give OPVs a mine-hunting and environmental survey capability and USVs will enhance their anti-surface warfare reach.

For much more on this versatile category of vessel, visit Chuck Hill's Blog.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Drones and the Human-War Relationship

Robots fascinate humans. They abound in movies: Star Wars, the Terminator, the Matrix. They are a foil for the human condition. In rosy predictions they are like Star Trek’s Data, “perfect” in strength and intellect yet void of emotion. In dystopian futures, killer robots are poetic justice. Created by humanity, robots attempt to annihilate their creators. If told killer robots exist in the U.S. arsenal, most Americans would probably think of “drones.” The name sounds robotic; it implies automaton behavior. Drones lack an onboard crew, and just like robots, drones fascinate Americans. In one important way, however, drones are not robots: they are flown by humans; they are just flown by remote control, but this creates a problem all of its own.
The Armed Forces are not even sure how to deal with drone pilots. The pilots play a pivotal role in combat operations. They make life or death decisions. They press the button to fire missiles. They probably engage in more “lethal actions” than other air units at present. Nevertheless, most fellow service members and the public at large do not think drone pilots hold “combat” jobs. Our system cannot square the responsibilities these service members have with the lack of surrounding danger.
The presence of danger has always been a defining characteristic of war and particularly in the way civilians see the armed forces. While Americans generally no longer glorify the taking of spoils, we do glorify success in the face of adversity and particularly danger. American society regularly “thanks” service members with things like recognition at sporting events and military discounts. These types of recognition purposely avoid mention of the policies those being thanked implement: “Support the Troops, whether you support the war or not.” But that approach only works if service members are seen to represent honorable values like service and sacrifice. Take away the danger and something of those values seems to disappear too.
130424-F-NL936-999.JPG
Of course, some soldiers have always been relatively safe, performing jobs in the rear areas. Most civilians do not see past the uniform, but service members know who is actually at the front (though ironically the insurgencies of the past 40 years have eroded the difference). For those actually pulling the trigger, danger was always at least reciprocal if not near. While an artilleryman might not have been within rifle range of the enemy, he was in range of the enemy’s artillery.  Even ballistic missile crews in the United States were held at risk by their Soviet counterparts during the Cold War.
Drone pilots seem different because there is no reciprocity, but even that does not quite make drone pilots unique. The U.S. government has long looked to reduce danger to service members. Drones are only the latest idea. As the old Army saying goes “Why send a man if you can send a bullet?” The Navy has fully embraced this idea. The ships that launch manned aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles (a true killer robot) from the Mediterranean are in no more danger today than if they were training off the coast of California or Virginia. The closest most shipboard sailors have come to fighting in the last 10 years is pressing a button and then rushing to the TV in hopes that CNN will cover the resulting explosions. The Navy still uses the Iranian mine-laying operations in the late 1980s to justify for “imminent danger” pay for crews. If the Navy has not faced the same challenges as the drone community it is principally because distance from American shores obscures what is going on. A similar lack of reciprocity exists for most air and even some ground forces, both masked by distance. Indeed, this lack of reciprocity in many aspects of warfare is inherent to the asymmetric wars in which the United States has engaged.
Wars of the future may ameliorate this problem in some situations but will likely exacerbate in most. As the United States again faces the potential of great power conflict, the likelihood it will face an adversary with advanced air, land, and sear forces greatly increases. Nonetheless, a key lesson of the past decades has been that those who fight the United States on its own terms lose. This situation is likely to remain unchanged for several decades. Thus even great power competitors will seek to field forces that challenge American forces asymmetrically which made lead to situations lacking reciprocity even as the United States continues to develop technology to further protect its service members from danger.
Drones illuminate a problem which has already existed and will only grow in the future: In a society that professes not to value military spoils, how does the relationship with the armed forces change as service members become increasingly removed from danger?
Long-range weapons like artillery, naval gunfire, or close air support in a combined arms environment may suggest an answer. The Marine Corps has best developed this idea. Every Marine who is not primarily a rifleman understands his or her purpose is to support rifleman. For the naval gunnery liaison officer, his or her job directing the shore bombardment in support of forces ashore becomes more important because that officer operates from the relative safety of the ship but his or her actions mean life or death for forces ashore. At their best, these units draw their identity from the support and protection they provide to those in the greatest danger, and those in danger would never deny the importance of that support when well executed.
Without a doubt, danger will never disappear, nor should we reduce efforts to lessen it, but we must begin to think about a how the armed forces will relate to society as fewer service members go in harm’s way. While drones may not actually be robots, in one at least one way their arrival seems to have played a similar role: Drones have highlighted an all too human problem about how people relate to war.
Erik Sand is a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy and a graduate of Harvard University. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.  This article was reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Ever-Expanding Mission Set of Naval Drones

Migrants rescued by the frigate Maestrale. Image courtesy Marina Militare.
Hardly a single naval mission area remains that has been untouched by unmanned systems of the air, surface, or undersea variety.  Most recently, Italy's navy announced that with the help of surveillance from an unmanned air system, 1,049 African migrants en route to Sicily had been rescued.   The ongoing rescue missions are part of Operation "Mare Nostrum"(Our Sea), which has been underway since last fall when over 400 migrants from Eritirea and Syria perished near Italy's coasts. Presumably, the drone the Italians referenced was the ScanEagle, which was initially evaluated for ship-board use in October 2010. Two systems each consisting of 5 fixed-wing aircraft were purchased to be employed by the Maestrale Class Frigate beginning this year.  The Italians also recently acquired the S-100 Camcopter, intended for counter-piracy duties in the Indian Ocean. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A New Kind of Drone War: UCAV vs. UCLASS

The Australian government recently approved the acquisition of a fleet of US Navy Triton surveillance drones to patrol our oceans. Australia has mostly used Israeli drones to date, such as the Herons in Afghanistan. So as we dip our toes into the American UAV market, it’s worth taking note of a recent development that might be threatening US primacy in this area.
While the Predator and Reaper laid the groundwork for the use of armed drones in warfare, a question remains about the survivability of the technology against modern air defences. Developing a stealthy long-range drone with a decent weapons payload that could go beyond missions in Yemen and Pakistan appeared to be the next order of business for the US, especially in the future Asia-Pacific theatre. Projects like the demonstrator X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) have shown promise in achieving those missions. But for now the US Navy has decided to go for an unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) system that won’t have the stealth or payload to penetrate air defences.
The UCLASS system will be designed to provide Navy carriers with long-range surveillance and strike capabilities to target terrorists in much the same way as the Air Force’s drones are currently doing from bases around the world. The capacity to carry out those missions without relying on foreign bases is driving this decision, along with lower costs. But the UCLASS system will only operate over states that have limited air defences (because of UCLASS vulnerability) or have provided the US permission to conduct strikes. Al-Qaeda affiliates are on the rise in Syria, where the Assad regime is both hostile toward the US and has the capability to deny drones. This raises the question of how many states will fit this category.
Consequently, at a program cost of US$3.7 billion, the UCLASS won’t provide the degree of innovation the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (PDF) advocated. This would be money better spent on more research and development (R&D) into a UCAV, which could potentially have greater impact in the future strategic environment. Moreover, the UCLASS would be mostly redundant in Asia, the most strategically important future region for the US. UCAVs, on the other hand, could have an impact in, for example, a future conflict with China. According to Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a UCAV with a range of 2,000kms, broadband stealth, a payload to rival the manned F-35C combat aircraft, and a capacity for aerial refueling, is achievable. Developing a UCAV that’s survivable is no mean feat, but the US has a good start in terms of support systems and personnel established over the past few decades.
UCAVs would be capable of rapid deployment from carriers, which could stay out of the range of anti-access threats. A persistent surveillance capability that could also strike vital command and control and air defence sites if required could open the way for follow-on operations by manned aircraft. A UCAV would form a valuable part of the US deep strike suite, a key feature of AirSea Battle (PDF). And while losing platforms is never good, drastically reducing risk to personnel is a major incentive, especially early on in a conflict.
China’s an active player in drone development, and the PLA’s R&D investments are another good reason for the US to think carefully about holding off on UCAV development. China’s Sharp Sword UCAV, which was flight-tested in 2013, shows the PLA’s commitment to creating a mix of manned and unmanned combat aircraft. The growing Chinese defence budget (with a reported increase of a 12% this year) could lead to rapid advances in this area.
Funding the UCAV is the big question considering the cuts to the US defence budget; its price-tag would be heftier than the UCLASS. Proponents of the UCAV such as CSBA and the Center for New American Security (CNAS) (PDF), argue that the money could come from decommissioning two (or possibly more) carrier groups. Budget pressures have already seen cuts and deferrals to the carrier force and it would be a big step to cut two more. What’s important in these perspectives, however, is that the UCAV’s stand-off capacity and flexibility could make each carrier more effective. As Michael O’Hanlon pointed out on TheStrategist last month, capability should be the metric of adequacy, not dollars or hull numbers.
The UCLASS could be redundant by the time it enters service in 2020, even in the targeted killing missions it’s designed to carry-out. A UCAV, on the other hand, would stretch the envelope in relation to advanced technologies, which would contribute to sustaining US strategic advantage. It would enhance a carrier group’s capability to respond to anti-access threats and it could also be versatile enough to respond to terror threats globally. Unmanned systems show no signs of fading into the background, and even in a tight fiscal environment represent a potentially high payoff for R&D funds.
Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security. Rosalyn Turner is an intern at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How Naval Drones Could Help Solve the Mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight #370

If airborne search assets succeed in finding the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight #370, what happens
US Navy Towed Pinger Locator.
next?  Generally, the key to determining the cause of air plane crashes at sea is dependent upon the recovery of the data recorder, or "black box" as it is generally known.  A black box has an acoustic "pinger" which is activated upon hitting the water and transmits a signal, sometimes for up to 30 days.  Once crash debris is spotted on the ocean, salvage experts will use predictive modeling software to determine an approximate location of where the aircraft actually went down.  Even small ocean currents of a knot or two can push floating debris hundreds of miles away from the original crash site over a two week period.

At that point, if it is determined that one or more of the regional navies involved will search for the black box, a towed pinger locator will be deployed from a ship, along with a towed side scan sonar or deep-water capable unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV).  This equipment can be flown in rapidly and deployed from a Navy salvage ship or other appropriate vessel - like Australia's hydrographic survey ships - in the area.  In the case of the U.S. Navy, the Supervisor of Salvage is responsible for these operations.  According to SUPSALV, "The Pinger Locator is towed behind a vessel at slow speeds, generally from 1 - 5 knots depending on the depth. The received acoustic signal of the pinger is transmitted up the cable and is presented audibly, and can be output to either a Oscilloscope, or Signal Processing Computer. The operator monitors the greatest signal strength and records the navigation coordinates. This procedure is repeated on multiple track lines until the final position is triangulated."      

Assuming the black box can be found with those assets (keep in mind, finding it will be as difficult and time consuming, if not more, than finding the surface debris), then a decision will be made on how to recover the black box and any critical pieces of the wreckage found that might help the forensic investigators determine what caused the plane to go down.  Only in cases of shallow water (generally under a 100 meters or so) will Navy divers be used.  The Indian Ocean averages about 4,000 meters.  For those depths, a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), such as the U.S. Navy's CURV will be deployed to pick up the black box and any small pieces of the aircraft wreckage. ROVs have also be used in some cases to recover any human remains from deep water.

Even with the best technology, underwater, salvage, like mine hunting, is a very painstaking operation, and results don't happen quickly.  Similar aircraft recovery operations, have taken weeks, or even months. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Unmanned Systems and Distributed Operations: Out of One, Many

Let’s face facts: it appears the U.S. Navy is incapable of building surface combatants, even small ones, for less than about a billion dollars apiece.  Consequently, it is likely the fleet will continue to shrink for the foreseeable future.  Yet it appears that the global demand for surface ship presence remains high for both peacetime operations and as an on-call force for contingency response.  So how can the Navy continue to meet worldwide operational commitments given fewer ships?  The key to maximizing the effectiveness of a declining surface force lies in combining suitable motherships with the latest unmanned warfighting technology.
 
Unmanned naval systems are rapidly proliferating internationally because they are increasingly capable and cheaper than manned alternatives for certain missions.  To date, sea-based unmanned systems have primarily conducted intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and mine countermeasures operations.  But within the next decade or so, we’ll see naval drones supporting a much wider spectrum of warfighting; including anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare, vertical replenishment, and even anti-air warfare. 
 
Fundamentally, naval warfare is about deploying payloads (sensors, weapons, and people) into different domains (water, air, land, and electromagnetic/cyber) from or against sea-based platforms.  These payloads have historically been delivered from ships, submarines, and aircraft.  Ships deploy offensive and defensive weapons, or those of their embarked aircraft, out to the limit of their organic sensors.  Sometimes they can be delivered over-the-horizon when cued by the sensors of another platform.  A guided missile destroyer fires its magazines of anti-aircraft weapons at targets it can detect and track.  A frigate deploys a single towed array sonar and perhaps a helicopter with sonobuoys and torpedoes that extend the reach of its ASW reach. A corvette can engage a surface threat within the range of its guns and surface search radar or electro-optical fire control system.  The point is that current naval operations are generally designed around weapons and systems hosted from surface combatants, so the number of primary platforms available limits the span of a Navy’s operations.
 
By employing distributed maritime operations, a single surface platform with embarked unmanned vehicles can operate over a wider area than one without.  Using a multi-tiered hub-and-spoke concept, a large surface ship should be capable of simultaneously operating dozens of air, surface, and sub-surface vessels.  Some of these would be launched from an intermediate staging craft carried on the mothership such as a RHIB or Unmanned Surface Vehicle, while others will launch directly from the main ship.  Currently, many of these intermediate platforms are manned, but in the future, large volume unmanned underwater vehicles and unmanned surface vehicles will operate for several days or more independently from a larger mothership which transports them into an operational theater.  The persistent over-the-horizon UUVs and USVs will deploy their own smaller drone counterparts to transport sensors or weapons the last dozens of miles to a target. 
 
Despite more than a few hiccups in her development, this distributed operations model is roughly the construct that the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) will follow.  The off-board MIW and ASW mission packages will consist of a variety of UUVs, USVs, and the MQ-8B Firescout UAV.  The LCS was designed to shift out entire mission packages to use the same “sea frame” for surface, anti-surface, or mine counter-measures operations, although not at the same time.  The intent of this modularity was additional flexibility with fewer platforms; however, that concept of operations has not panned out because the ships will not be capable of shifting warfare areas as quickly as originally envisioned.  Rather than focusing on the LCS’ modularity and ability to transfer wholesale mission packages, it would be wiser to shift attention to finalizing the actual vehicles and interfaces that will support these warfare mission areas.  Moreover, LCS unmanned payloads that are not compatible with other vessels should be scrapped immediately.  With the future of the LCS program uncertain at best, unmanned vehicle integration lessons learned should be leveraged for other platforms. Flexibility and compatibility with multiple platforms are the key to ensuring a distributed operations model is successful.
 
Ships that feature spare volume for additional payloads and “interfaces” – flight decks, well decks, ramps, davits, and cranes – will be in highest demand for distributed operations involving drones.  So in addition to LCS, amphibious ships, the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV), Mobile Landing Platform (MLP), and other Military Sealift Command ships are included in this category.  In tune with the CNO’s “payload over platform” theme, given these attributes, ships that might otherwise not be considered state of the art warfighting vessels can have a new lease on life as unmanned motherships.  And ships that have generally been considered auxiliaries will now play a role in supporting offensive naval warfare by deploying sensors and weapons systems to complement the main batteries of high end surface combatants.  The end result of these drone motherships will be more sensors and weapons deployed across a wider ocean area with the same, if not smaller number of surface combatants.


The venerable Ponce’s recent conversion into an Afloat Forward Staging Base and its ongoing Arabian Gulf deployment is telling.  Ponce flew the ScanEagle UAV from her own flight deck, but also demonstrated the ability embark several Riverine Command Boats (RCBs) which can operate the PUMA UAV.  In a wartime scenario, each of these UAVs could support targeting for surface engagement (whether from a VBSS team or anti-surface missile).  During International Mine Countermeasures Exercises, Ponce deployed RHIBs with multiple mine-hunting UUVs.  So while a traditional surface ship might operate a boat or two and the same number of helicopters, using unmanned vehicles, that same platform can deploy numerous sensors and weapons at a considerable distance from the ship across all maritime domains.  
 
Distributed unmanned operations will require new concepts in afloat logistics.  Moored undersea docking stations to recharge the batteries of long range UUVs should be designed for air or surface deployment.  Unmanned air vehicles flying from surface ships will also support vertical resupply of distributed sea and ground elements operating hundreds of miles from their motherships.  This concept has been demonstrated successfully ashore with the K-MAX rotary wing vehicle which has flown 17,000+ sorties in Afghanistan since 2011, delivering over four million pounds of supplies to Marines in remote forward operating bases. 
 
The critical path to operational success will be tying all these systems together. Common technology standards and protocols must be developed sooner rather than later as discussed in detail here by Captain Lundquist.  Rather than relying on 40 year old legacy data-links, the architecture that connects manned and unmanned systems, regardless of domain, should be secure, light-weight, high-bandwidth, and affordable.  With today’s technology, those attributes need not be mutually exclusive.
 
The challenges and limitations to deploying these distributed unmanned concepts are non-trivial.  In addition to the issues with standards discussed above, autonomous algorithms need improvement, electrical storage capacity (especially for UUVs) must be increased, and cultural apprehension to offensive unmanned vessels need to be overcome.  But shrinking operational reach need not be a foregone conclusion with declining fleet size if the next wave in operating unmanned vehicles distributively is embraced.
 
CDR Chris Rawley is a surface warfare officer.  The opinions expressed are his own.  Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Remote Aviation Technology - What are we Actually Talking About?

In most ‘drone’ conferences, there comes an awkward moment when a panelist realizes that the category ‘drone’ has very little to do with the question that they’re asking. To quote the Renaissance philosopher Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” In order to improve the remote aviation technology discussion, we need to be clear what we’re actually talking about. 

What we should be talking about is ‘remote aviation technology,’ which is simply a fusion of the air and cyber domains through the ubiquitous technologies of datalinks, autopilots, and performance airframes. The fundamental tension is not between risk and responsibility, the two things over which the pop-sci-strat ‘drone’ debate obsesses, but between latency and performance. To the risk point, a military has a moral obligation to reduce risk to its warfighters, so reducing risk through tech is not new; to the responsibility point, professionalism and integrity are the roots for the warfighter’s seriousness about their duties, not risk. We find that we’ve actually been dealing with these questions for a while – so we have some pretty effective models already, which we can use as soon as we get the definitions straight. 

First, we must take all the conceptual rocks out of the ‘drones’ rucksack. We can say definitively what we aren’t talking about. We are looking only for questions that are new or fundamentally altered by remote aviation technology: any discussion that can be understood through extant tech or literature probably should be. What is not changed by the advent of remote aviation technology?

•The ethics of airstrikes and targeting – kinetics are no more intrinsic to remote aviation than they are to manned aircraft. The same weapons deployed from Reapers are also launched from Apaches and F-16s. The idea of ‘drone strikes’ as distinct from ‘air strikes’ is a distraction. The choice to apply force comes from a chain of command, not from a circuit board.

•The effectiveness of air campaigns – calling persistent airpower a ‘drone campaign’ is as reductionist as calling landpower a ‘carbine campaign.’ Certainly, long-dwell sensor-shooter remote aircraft have greatly expanded the possibilities for persistent airpower, but AC-47 gunships conducted a major persistent air campaign over the Ho Chi Minh trail – we would do better to remember this historical precedent rather than treat the capability as new, strange, or different.   

• The nature of sovereignty in the modern international system – There is some very difficult homework that remains to be done about how best to deal with the export of violence from ungoverned or poorly governed spaces, and about the conduct of conflict against global, networked non-state actors. Though some answers to these Westphalian questions involve persistent remote air platforms, these questions are themselves not a function of the technology. For instance, the British used airpower in these ways well before the Second World War.

• The cultural issues and experience of remote killing.  –  These questions are foregrounded by remote aviation technology, but they are not intrinsic to this technology. Artillerists, SWOs and manned airmen similarly wrestle with these sorts of questions – this issue is as old as arrows and siege engines.

With these big rocks removed, we find two things left in this analytical rucksack of ‘drones.’ At the bottom of the pack, there’s a pile of emotional sediment in the shape of scary killer robots, and autonomous, invincible sci-fi nightmares that make war risk-free at the cost of our humanity. Using these fictions to reason about actual remote aircraft is much like using the Easter Bunny to think about the role of rabbits in ecosystems. Since these tropes and this misguided inter-subjectivity drives much of the public pop-discourse, we are certainly not talking about this ontological flotsam.

This leaves only the aircraft themselves, which is precisely what we want. We’ve argued in other works that, for most discussions, we should consider Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks, UCLASS and so on the same way we consider any other aircraft – by mission, not by control system. E.g., for almost all intents and purposes, Reapers are persistent reconnaissance-attack aircraft. Similarly, we generally don’t consider the F-16 and the C-17 as ‘the same thing’ because they both have fly-by-wire systems. But sometimes it matters that they have fly-by-wire systems vice electro-hydraulic control cables – e.g., for example, during an EMP event. And sometimes, it matters that a ‘fly-by-wireless’ control system drives the Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk, the BQ-8 (Modified B-24), the SAGE F-106, the Sukhoi-15TM, and so on.

How, then, does a ‘fly-by-wireless’ system matter? The presumed tension for this technology is risk vs. responsibility – long-range datalinks reduce risk to the pilot, and since the pilot has ‘no skin in the game,’ they are presumed to be less invested in their choices. This is deeply problematic – a military has a moral imperative to reduce risk to its warfighters. Secretary Gates’ continually and rightly obsessed over body armor, MEDEVAC, and other risk mitigation technologies – this was a testament to his integrity.

While it is certainly true that increasing distance reduces risk, this does not inherently change warrior’s perception of his or her own responsibility to the mission and to comrades. A lack of responsibility about killing results from a lack of professionalism or integrity, poor training, or other personnel problems. SSBN crews isolate their weapons from risk through technology, and are similarly distant from their potential acts of killing. I trust that our submarine community sees their duties with the deadly seriousness that they deserve. Risk reduction through technology is ubiquitous, and these reductions do not undermine warfighter responsibilities: this is not truly a tension.

Similarly, advocates of ‘supply-side war control’ cite this risk point – the theory being that, without having to put constituents at risk, policymakers will be more willing to go to war. If the risk vs. responsibility logic plays out on a strategic level (and if this is so, it is due to the political construct of ‘drone warfare’ rather than the technology itself), this tension is better answered through accountability for strategic choices rather than by inducing risk on our warfighters. Just as Creighton Abrams’ attempt to downgrade the Special Operations community did little to keep the United States out of small wars, this approach is unlikely to deter policymakers. For jus ad bellum questions, it is far better to focus on the pen of policymakers than on the red button of warfighters; better to locate risk at the ballot-box than in than soldiers’ lives.

These points are covered at length by BJ Strawser and his co-authors in Killing by Remote Control: air warfare has no special moral problems inherent to the technology. So we will have to look further to understand how and why the tech matters. 

What, then, is the actual tension of remote aviation technology? Latency versus performance. On one hand, a ‘fly-by-wireless’ control system allows the aircraft to keep weighty, expensive and risky components of the aircraft on the ground, where the performance constraints are far less pressing. Accordingly, without the limitations of a human body and without cost of life support systems, designs that would otherwise be impossible can be fielded. This performance can be cashed out as:

Persistence: A long-dwell design, such as the Predator or the Reaper, allows for sorties much longer than crew rest would normally allow – these designs focus on optimizing persistence, typically at the expense of survivability in high-threat environments. These aircraft share bloodlines with persistent sensor-shooter craft such as the Gunship. 

Survivability: A survivable design, such as the Taranis, makes use of small size, stealth and high maneuverability. Without the size requirements for human habitation, these craft have new tactical options that pair well with advanced tactical aircraft. They are cousins to F-22 fifth generation fighters. 

Affordability: A low-cost design best fits the traditional definition of ‘drone’ – like the Firebee, a semi-disposable aircraft intended for ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ jobs. Quad-copters and the proposed Amazon delivery ‘drones’ fit this category well – these generally perform simple tasks and are not economical to remotely pilot in the traditional direct sense. Swarming adds a new twist to these ‘drones’ – distributed capabilities makes a flock of these vehicles capable in its own right as air players. Notably, the risk-reduction logic applies best to these craft – a survivable or a persistent aircraft will generally be too costly to be used as disposable assets, but if a design is built to be cheap from the outset, then it can be used in these ways. (The same logic applies to missiles, which could be themselves considered ‘drones.’)

The downside is latency. For ‘fly-by-wireless’ control systems to work, there must be a way to port human control and judgment to the craft. In a manned aircraft, where the crew builds situational awareness in an expanding ‘bubble’ around the craft; in a remote craft, the crew must ‘drill’ from their control station, through a web of datalinks, into their craft. The negative result of this process is that the remote aircraft will typically be slower than an equivalent manned aircraft; this is offset by the ease with which a remote aircraft can link to offboard assets for situational awareness. Still, the fundamental problem of the link remains. There are two approaches to solving this problem:

Physics: Increasing gain and decreasing distance both increase the strength of the link between the remote operator and the aircraft. Conversely, a contested Electronic Warfare environment seeks to degrade this link. Accordingly, in the ‘physics’ solution, we anticipate a world with airborne RPA pilots, who fly their craft from aboard a ‘mothership’ craft. Such a world hearkens back to the idea of an interlocking B-17 ‘Combat Box’ formation.

Automation: The second approach ‘bottles’ human judgment and agency into an algorithm, and sends the remote craft on its way with these instructions. When the craft can no longer maintain link, it executes these algorithms, performs its mission, and returns to base (if possible.) This is essentially what already happens with advanced missiles. The difficulty of this approach is the risk of ‘complex failure,’ if the craft is asked to perform a task whose complexity exceeds these algorithms. For precisely scripted missions, this approach works well; for ‘improvisational’ missions such as CAS, it falters.

If latency vs. performance is the fundamental tension of this technology, then much of the contemporary debate misses the mark. For example, ‘optionally manned’ aircraft are touted to bridge the gap between manned and remote craft. From a risk-vs-responsibility frame, this makes perfect sense – if you want to send the craft on a high-risk mission, leave the pilot at home. But from a latency-vs-performance frame, it recalls the old joke about Washington, DC: a town with Southern efficiency and Northern charm. Since one cannot cash back in the weight of life support systems and the like when they leave the pilot on the ground, optionally manned aircraft have the latency of an RPA and the performance of a manned aircraft – the worst of both worlds.

‘Complement,’ as described by my friend and classmate Rich Ganske, is a much better answer. If humans excel at judgment, and robots excel at math, then when the robots can do more math, it frees up the humans to do more judgment. The partnership between humans and hardware – both onboard and offboard hardware – is, and long has been, the key to dominating the battlespace. The natural contours of remotely-piloted aviation tech complement well the natural contours of directly-piloted aviation tech – they are each strong where the other is weak, and together are better than either is alone. How does this look, in practice? For two non-exhaustive examples:

Aerial Dominance Campaign: In this world, low-cost autonomous craft, much like the TACIT RAINBOW or countermeasures would complicate an adversary’s air defense tasks, while high-end survivable craft linked as ‘loyal wingmen’ to similarly survivable manned craft. In this war, every aircraft is a squadron, and every pilot a combat squadron commander. Accordingly, the art of socio-technical systems command begins to take precedence over technical tasks for the future aviator.

Vertical Dominance Campaign: A persistent air campaign team would use both remote and manned aircraft jointly to vertically dominate a battlespace from a persistent air environment. The manned and remote aircraft that inhabit this space sacrifice maneuverability and speed for endurance and payload. The craft we most often associate with remote technology inhabit this world, but we do the discussion a disservice by assuming the vulnerabilities of persistent aircraft are inherent to the design of remote aircraft.

We’ve described a number of things that are only orthogonally related to remote aviation technology: air strikes, air campaigns, sovereignty and remote killing. Once we removed those rocks from our rucksack, we were left with ‘fly-by-wireless’ control system technology. We wrestled with the supposed primary tension of the technology – risk vs. responsibility, which we reject. Our proposed primary alternate tension is – latency vs. performance. There are three ways to gain improved performance from a remote control system: persistence, survivability and affordability; each of these has strengths and weaknesses in different environments, and are generally in tension with each other. There are two ways to solve the remote latency problem: physics, which may involve partnering manned aircraft, and automation, which has problems dealing with complexity. Ultimately, we argue that the best answers pair manned and remotely piloted aircraft together. Remote aircraft add tremendous performance to the team, while manned aircraft provide essential situational awareness and judgment to complex combat. 

Dave Blair is an active duty officer in the United States Air Force and a PhD student at Georgetown University.  Reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.