Checking an aircraft for damage can be arduous and meticulous work, but last week’s issue of The Economisthighlights an experimental commercial approach. In simple terms, the Remote Intelligent Survey Equipment for Radiation (RISER) drone is a quadcopter with LIDAR and forms the basis for a system to use lasers to automatically detect damage to airliners.
The obvious naval application for inspector drones would be for ground-, carrier, and surface vessel-based fixed-wing and helicopter units, although the configurations for each aircraft type and location might make some more practical than others. For example it probably makes more sense to consolidate expertise in inspector drones at regional maintenance and readiness centers than to try to outfit a unit in the small helicopter hangar of every destroyer. But there’s always something to be said for an operational capability.
While The Economist notes that the drones are allowed at Luton airport, UK, to “operate only inside hangars, and only when the doors are shut,” similar systems could be used during periods of extended surface ship and submarine maintenance, particularly while in dry dock to check for damage and wear and tear to those vessels’ hulls and systems.
We’ve speculated previously at CIMSEC on the utility of LIDAR-equipped shipboard robots and autonomous systems to engage in damage control, but external hull and airframe inspection drones add a wrinkle and join an ever-growing list of potential (and actualized) uses for drones.
The Navy’s surface warfare community is committed to remedying its lack of anti-surface warfare (ASuW) punch with Distributed Lethality. “If it floats, it fights,” is the rallying cry. Dispersed forces operating together pose challenges for an adversary, but also create targeting difficulties we must solve.
The detection range of shipboard sensors is limited by their height above the waterline and the curvature of the earth. Since it appears doubtful leaders would call on a ship to steam into visual range of adversaries, airborne assets are most likely to provide over the horizon (OTH) targeting.
In a January 2015 article in Proceedings, Vice Admiral Rowden, Rear Admiral Gumataotao, and Rear Admiral Fanta reference “persistent organic” air assets as key enablers of Distributed Lethality. While a completely organic targeting solution offers opportunities in some scenarios, it has limits in high-end contingencies. In empowering the surface force, let us not ignore inorganic air assets. Distributed Lethality is far more effective with them.
TASM: A Cautionary Tale
During a January 2015 test, a Tomahawk Block IV test missile received in-flight updates from an aircraft and impacted its target, a mock cargo ship near the Channel Islands of California. “This is potentially a game changing capability for not a lot of cost,” said Deputy Secretary of defense Bob Work. “It’s a 1000 mile anti-ship cruise missile.”
But this test did not solve the fleet’s ASuW problem. Nor was it the first time the service had used Tomahawk in an anti-shipping role. To understand the difficulty of OTH targeting, we have to examine the final days of the Cold War.
In the late 1980’s, various ships and submarines carried the radar guided Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile, or TASM. The TASM boasted a range of over 200 nm. But because TASM was subsonic, it took as long as 30 minutes to reach its target. In this time, a fast warship could steam as far as 15 miles from its initial location. Additionally, neutral shipping could inadvertently become the target of the seeker if the enemy vessel was not the closest to the missile when the radar activated.
Therefore, TASM could only reliably be used when there was no neutral shipping around, or in a massive conflict where collateral damage considerations were minimal. The Navy sought to remedy this by developing OTH targeting systems known as Outlaw Hunter and Outlaw Viking on the P-3 and S-3 aircraft. But with the demise of the Soviet Union, massive defense cuts and the evaporation of any blue water surface threat led to the retirement of TASM.
OTH targeting is not a new problem. To solve it, airborne platforms are critical. Let’s examine the organic and inorganic assets that can fill these roles. We will then discuss how inorganic assets offer the most promise.
Organic Assets: Benefits and Limitations
The surface force is equipped with rotary and fixed wing assets to enable OTH targeting. From a sensors standpoint, the MH-60R is most capable. Its inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR) can identify ships from long range, but it is limited in altitude and radar horizon. MQ-8 UAV’s offer increased endurance over manned assets. Their maximum altitudes are higher, but still constrain sensor range. The RQ-21 fixed wing UAV rounds out this group. It has solid endurance, but very limited speed.
The limited speed and altitude capabilities of these aircraft mean that the area they can search is small. Also, they must operate well within the weapons engagement zone of their targets to identify their prey. If these sensors platforms are radiating, a capable adversary will hunt them down or lure them into missile traps and destroy them in an effort to deny our forces a clear targeting picture.
Large Fixed Wing Assets: Increased Capability
While not organic to a surface action group, fixed wing aircraft bring speed, altitude, and persistence to the fight. P-8 and P-3 patrol aircraft offer standoff targeting and C5I capabilities. So too do the MQ-4 UAV and the E-8 JSTARS aircraft.
The carrier air wing brings blended detection and OTH targeting capabilities. The E-2 lacks ISAR identification capability, but does boast a passive electronic warfare (EW) suite and the ability to coordinate with the powerful EW system onboard EA-18G aircraft. Additionally, the latest E-2 model can pass targeting quality data to surface ships to allow them to engage from the aircraft’s track, significantly increasing the ship’s effective missile envelope.
These platforms are expensive and limited in number, but their altitude capability and resulting sensor range allows them to standoff further from the enemy, radiating at will. Additionally, their high dash speed allows them to better escape targeting by enemy fighter aircraft. Their speed, persistence, sensor coverage, and survivability make them logical targeting platforms. They are far more capable and enable better effects than shipboard rotary assets and UAV’s.
Stand-in Stealthy Aircraft: The Ultimate Targeting Asset
The ultimate platform to provide targeting updates to long-range ASCM’s would be a stealthy UAV similar to the RQ-170. Such an aircraft could receive cueing from other platforms, an onboard EW suite, or its own low probability of intercept (LPI) radar. Able to stand in, it could provide visual identification, satisfying rules of engagement. It could provide target updates via a LPI datalink to inbound weapons. These technologies have their roots in the “Assault Breaker” initiative that led to the creation of the Tacit Blue test aircraft and the rise of modern stealth technology., Similar radars, datalinks, and low observable platforms have been proven and are flying today in various forms.
Air Force Tacit Blue Demonstrator
Cost of a new platform is high, but their ability to get close and persist while unobserved is very useful and provides high confidence visual identification to commanders. Their survivability removes the need to provide airborne early warning (AEW) and high value airborne asset protection. Their stealth frees AEW aircraft and fighters to focus their energies elsewhere.
The concept of Distributed Lethality offers promise, but will be limited if its scope is confined to only utilizing capabilities resident in the surface fleet. It is best to pursue organic capabilities while also integrating inorganic assets when planning how the fleet will fight the conflicts of tomorrow. Let us pursue solutions that incorporate forces from many communities to best meet future warfare challenges.
Lieutenant Glynn is a Naval Aviator and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He most recently served as a P-8 instructor pilot and mission commander with Patrol Squadron (VP) 16. He currently flies the T-45 with Training Squadron (VT) 21. He is a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.
 Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “’If it Floats, it Fights’: Navy Seeks ‘Distributed Lethality’,” Breaking Defense, January 14, 2015, http://breakingdefense.com/2015/01/if-it-floats-it-fights-navy-seeks-distributed-lethality/.
 Thomas Rowden, Peter Gumataotao, Peter Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” Proceedings Magazine, January 2015, Vol. 141, http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015-01/distributed-lethality.
 “Tomahawk Hits Moving Target at Sea,” Raytheon Company, February 10, 2015, http://www.raytheon.com/news/feature/tomahawk_moving_target_sea.html.
 Sam LaGrone, “WEST: Bob Work Calls Navy’s Anti-Surface Tomahawk Test ‘Game Changing’,” USNI News, February 10, 2015, http://news.usni.org/2015/02/10/west-bob-work-calls-navys-anti-surface-tomahawk-test-game-changing.
 “RQ-170,” U.S. Air Force Fact File, December 10, 2009, http://www.af.mil/AboutUs/FactSheets/Display/tabid/224/Article/104547/rq-170-sentinel.aspx.
 Aytug Denk, “Detecting and Jamming Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) Radars,” Naval Post Graduate School, September 2006, http://dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a456960.pdf.
 Robert Tomes, “The Cold War Offset Strategy: Assault Breaker and the Beginning of the RSTA Revolution,” War on the Rocks, November 20, 2014, http://warontherocks.com/2014/11/the-cold-war-offset-strategy-assault-breaker-and-the-beginning-of-the-rsta-revolution/.
 “Northrop Tacit Blue,” National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, March 9, 2015, http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=353.
 Kelley Sayler, “Talk Stealthy to Me,” War on the Rocks, December 4, 2014, http://warontherocks.com/2014/12/talk-stealthy-to-me/.
Distributed lethality is a concept that harkens back to the glory days of the US Navy in the age of sail: small groups of ships with operational autonomy fighting the enemy with their organic firepower and capabilities. Operational autonomy was the default state for ships until Marconi’s radio set--the lack of instantaneous communication meant that commanders had to make decisions by themselves. Concerning distributed lethality, the lack of communications is imposed upon our ships by enemy communications denial in an A2/AD environment. The parallel does not work in the logistics domain as well- warships then had to fend for themselves logistically, while today, we will have to force a new mode of supply on our ships in order for them to operate independently.
There are some lessons we can learn from how we supported our ships in the past, but there is a big difference in the sustainment modality of the 64-gun USS Bonhomme Richard of Revolutionary War legend and the modern namesake of her captain USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53).
First of all, those ships of sail operated with what is now called an “expeditionary mindset.” They operated with austerity, for replenishment opportunities were few and far between. Most of our surface combatants are replenished from Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships with such frequency that fresh fruits and vegetables are a part of the staple on Carrier Strike Group (CSG) deployers and hard pack ice cream is not uncommon. Life on-board the hunter killer Surface Action Groups (SAGs) will be less comfortable, but it does not have to regress to the days of hard tack and picked herring. Instead, austere life on a modern surface ship life will be closer to that of how submariners live on nuclear attack subs. More canned and from scratch food could be served and valuable storeroom space that is now used for ship’s store items and soda vending could further extend the endurance of a vessel as food storage. Our refrigeration units could be converted to only carry frozen items, yet another adaptation for better food autonomy that sacrifices the comfort of salads and perishable fruit for several more days between replenishment hits.
Ships in the age of sail had carpenters in their crew and bosun’s mates that could repair a large part of what we would call ‘Hull, Mechanical, and Electrical’ systems on today’s warships, using materials that could be collected from almost any port- or from captured enemy ships, for that matter. Shot out rudders, rigging, sails- the prime movers of a ship of the day- could be at least “jury rigged” with organic capabilities on-board. The bridge that modern warships need to come even close to this capability is a suite of additive manufacturing systems that can build replacement parts of many shapes and materials, to include systems that can repair parts by building directly on their surfaces with an additive manufacturing (AM) system. Sailors will need to be able to repair their own systems with these new technologies, introducing an organizational level repair suite that can fix far more than the currently installed machine shops. In the near term, AM will not be the solution to all of our shipboard repair problems, especially on space constrained surface combatants. The state of the technology means that our ships will still depend on logistics assets for at least some of their repair parts, which will tend towards the complex in design, and will be most likely vital for the operation of our critical systems.
The delivery of high priority parts to ships at sea necessitates a solution that departs from our historical parallels. If we are to provide logistical supports to distributed assets in a emission-restricted or denied environment, a family of autonomous replenishment assets needs to be developed. In the “distributed lethality” environment, large, exquisite MH-60 helicopters should not be used to deliver small packages of critical parts (a situation that the author has personally experienced a number of times). These multi-mission aircraft are better utilized prosecuting targets, providing ISR, and acting as communications relays. The crews of the helicopters should also not be put to risk delivering parts where detection in contested airspace would have a fatal outcome. Vertical take-off and landing UAVs (VTUAV) lend themselves perfectly to this mission, but there is not currently a platform in the Navy that is suited for this mission.
The Navy needs to fill this capability gap by changing how VTUAVs are operated from ships and advancing existing technologies to a level that allows for a mature autonomous capability. We have to operate these systems without flight following; controlled assets are no use to us an environment where communications are not guaranteed. To enable this, such a robotic replenishment asset would have to have “sense and avoid” systems so that they do not collide with other aircraft, ships, or oil platforms as they fly point to point from ship to ship or ship to shore. In addition, these aircraft will have systems that use a combination of EO/IR, LIDAR, and INS to first get in the vicinity of the receiving ship and then land on it without any outside input or control. This is an important difference from our current CONOPs, for there is no UAV that can land on any ship in our inventory by itself; they all require UCARs (UAV Common Automatic Recovery System), SPN radars, or man-in-the-loop input. To be truly useful, logistics missions should be able to be flown to and from any surface ship, as they are with manned helicopters. The all of the above technologies needed for an autonomous logistics UAV currently exist but have not been combined into one dedicated platform. When proven, a family of systems ranging from Fire Scout to optionally manned H-60s to hybrid airships could be employed, stretching a flexible sustainment chain that can leapfrog from asset to asset out to our hunter killer SAGs.
Austerity, additive manufacturing, and robotic replenishment can only take sustainment endurance so far without dealing with the five hundred pound gorilla of energy supply. At sea fuel replenishment will be much rarer if combatant ships operate in environments that make MSC ship operations difficult due to distance or enemy threats. In addition, these oilers might be occupied in other future missions as missile shooters with bolt-on launchers or adaptive force package elements. To start, a greater tolerance for lower levels of shipboard fuel bunkerage needs to be embraced operationally. Fuel cells and batteries need to be added to existing platforms to share the electrical generation burden from the gas turbine generators, so more fuel can be conserved for ship propulsion. The end solution to this problem could be much more radical and needs to be examined in great depth. Unmanned fuel tugs in concert with underwater fuel stations could service our ships, but the full implications of using such systems are far from certain.
“Distributed Lethality” will prove a sea change to how naval forces employ surface assets with significant implications for tactics, command and control methods, and platform employment means. In order for it all to work, we need to be as innovative with our sustainment methods we are in all the other enabling warfare disciplines. The sooner we get started, the more seamless the final package will be.
Chris O’Connor is a supply corps officer in the United States Navy and is a member of the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.