Unmanned Systems: A New Era for the U.S. Navy?

By Marjorie Greene

The U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Systems Directorate, or N99, was formally stood up this past September with the focused mission of quickly assessing emerging technologies and applying them to unmanned platforms. The Director of Unmanned Warfare Systems is Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, who was recently interviewed by Scout Warrior, and outlined a new, evolving Navy Drone Strategy.

The idea is to capitalize upon the accelerating speed of computer processing and rapid improvements in the development of autonomy-increasing algorithms; this will allow unmanned systems to quickly operate with an improved level of autonomy, function together as part of an integrated network, and more quickly perform a wider range of functions without needing every individual task controlled by humans. “We aim to harness these technologies. In the next five years or so we are going to try to move from human operated systems to ones that are less dependent on people. Technology is going to enable increased autonomy,” Admiral Girrier told Scout Warrior.

Forward, into Autonomy

Although aerial drones have taken off a lot faster than their maritime and ground-based equivalent, there are some signs that the use of naval drones – especially underwater – is about to take a leap forward. As recently as February this year, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the Pentagon plans to spend $600 million over the next five years on the development of unmanned underwater systems. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) recently announced that the Navy’s newest risk taker is an “unmanned ship that can cross the Pacific.”

DARPA’s initial launch and testing of Sea Hunter. (Video: DARPA via YouTube)

Called the Sea Hunter, the vessel is a demonstrator version of an unmanned ship that will run autonomously for 60 – 80 days at a time. Known officially as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), the program started in 2010, when the defense innovations lab decided to look at what could be done with a large unmanned surface vessel and came up with submarine tracking and trailing. “It is really a mixture of manned-unmanned fleet,” said program manager Scott Littlefield. The big challenge was not related to programming the ship for missions. Rather, it was more basic – making an automated vessel at sea capable of driving safely. DARPA had to be certain the ship would not only avoid a collision on the open seas, but obey protocol for doing so.

As further evidence of the Navy’s progress toward computer-driven drones, the Navy and General Dynamics Electric Boat are testing a prototype of a system called the Universal Launch and Recovery Module that would allow the launch and recovery of unmanned underwater vehicles from the missile tube of a submarine. The Navy is also working with platforms designed to collect oceanographic and hydrographic information and is operating a small, hand-launched drone called “Puma” to provide over-the-horizon surveillance for surface platforms.

Both DARPA and the Office of Naval Research also continue to create more sophisticated Unmanned Aircraft Systems. DARPA recently awarded Phase 2 system integration contracts for its CODE (Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment) program to help the U.S. military’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) conduct dynamic, long-distance engagements against highly mobile ground and maritime targets in denied or contested electromagnetic airspace, all while reducing required communication bandwidth and cognitive burden on human supervisors.

An artist's rendition of DARPA's CODE concept, designed to enable operations in a electromagnetically contested environment. Illustration: DARPA
An artist’s rendition of DARPA’s CODE concept, designed to enable operations in a electromagnetically contested environment. (DARPA)

CODE’s main objective is to develop and demonstrate the value of collective autonomy, in which UAS could perform sophisticated tasks, both individually and in teams under the supervision of a single human mission commander. The ONR LOCUST Program allows UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to stay in formation with little human control. At a recent demonstration, a single human controller was able to operate up to 32 UAVs.

The Networked Machine…

The principle by which individual UAVs are able to stay in formation with little human control is based on a concept called “swarm intelligence,” which refers to the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, as introduced by Norbert Wiener in his book, Cybernetics. Building on behavioral models of animal cultures such as the synchronous flocking of birds, he postulated that “self-organization” is a process by which machines – and, by analogy, humans – learn by adapting to their environment.

The flock behavior, or murmuration, of starlings is an excellent demonstration of self-organization. (Video: BBC via YouTube)

Self-organization refers to the emergence of higher-level properties and behaviors of a system that originate from the collective dynamics of that system’s components but are not found in nor are directly deducible from the lower-level properties of the system. Emergent properties are properties of the whole that are not possessed by any of the individual parts making up that whole. The parts act locally on local information and global order emerges without any need for external control. In short, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

There is also a relatively new concept called “artificial swarm intelligence,” in which there have been attempts to develop human swarms using the internet to achieve a collective, synchronous wisdom that outperforms individual members of the swarm. Still in its infancy, the concept offers another approach to the increasing vulnerability of centralized command and control systems.

Perhaps more importantly, the concept may also allay increasing concerns about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence without a human in the loop. A team of Naval Postgraduate researchers are currently exploring a concept of “network optional warfare” and proposing technologies to create a “mesh network” for independent SAG tactical operations with designated command and control.

…And The Connected Human

Adm. Girrier was quick to point out that the strategy – aimed primarily at enabling submarines, surface ships, and some land-based operations to take advantage of fast-emerging computer technologies — was by no means intended to replace humans. Rather, it aims to leverage human perception and cognitive ability to operate multiple drones while functioning in a command and control capacity. In the opinion of this author, a major issue to be resolved in optimizing humans and machines working together is the obstacle of “information overload” for the human.

Rear Admiral Girrier, Director of N99, delivers a presentation on the future of naval unmanned systems at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Rear Admiral Robert P. Girrier, Director of N99, delivers a presentation on the future of naval unmanned systems at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 29, 2016. See the presentation here. (CSIS)

Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr, U.S. Navy (Ret.), a professor in the Department of Operations Research at the Naval Postgraduate School, has already noted the important trend in “scouting” (or ISR) effectiveness. In his opinion, processing information has become a greater challenge than collecting it. Thus, the emphasis must be shifted from the gathering and delivery of information to the fusion and interpretation of information. According to CAPT Hughes, “the current trend is a shift of emphasis from the means of scouting…to the fusion and interpretation of massive amounts of information into an essence on which commanders may decide and act.”

Leaders of the Surface Navy continue to lay the intellectual groundwork for Distributed Lethality – defined as a tactical shift to re-organize and re-equip the surface fleet by grouping ships into small Surface Action Groups (SAGs) and increasing their complement of anti-ship weapons. This may be an opportune time to introduce the concept of swarm intelligence for decentralized command and control. Technologies could still be developed to centralize the control of multiple SAGs designed to counter adversaries in an A2/AD environment. But swarm intelligence technologies could also be used in which small surface combatants would each act locally on local information, with systemic order “emerging” from their collective dynamics.

Conclusion

Yes, technology is going to enable increased autonomy, as noted by Adm. Girrier in his interview with Scout Warrior. But as he said, it will be critical to keep the human in the loop and to focus on optimizing how humans and machines can better work together. While noting that decisions about the use of lethal force with unmanned systems will, according to Pentagon doctrine, be made by human beings in a command and control capacity, we must be assured that global order will continue to emerge with humans in control.

Marjorie Greene is a Research Analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses. She has more than 25 years’ management experience in both government and commercial organizations and has recently specialized in finding S&T solutions for the U. S. Marine Corps. She earned a B.S. in mathematics from Creighton University, an M.A. in mathematics from the University of Nebraska, and completed her Ph.D. course work in Operations Research from The Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed here are her own.

Featured Image: An MQ-8B Fire Scout UAS is tested off the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf near Los Angeles, Dec. 5 2014. The Coast Guard Research and Development Center has been testing UAS platforms consistently for the last three years. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Sea Control 121- An American Foreign Fighter in Kurdistan

pokemon-go-iraqi-mosul
Louis Park on Facebook.

By Matt Hipple

We interview Louis, the Marine Veteran of “PokemonGO in Kurdistan Meme” fame, and an independent foreign fighter with the Kurds in Iraq. We discuss his motivations for heading out to the fight, about his process of joining, integrating, and operating with the Kurdish forces in the field. We also discuss how he and his fellow western fighters coordinate their operations and regulate themselves, as well as the day-to-day realities of life in the Kurdish war zone.

Louis hopes that the popularity of his meme draws public interest to the on-the- ground realities of the fight against ISIS. He also hopes it can bring attention to those carrying on that fight. That is what we have endeavored to do with this interview.

DOWNLOAD: American Foreign Fighters in Kurdistan

Don’t Neglect the Human Factor in Littoral Combat

The following article originally appeared by The National Interest and is republished with the author’s permission. It may be read in its original form here

By James Holmes

A new article from Wayne Hughes is a treat for anyone in naval geekdom. Captain Hughes literally wrote the book on U.S. Navy fleet tactics and coastal combat; I still schlep around my dog-eared copy of Fleet Tactics from my midshipman days in the 1980s. It keeps good company with tracts from Clausewitz, Corbett and the boys.

But last month over at USNI Blog, Hughes and a brace of Naval Postgraduate School colleagues proposed the concept of “mesh networks.” It refers to a dispersed yet networked ships, planes, weapons, and sensors that are able to seize the initiative from regional adversaries, maneuver in both physical and cyberspace, and prevail in near-shore combat. The whole thing is worth a read.

It’s a compelling read in many respects. Hughes and his coauthors accentuate how complex and menacing offshore waters and skies can be. For instance, we tend to evaluate weapons in large part by their firing range. Outrange a foe and you acquire a significant tactical edge. Similar to boxing, in sea fights, the pugilist with greatest range can wallop his opponent before he has the chance to strike back. The perpetrator inflicts damage without absorbing any himself.

But range is mainly an asset for open-ocean battle. The open sea resembles a vast, featureless plain; weapons can reach their full potential there. Ships and planes can pound away from their maximum firing ranges. Littoral combat, by contrast, compacts the distances at which battle takes place. You have to get close to shore to strike inland, land troops, or blockade enemy harbors.

To continue the boxing analogy, it is similar to forcing boxers to fight in the clinch rather than dancing around the ring. The fight transpires within weapons range of an enemy who’s fighting on his own ground, with all of his manpower and armaments close to hand. Compressing the theater, then, attenuates any range advantage U.S. forces may enjoy, or nullifies it altogether.

And if that’s not bad enough, inshore combat constricts the time available to defend against incoming rounds. Dexterity is essential when forced to cope with myriad challenges. Scattering and moving sensors and “shooters” around the theater constitutes one way to confound foes—provided U.S. forces can still mass firepower at the decisive place on the map at the decisive time. Hence the concept of nimble, “networked” forces. Despite the concept’s virtues, it feels incomplete and abstract, possibly even otherworldly.

That’s because it slights the human dimension of sea combat—a hazardous thing to do when contemplating how to wage war, an intensely human enterprise. My advice is to look not to a U.S. Navy admiral but to a U.S. Air Force colonel for insight into how to prosecute littoral combat. Let’s keep the human in human competition—enriching mesh-network tactics.

The coauthors make the late Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski’s model of decision-making their own, using it to explore the potential of offshore networks. Cebrowski describes tactics as a three-phase cycle. Sensing represents the first phase. Combatants gather and exchange data about their surroundings. They next decide what arms and tactics to deploy within those surroundings. And then they act on the decision, with the aim of getting off the first effective shot. Sense, decide, act. It makes sense on the surface, but the trouble is that this approach is too mechanical. It makes little allowance for the messiness that is human interaction in a competitive environment.

Cebrowski implies that in combat you can plug data into an algorithm, churn out an answer, and do what the algorithm says. Colonel John Boyd, a fighter pilot and self-made strategist, interjects a fourth element into the decision cycle. The tactical surroundings, says Boyd, are constantly in flux. It’s not enough to collect information about the setting. It’s about orienting oneself to the setting before making a decision and acting.

For Boyd, then, the cycle goes observe, orient, decide, act—OODA. Fail to orient to the surroundings and you are disoriented, estranged from the reality around you. Losing touch with reality represents a dangerous situation at the best of times—but especially in combat. The victor, oftentimes, is the combatant best in tune with the situation. So orienting is important.

How do you do it? It’s a process of assimilating and analyzing new information that comes in from sensors and other sources. Sounds like Cebrowski’s decide function. But Boyd also maintains that past experience shapes how combatants adapt to their surroundings. So do cultural traditions. So does “genetic heritage.” Boyd even factors in the biological basis of human cognition.

The fighter pilot thus incorporates not-strictly-rational components of human decision-making into his paradigm for tactics and strategy, adding texture to the model. Thinkers from Machiavelli to Taleb warn that people are hardwired to think in linear terms, projecting the past into the future in a straight line. Past trends constitute the best guide to future events.

Yet straight-line thinking impedes efforts to cope with the opponent—a living, determined contestant with every incentive to deflect competition onto nonlinear, unpredictable pathways. Culture likewise channels efforts to process new data in certain directions. Bewilderment greets unfamiliar information all too often—further slowing down adaptation.

Nor is orientation some incidental or throwaway element of the decision cycle. Boyd portrays it as the one element to rule them all: “The second O, orientation—as the repository of our genetic heritage, cultural tradition, and previous experiences—is the most important part of the O-O-D-A loop since it shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act.”

There’s a corollary to Boyd’s decision-making taxonomy. Pit two antagonists against each other, both of which are struggling to observe, orient, decide, and act effectively. Orienting swiftly and accurately is a defensive endeavor. But if there’s an orient function whereby each antagonist tries to stay abreast of change, there must also be an offensive, disorient function to the OODA cycle.

And indeed, Boyd beseeches savvy contestants to spring “fast transients” on their adversaries, seizing control of the environment. Sudden, swift, radical maneuvers befuddle the adversary. Repeated maneuvers cut him off from the tactical or strategic environment altogether, making him easy pickings. Boyd famously defeated every mock adversary he encountered during air-combat training within forty seconds. He ascribed his unbeaten record to fast—unforeseeable—transients.

All models simplify; that’s true in all fields of inquiry. We assume perfect competition in economics, exaggerating economic actors’ rationality for the sake of simplicity. We assume laminar flow in fluid dynamics, disregarding turbulence within the fluid and between the fluid and the pipe wall. And we assume frictionless machinery to illustrate physics and engineering principles.

And this is all to the good—provided economists and physicists disregard only secondary factors for the sake of explaining fundamental concepts, and provided they take account of these factors when they devise economic policies, piping systems, and engines for real-world use. Disregarding a primary factor could invalidate the model altogether. Cebrowski takes the orient function—the most important function—out of the decision cycle. Doing so abstracts any model founded on his theory from reality.

As a legendary pugilist once said, any scheme for human competition and conflict that neglects interaction has dim prospects for success. I urge the Naval Postgraduate School team to reject Cebrowski’s paradigm, and eliminate that fallacy from their worthwhile project. Wargames premised on Boyd’s more realistic decision cycle will yield more meaningful insight into how coastal combat may unfold, and that will bolster U.S. Navy performance.

Naval warfare is an intensely human enterprise, rife with dark passions, chance, and uncertainty. It’s disorderly and erratic, operating by its own topsy-turvy logic. Not for nothing does John Boyd insist that people, ideas, and hardware—in that order—constitute the crucial determinants of victory and defeat. Prioritizing people represents the starting point for wisdom.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

Featured Image: USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) enters Apra Harbor for a port visit on U.S. Naval Base Guam on Dec. 11, 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Leah Eclavea)

Members’ Roundup: June 2016

By Sam Cohen

Welcome to the June 2016 members’ roundup. Throughout June, CIMSEC members examined several international maritime security issues, including increased competition in the undersea environment, the Taiwanese Navy’s pursuit of an enhanced air defense capability, Russia’s modernization of the Black Sea Fleet, developments in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology and carrier based operations, and finally, growing piracy threats off the coast of Libya. 

Beginning the roundup at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Bryan Clark discusses undersea cables and the future of submarine competition. Mr. Clark explains how at least 95% of voice and internet traffic in addition to more than $4 trillion per year in financial transactions travels through about 300 transoceanic fiber-optic cables along the seabed. Due to the likely economic and military impacts a cable break or sabotage would induce on international security and economic dynamics, the ability to threaten or protect undersea cables and their shore landings will become an increasingly important aspect of future conflict – with procurement of advanced submarine and unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) technology being critical for  addressing this evolving threat. Mr. Clark highlights several of these technologies, including the rise of a new predominant sensing technology characterized by low-frequency active sonar, the use of undersea ‘battle networks’ and the deployment of fixed seabed-based sensors and outposts to augment UUV and submarine operations.

Harry Kazianis, for The National Interest, provides an analysis on the proliferation of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles around the globe and the implications the spread of these weapon systems will have on future U.S. aircraft carrier operations in peace and in conflict. Mr. Kazianis notes that the carrier has been at the forefront of every major U.S. combat operation since World War II, but the short ranges of current carrier based fighter aircraft relative to the longer ranges of certain anti-ship missiles – such as China’s DF-21D, or DF-26 ASBM – may limit the usefulness of the carrier as both an effective deterrent and a reliable platform for power projection in contested areas of operation. The article highlights additional variables affecting the relevance of the flattop in A2/AD environments, including the likelihood of successfully targeting a moving carrier at sea deploying an array of countermeasures.

Ankit Panda, for The Diplomat, provides an overview of a Chinese Naval vessel entering Japanese territorial waters and the incident’s reflection of growing tensions between the two countries. Mr. Panda explains that a Type 815 Dongdiao-class spy ship entered Japanese territorial waters on June 15, a move Beijing has not repeated since 2004, when a Chinese nuclear submarine entered Japan’s 12 nautical mile territorial sea near the Sakishima Islands. The article examines whether the Chinese spy ship was abiding by international law, particularly the provisions governing ‘innocent passage’ under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Considering the Chinese vessel was a spy ship and sailed within Japanese waters for several hours, Mr. Panda explains that the Japanese Defense Ministry is investigating whether the PLAN vessel was operating in accordance with international law and if follow-up legal action should be taken.

Michal Thim and his colleague Liao Yen-fan, for Taiwan in Perspective, discuss the restructuring of the Taiwanese Navy, and the goal to acquire enhanced air defense capabilities for the fleet. The authors explain that modernization plans have identified interchangeable Aegis-like integrated combat systems (ACS) that pair powerful radars with advanced anti-air and anti-ship weapons as priority procurement targets. However, the recent breakdown in negotiations between Lockheed Martin and Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) over the acquisition and technology transfer of the Mk.41 vertical launch system may limit the Navy’s ability to deploy ACS. They add that this breakdown and the resulting procurement limitations represent inherent challenges associated with Taiwan’s arms indigenization objectives.

To conclude the June members’ roundup, Sam LaGrone for U.S. Naval Institute News provides an overview of Russia’s first deployment of a new frigate to the Black Sea Fleet since the end of the Cold War. The Project 11356-class Admiral Grigorovich was sent to a Russian naval base in Crimea, which Mr. LaGrone explains is the first of many new surface ships the Russian Navy intends to base in the Black Sea. He adds that the delivery of the multi-mission surface combatant, capable of engaging submarine, air and surface threats, is part of a $2.43 billion Black Sea Fleet expansion program that will allow for increased power projection capabilities throughout the Fleet’s area of operation.

Members at CIMSEC were also active elsewhere during the month of June:

  • Bryan McGrath, for The War on the Rocks, explains how the lack of naval competition in the post-Cold War period has resulted in a U.S. fleet posture with limited offensive power. He explains how the Navy has prioritized a defensive mindset for too long, with survivability and defensive capabilities outcompeting offensive capabilities for platform space, budgetary resources and strategic inquiry. Mr. McGrath emphasizes that by adopting and implementing the distributed lethality concept across the fleet – that is increasing the unit-level lethality of virtually every ship in the Navy – U.S. naval forces will increase their capacity to successfully deter and challenge nations opposing U.S. interests and international law at sea.
  • Jerry Hendrix, for Defense One, advocates that the X-47B should be reinserted into carrier operations before the U.S. Navy begins to spend more time and fiscal resources on a new, expensive carrier-based UAV. Mr. Hendrix identifies that the Navy needs a long-range strike asset similar to the X-47B design, while it does not need a long-range surveillance platform – an asset the Navy seems to be leaning towards even though 68 unmanned MQ-4C Triton broad area maritime surveillance vehicles have recently been acquired. He also notes the possibility of evolving the X-47B into a joint strike-refueling platform, which would provide two useful, additional capabilities aboard the carrier that are more appropriate and necessary than a surveillance UAV.
  • Michael McDevitt, for The National Interest, discusses China’s ambitions as a maritime power by contextualizing the maritime environment from Beijing’s perspective. The article examines how China seeks to position itself in the maritime environment both regionally and globally, with the Coast Guard, PLA Navy, shipbuilding capacity, merchant fleet, distant-water fishing challenges, territorial disputes and both strategic and tactical level operations taken into consideration.
  • Paul Pryce, at Offiziere, provides an analysis on the current state of the Libyan Navy and the growing threat of piracy operations off of the country’s coastline. Mr. Pryce explains that the Navy’s one active ship, a Koni-class frigate, in addition to the lack of command and control governing the Navy – the same issue facing all Libyan security forces – is contributing to the refugee problem in the Mediterranean and the rising volume in piracy incidents throughout the region.
  • Robert Farley, for The National Interest, discusses Canada’s late 1950’s CF-105 Avro Arrow high-performance interceptor and the aircraft’s unsung potential as a dominating platform in early Cold War airspace, if only the program had not been cancelled due to shifts in Canadian technology, policy and security priorities. In a second article at The National Interest, Farley examines Russia’s Type 705 Lyra Cold War submarine that was regarded by the West as a profound threat to NATO’s undersea dominance.
  • Christian Davenport, for The Washington Post, highlights new technological advancements that may be transforming the way the pentagon outlines its defense strategy, particularly developments within the fields of robotics, drone swarms, and artificial intelligence. The article highlights emerging communication channels between the technology industry in Silicon Valley and the Pentagon, with Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter recently meeting with executives at SpaceX and Google.
  • Kyle Mizokami, for Popular Mechanics, discusses the deployment of two U.S. carrier battle groups to the Philippine Sea to conduct exercises following the UN court ruling on China and its claims in the South China Sea. Mr. Mizokami explains that the carrier strike groups (CSGs) consist of two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, two guided-missile cruisers, six guided-missile destroyers and likely two nuclear attack submarines – although their presence was not confirmed by the Navy. He adds that this is the first two-carrier exercise in the Western Pacific in two years.
  • Dave Majumdar, for The National Interest, examines the Russian submarine threat to NATO’s maritime forces and U.S. naval forces stationed throughout EuropeThe article explains how Russia has successfully incorporated highly agile, technologically advanced and lethal submarines into their overall A2/AD bubble strategy throughout European waters and the significant threat this poses to U.S. and allied undersea posture in the region.  

At CIMSEC we encourage members to continue writing, either here on CIMSEC or through other means. You can assist us by emailing your works to dmp@cimsec.org.

Sam Cohen is currently studying Honors Specialization Political Science at Western University in Canada. His interests are in the fields of strategic studies, international law and defense policy.

Featured Image: Naval vessels of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (RT)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.