Accelerating the Renaissance of the U.S. Navy’s Amphibious Assault Forces 

Unmanned Maritime Systems Topic Week

By George Galdorisi


The United States has entered an era of great power competition against peer adversaries who are seeking to shape the world to their needs and upset the global international order.1 This challenge is addressed in the highest levels of U.S. policy documents, from Global Trends: Paradox of Progress, to the National Security Strategy, to the National Defense Strategy. Indeed, the National Defense Strategy explicitly calls for the United States to “Build a More Lethal Force” to deal with these threats.”2

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are critical components of this more lethal force. As the Navy’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 (Design 2.0) notes, “The U.S. Navy must be ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea.” Design 2.0 also calls for “Deepening integration with our natural partner, the U.S. Marine Corps.”3 As Brigadier General Christian Wortman, Commanding Officer of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, noted at the recent USNI/AFCEA West Symposium “We are back and completely integrated with the Navy.”4

This call for enhanced Navy-Marine Corps integration comes at a time when, in the words of a former Marine Commandant, “The Marine Corps is returning to its amphibious roots,”5 and when the demand for amphibious forces is at a high level. As Ryan Hilger noted in his recent CIMSEC article, “Ground Component Commanders (GCCs) continue to signal a demand for amphibious forces, reaching high enough to justify 40 amphibious ships required to meet requested presence requirements.”6

This sea change in U.S. strategic focus comes at a time of accelerating technological change. As Michelle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, noted recently, “We are in the most intense technological revolution the world has ever seen.”7 Today, one of the most rapidly growing areas of innovative technology adoption by the U.S. military involves unmanned systems. In the past several decades, the U.S. military’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has increased from only a handful to more than 10,000, while the use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) has exploded from zero to more than 12,000.

The use of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) is also growing, as USVs and UUVs are proving to be increasingly useful for a wide array of military applications. The expanding use of military unmanned systems (UxS) is already creating strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago.

America’s Amphibious Assault Forces: Leading a Paradigm Shift

Last summer, the Smithsonian Channel featured a series, “The Pacific War in Color.” One part of this program told the story of amphibious assaults on Japanese-held islands, such as Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Tarawa, Peleliu, and others. These assaults involved armadas of amphibious ships and hundreds of landing craft that were part of each forcible entry operation. In each case, the attacking force faced significant opposition getting Marines onto the beach.

Aerial raw footage of the 1945 Iwo Jima landings (Romano Archives)

In the post-Cold War era, amphibious assault forces have not been the most capable part of the U.S. Navy. In the years after 9/11—while the Marine Corps was engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and not primarily embarked on amphibious ships—the amphibious assault fleet was, at best, an afterthought. Today, as the United States faces a plethora of threats across the globe, there is a new emphasis on amphibious warfare.

According to Lieutenant General David Berger, commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and nominee to be the next Commandant of the Marine Corps, “We need to be prepared for large-scale amphibious operations. We might do it differently in the future, but we can’t ignore it.”8

For decades, when a crisis emerged anywhere on the globe, the first question a U.S. president often asked was, “Where are the carriers?” Today, that question is still asked, but increasingly, it has morphed into, “Where are the expeditionary strike groups?” The reason is clear. These naval expeditionary formations—built around a large-deck amphibious assault ship, an amphibious transport dock, and a dock landing ship—have been the ones used extensively for a wide array of missions short of war, from anti-piracy patrols, to personnel evacuation, to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. And where tensions lead to hostilities, these forces are the only ones that give the U.S. military a forcible entry option.

U.S. naval expeditionary forces have remained relatively robust even as the size of the Navy has shrunk from a high of 594 ships in 1987 to 272 ships in 2018. Naval expeditionary strike groups comprise a substantial percentage of the current fleet. Indeed, the blueprint for the future fleet the Navy is building, as seen in a recent Congressional Research Service report, maintains—and even increases—that percentage.9

An article in Marine Corps Gazette highlighted Marine Corps thinking on future amphibious assault operations:

“While forcible entry operations are often thought of exclusively in terms of initiating a continental campaign, an application some analysts assume to be unlikely, it may be more probable in the 21st century that they are conducted as part of a joint campaign that is maritime in character. It ought to be self-evident from looking at a map that military competition in the near seas will involve an amphibious component—to include amphibious assault when and where required.”

The Gazette article goes on to note that “a film about a modern amphibious operation would likely be boring, as there would be no dramatic scenes of large units fighting their way across a heavily defended beach.”10

Navy and Marine Corps expeditionary forces have been proactive in looking to affordable new technology to add capability to their existing and future ships. One of the technologies that offers the most promise in this regard is unmanned systems. These unmanned systems can reduce the risk to human life in high-threat areas, deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest, and provide options to warfighters—particularly given their ability to operate autonomously.

 The U.S. Navy’s commitment to unmanned systems is seen in the Navy’s Force Structure Assessment, as well as in a series of Future Fleet Architecture Studies. In each of these studies—one by the CNO staff, one by the MITRE Corporation, and one by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments—the proposed future fleet architecture featured large numbers of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems.11 These reports highlight the fact that the attributes unmanned systems can bring to the U.S. Navy Fleet circa 2030 have the potential to be transformational.

One of the major challenges to the Navy and Marine Corps to making a substantial commitment to unmanned maritime systems is the fact that they are relatively new and their development has been under the radar for all but a few professionals in the research and development, requirements, and acquisition communities. That is now changing. The Department of Defense 2017-2037 Unmanned Systems Roadmap highlights a large number of Navy and Marine Corps unmanned systems, particularly unmanned maritime systems (USVs and UUVs).12

Design 2.0 has clearly articulated the importance of unmanned systems to the Navy and Marine Corps future warfighting effectiveness. The publication’s “Line of Effort Green: Achieve High Velocity Outcomes,” demonstrates the Navy’s commitment to making unmanned systems a key component of the future fleet, highlighting air, surface and subsurface unmanned systems.13 Additionally, this commitment to unmanned systems programs is reflected in program documents such as the 2018 Navy Program Guide and the 2018 Marine Corps Concepts and Programs.

The Navy and Marine Corps have taken the lead in orchestrating an unprecedented number of exercises, experiments, and demonstrations to introduce new, cutting edge technologies—especially unmanned maritime systems—into the Fleet and Fleet Marine Forces. Many of these technologies are mature commercial off-the-shelf systems that are currently being used for other military and commercial applications. These events have put new technology directly into the hands of Sailors and Marines and have accelerated the amphibious force renaissance.

Testing and Evaluating Unmanned Systems

During the recent USNI/AFCEA “West” Symposium, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson noted, “Our strategic Achilles Heel is our inability to get new technology into the hands of our warfighters fast enough.”14 This is especially true with emerging technologies that are revolutionary—not merely evolutionary.

As with many novel naval technologies: ironclads, submarines, aircraft, nuclear power, directed-energy weapons, as well as others, is it typically not the most prominent communities where this experimentation takes place, but rather, in those parts of the Navy and Marine Corps that have traditionally been out of the spotlight and who need a technology boost. Today, it is the amphibious assault Navy that has been notably proactive in experimenting with emerging unmanned systems.

The Navy and Marine Corps have a number of ways to test and evaluate unmanned maritime systems. While some of this testing and evaluating—especially in the early stages of unmanned maritime systems development—occurs at industry facilities or at U.S. Navy laboratories, once these systems are more mature, they are fielded in a wide-array of Navy and Marine Corps events in the operational environment where they will ultimately be used. Brigadier General Wortman emphasized this point during the USNI/AFCEA Wes” Symposium where he noted, “We need to do more Fleet and MEF level exercises.”15

As the Department of the Navy has become increasingly interested in unmanned maritime systems, this testing and evaluating has accelerated in a number of exercises, experiments and demonstrations, such as the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation (S2ME2) Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX), the Surface Warfare Distributed Lethality in the Littoral Demonstration, and the Navy-Marine Corps Bold Alligator series of exercises.

The Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise is a prime example of the Department of the Navy’s push to test and evaluate unmanned maritime systems. S2ME2 ANTX was especially important to the Navy and Marine Corps as the amphibious ship-to-shore mission is one of the most challenging tasks the military must undertake.

Due to the enormous stakes involved in putting troops ashore in the face of a prepared enemy force, S2ME2 ANTX had a heavy focus on unmanned systems—especially unmanned surface systems—that could provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) as well as intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB). These are critical missions that have been traditionally been done by Sailors, Marines, and Special Operators, but ones that put these warfighters at extreme risk.

There is growing realization of the need to insert new technology to make the amphibious assault force more effective in the face of robust adversary defenses. In an address at the 2018 Surface Navy Association Symposium, Marine Corps Major General David Coffman, Director of Expeditionary Warfare (OPNAV N95), noted the need to make U.S. Navy amphibious ships, “More viable, lethal and survivable, with a focus on command, control, communications, computers, cyber and intelligence (C5I).”16 Clearly, the ISR and IPB missions depend on these capabilities, and it is unmanned systems that can provide this function without hazarding personnel.

During the S2ME2 ANTX the amphibious assault force proactively employed an unmanned surface vehicle to thwart enemy defenses. A MANTAS USV (an eight-foot version of a family of stealthy, low profile, USVs) swam into the “enemy” harbor (the Del Mar Boat Basin on the Southern California coast), and relayed information in real-time to the amphibious force command center using its TASKER C2 system. Subsequent to this ISR mission, the MANTAS USV was driven to the surf zone to provide IPB on water conditions, beach gradient, obstacle location and other information crucial to planners prior to a manned assault. 

Carly Jackson, Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific’s Director of Prototyping for Information Warfare and one of the organizers of S2ME2 ANTX, explained the key element of the exercise was to demonstrate new technology developed in rapid response to real world problems facing the fleet and noted that the exercise was focused on unmanned systems with a big emphasis on intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance.17

In many ways, S2ME2 ANTX was a precursor to Bold Alligator, the Navy-Marine Corps exercise designed to enhance interoperability in the littorals. Bold Alligator was a live, scenario-driven exercise designed to demonstrate maritime and amphibious force capabilities. The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) led the exercise and operated from dock landing ships USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) and USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44); amphibious transport dock USS Arlington (LPD-24).18

Bold Alligator took the concepts explored during S2ME2 ANTX to the next level, employing two different size (six-foot and twelve-foot) MANTAS USVs in the ISR and IPB roles to provide comprehensive reconnaissance of beaches and waterways. These systems were employed during the Long Range Littoral Reconnaissance phase of the exercise.

The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade used the larger (twelve-foot) MANTAS USV, equipped with a Gyro Stabilized SeaFLIR230 EO/IR Camera and a BlueView M900 Forward Looking Imaging Sonar to provide ISR and IPB for the amphibious assault. This sonar was employed to provide bottom imaging and analysis within the surf zone of the amphibious landing area. This latter capability is crucial in amphibious operations in order to ensure that a landing craft can successfully enter the surf zone without encountering mines or other objects.

While S2ME2 was confined to a relatively constrained operating area off the coast of Southern California, Bold Alligator was played out over a wide geographic area. This included a Command Center at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, and operating units employing forces in a wide area of the Atlantic Ocean, North and South Onslow Beach, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as well as in the Intracoastal Waterway near Camp Lejeune.

During the Long Range Littoral Reconnaissance phase of Bold Alligator, Navy and Marine Corps operators at Naval Station Norfolk were able to remotely control both the six-foot and twelve-foot MANTAS USVs and drive them off North and South Onslow Beaches as well as in the Intracoastal Waterway. Once positioned, both MANTAS USVs streamed live, high-resolution video and sonar images to the command center at Naval Station Norfolk several hundred miles away.

The latter capability is crucial in amphibious operations in order to ensure that a landing or other craft could successfully navigate a waterway or enter the surf zone without encountering mines or other objects. Clearing a path for LCACs or LCUs to safely pass through the surf zone and onto the beach during an assault is a make-or-break factor for any amphibious operation. Having the ability to view these images in real-time enables decision makers not on-scene to make time-critical go/no go determinations. The value of providing commanders with real-time ISR and IPB is difficult to overstate, and it is likely that this capability will continue to be examined in other expeditionary exercises going forward.

Sustaining the Amphibious Assault Force Renaissance

The ship-to-shore movement of an expeditionary assault force was—and remains—the most hazardous mission for any navy.  The value of real-time ISR and IPB is difficult to overstate. It is this ability to sense the battlespace in real time that will spell the difference between victory and defeat.

For this reason, it seems clear that the types of unmanned systems the Department of the Navy should acquire are those systems that directly support naval expeditionary forces that conduct forcible entry operations. This suggests a need for unmanned surface systems to complement our expeditionary naval formations represented by the amphibious assault navy. These commercial off-the-shelf technologies are available today and the Department of the Navy would be well-served to put them into the hands of warfighters now.

Captain George Galdorisi (USN – retired) is a career naval aviator whose thirty years of active duty service included four command tours and five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff. He began his writing career in 1978 with an article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. He is the Director of Strategic Assessments and Technical Futures at the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific in San Diego, California. 

The views presented are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.


[1] Global Trends: Paradox of Progress (Washington, D.C.: National Intelligence Council, 2017), accessed at:

[2] The National Defense Strategy (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, January 2018)

[3] Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, December 2018) accessed at:

[4] Brigadier General Christian Wortman, panel remarks, USNI/AFCEA “West” Symposium, February 13-15, 2019.

[5] Otto Kreisher, U.S. Marine Corps Is Getting Back to Its Amphibious Roots, Defense Media Network, November 8, 2012, accessed at:

[6] Ryan Hilger, Cost and Survivability: Acquiring the Gator Navy,” Center for International Maritime Security, April 8, 2019, accessed at:

[7] Michelle Flournoy, keynote remarks, Second Front “Offset Symposium,” March 5, 2019.

[8] Lieutenant General David Berger, keynote remarks, National Defense Industrial Association Expeditionary Warfare Conference, Annapolis Maryland, October 16-18, 2018.

[9] Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, October 19, 2018).

[10] George Galdorisi and Scott Truver, The U.S. Navy’s Amphibious Assault Renaissance: It’s More than Ships and Aircraft,”  War on the Rocks, December 12, 2018.

[11] See Navy Project Team, Report to Congress: Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, October 27, 2016, MITRE, Navy Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, July 1, 2016, and CSBA, Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy, January 23, 2017.

[12] Department of Defense Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap 2017-2042 (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, August. 28, 2018).

[13] Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0.

[14] Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, keynote address, USNI/AFCEA “West” Symposium, February 13-15, 2019.

[15] Brigadier General Christian Wortman USMC, Commanding Officer Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, Panel remarks, USNI/AFCEA “West” Symposium, February 13-15, 2019.

[16] Meagan Eckstein, “Navy, Marines Eyeing Ship Capability Upgrade Plans that Focus on Weapons, C5I,” USNI News, January 17, 2018, accessed at:

[17] Patric Petrie, “Navy Lab Demonstrates High-Tech Solutions in Response to Real-World Challenges at ANTX17,” CHIPS Magazine Online, May 5, 2017, accessed at

[18] Information on Bold Alligator 2017 is available on the U.S. Navy website at:

Featured Image: MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII, Hawaii (April 9, 20190) A U.S. Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle assigned to Combat Assault Company, 3d Marine Regiment, crashes into the tides as it enters the water during an amphibious assault exercise at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Apr. 9, 2019. The unit conducted a simulated beach assault to improve their lethality and cooperation, as a mechanized unit and force in readiness. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alex Kouns)

Autonomous Pickets for Force Protection and Fleet Missile Defense

Unmanned Maritime Systems Topic Week

By 1st Lt. Walker D. Mills

As the U.S. Navy shifts to reprioritize great power competition in line with the 2018 National Defense Strategy, close-in missile defense has taken on new importance. It is estimated the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, the branch of the Chinese military equipped with short, medium, and long-range ballistic and cruise missiles has an arsenal of thousands of missiles. As of yet, only the more recent classes are known to have guidance for striking maritime targets, but that may change. In addition, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has surface vessels of all sizes with hundreds more anti-ship missiles. At the low end is the Type 22 missile boat with eight missiles, and at the high end is the new Type 055 with 112 vertical launch cells that can be loaded with a variety of ordnance. These new PLAN missile capabilities has produced palpable anxiety in the US defense establishment. Last week in a confirmation hearing for the future Commandant of the Marine Corps and Chief of Naval Operations, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked how the Navy was planning on dealing with the “great risk” to their surface fleet. He was not the only Senator to voice his concern. 

Though anti-ship missiles have not yet been used in in large-scale fleet combat, they have been used to deadly effect by aircraft and smaller surface combatants after their debut in the Yom Kippur War. All previous incidents also occurred in coastal or littoral waters. By all accounts, if and when large-scale, salvo-type fleet combat does occur, it will cause damage unseen since the large naval battles of the Second World War. In fact, there is perhaps no precedent for the destructive capacity of missile volleys except for the large-scale kamikaze attacks on the U.S. naval force during the battle of Okinawa.1 During the battle, hundreds of kamikazes were deployed and sunk over forty U.S. warships.2 Okinawa remains one of the costliest battles for the U.S. Navy in any conflict.

Kamikaze employment and tactics mirror what missiles salvos could look like today. The kamikazes were often based at austere airfields considered unsuitable for conventional operations, making them harder to identify by U.S. forces while also being low cost compared to the damage they could inflict.3 Toward the end of the war kamikaze pilots had mastered the use of terrain to mask their approach on U.S. radars – similar to low-level or sea-skimming flight in missiles today. They would approach from different directions and rapidly converge on suitable targets in waves as large as 300, maneuvering erratically to avoid anti-aircraft fire.4 Consider this description of a kamikaze attack on U.S. ships during the Battle of Okinawa from Robert C. Stern’s book Fire from the Sky:

“The enemy stayed low over the horizon to the west, out of sight of our radars and CAP… For a minute or two, every plane maneuvered for position in all quadrants and then, obviously on signal, a coordinated attack was launched.”5

 It has even been argued by naval historian D.M. Giangreco, that just before the end of the war the Japanese discovered that their wooden training planes didn’t show up on U.S. radars – they were essentially stealth weapons.6 Regardless, the Japanese thought the kamikaze squadrons were effective enough that they prepared the bulk of their remaining aircraft – some 10,500 – for kamikaze operations against any future U.S. landing on the Japanese home islands.7

The U.S. Navy responded to this threat with three main approaches. They expanded fleet formations and used destroyers and combat air patrols as pickets – often posting pickets as far as seventy-five miles out from the ships they were protecting. The Navy also employed new technology like radars and proximity-fuzed munitions, and massively proliferated anti-aircraft weapons across its ships.8 According to figures from Giangreco:

“By June 30, 1945, 2,381 twin mounts had been installed on Navy ships in the Pacific, and 10,180 single mounts remained throughout the fleet. The numbers of quad, double and single 40-mm mounts stood at 1,585, 3,045 and 510 respectively.”9

And he goes on to note that despite this massive proliferation of point defense weapons, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King still considered his ships under-protected.

A Japanese Kamikaze attack on the USS Essex (CV-9) on 25 November 1944.

Together, these three lines of effort blunted the effectiveness of kamikaze attacks and helped defend the carriers and amphibious ships, but at a huge cost to the pickets, and even then, the defense was not impenetrable. Of the 41 ships sunk or damaged beyond repair in the Battle of Okinawa over half were destroyers or other escorts on picket duty and a further ten were minesweepers that had been sent to the picket role because of the high losses the pickets sustained.10 The pickets were effective, but at a huge cost to their crews. This response to kamikaze attacks provides a model for a response to the looming threat of anti-ship missiles. It is the best example of the U.S. Navy enduring a period of heavy and continuous missile salvo-like attacks in support of operations ashore.

Unmanned Systems for Fleet-Wide Missile Defense 

The merger of small and medium unmanned surface vessels (S/MUSVs) and extant close-in weapons systems can dramatically increase the survivability of the U.S. surface fleet. The Navy is already calling for the development and fielding of new USVs. The Navy is experimenting with the Sea Hunter MUSV and should be searching for potential roles beyond anti-submarine warfare (ASW). 

At the aforementioned confirmation hearing, future Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Bill Moran assured a questioning Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) that the Navy is rapidly moving forward on unmanned systems.

“…We need to get after [unmanned surface vehicles] so the we can experiment with these to test out the concepts that we believe they are capable of doing, looking at different types of capabilities to put on different types of these vessels…”

But overall, he expressed confidence that they could be the way forward for the surface fleet:

“Down the road if these capabilities prove out to be as effective as some other current manned capabilities then they would start to add to and compliment the manned platforms we have and be part of our battle force.”

In addition to ongoing ASW experiments, another beneficial use would be to mount one or more close-in weapons systems (CIWS) on the MUSV and have them act as pickets for other ships in the fleet. The Phalanx CIWS currently mounted on many U.S. ships is already completely autonomous. It fires a twenty-millimeter cannon at targets based on pre-programed parameters. These new pickets would be completely autonomous and require only human intervention for reloading, refueling, and maintenance. Originally intended as a long-endurance submarine hunter, the Sea Hunter platform would be ideal for picket duty. Autonomous pickets could accompany high-priority ships like aircraft carriers or amphibious ships during strait transits and high-risk movements. They could also defend ship-to-shore movements and beachheads against missiles, aircraft and small surface vessels depending on their programming. These autonomous pickets could also act as surge defense for key naval installations and other key maritime terrain. The point-defense capability that CIWS can provide is also a gap ashore with the Marine Corps. The Phalanx CIWS is a capable and versatile weapon system far better than the twenty and forty-millimeter Bofors guns used against Japanese aircraft and can now be upgraded to carry Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAM) which significantly increase their interception range. It has also been used to protect ships against close flying aircraft, small boats, and drones, further proving its versatility.

Pacific Ocean -The Close In Weapon System (CIWS) onboard Coast Guard Cutter BERTHOLF fires during Combat System Ship Qualification Trials on Feb. 23, 2009. (U.S. Coast Guard video/PA3 Henry G. Dunphy)

Autonomous pickets are not limited to just kinetic weapons. They could integrate directed energy weapons into their defensive capabilities as well, perhaps in a triad with gun and missile point defenses. They would also be ideal platforms from which to deploy softkill countermeasures like chaff, electronic warfare, jamming. They could be mounted with multi-spectrum decoys imitating larger ships to draw anti-ship missiles toward themselves and away from higher-value manned platforms.

Mounting autonomous platforms with defensive systems for force protection side-steps the significant ethical question of lethal autonomous platforms because the precedent has already been set. The Navy has already deployed the autonomous defensive systems like CIWS and Aegis for decades and can modify the engagement parameters  to fit any environment. Pursuing defensive, autonomous weapons for missile defense is a way to continue developing relevant and lethal weaponry without “taking the human out of the loop” for strike operations.

The biggest limitations of the weapons is their relatively short range – the twenty-millimeter cannons are limited to only a few thousand meters, and their limited magazine capacity. But both of these disadvantages can be offset by putting more of them on unmanned platforms further out from the fleet and mixing in missile, directed energy, and softkill countermeasures. Images of U.S. Navy ships late in the Second World War show ships that have anti-aircraft weapons on nearly every square meter of available deck space – and new classes of ships had even more gun mounts yet planned.

There is an inherent risk with the Navy’s classified new operational concept – Distributed Maritime Operations. Distributing combat power can reduce the ability of ships to mutually support each other and increases the risk to the force. More simply put – if vessels that are normally used to escort a carrier are sent farther away they have less of an ability to protect the carrier. The Navy can compensate for this by fielding autonomous picket ships – which are far cheaper than building more conventional vessels both in the initial purchase price and in sustainment costs because they have no crew. This type of lethal yet cheap and potentially sacrificial vessel is also what the Navy needs to compliment the new Littoral Combat Ships which have relatively poor organic defensive capability. USVs will prove key to operationalizing the DMO, and adding them to supplement the fleet precludes the need to add or upgrade the CIWS already mounted. Even a small number of autonomous pickets could be shared among the fleet – always protecting the most at risk assets, whether it be a capital ship, naval facility, or other key objective. Fortunately, there is evidence the Navy already understands the opportunity that is USVs. Defense News reported this week that the Navy has budgeted $2.7 billion for unmanned surface vessels over the next five years but that the Navy doesn’t know “…how it would introduce those technologies into a fleet that has for the most part fought the same way since the Cold War.” Autonomous pickets are one possible way.          


In all cases, the ability to form a protective perimeter of unmanned systems beyond the edge of the fleet would significantly boost survivability and increase options for the fleet commander by lowering risk. A flotilla of autonomous pickets, armed with effective CIWS and multi-spectrum missile countermeasures, can function as a powerful yet affordable force multiplier. Such a force would provide the Navy with an increased ability to operate and project power inside an anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) network and help the fleet weather storms of missile salvos. The methods of how the U.S. Navy adapted to the kamikaze threat in the Second World War provides an excellent case study for this concept and a strong argument for its implementation. As the Navy continues to experiment with new roles and missions for unmanned systems, unmanned force protection and missile defense is an ideal mission.

Walker D. Mills is an active duty Marine Corps infantry officer. He is currently studying Spanish at the Defense Language Institute in preparation for an exchange tour in Colombia. He has previously been deployed to the Western Pacific as part of the Marine Corps’ Unit Deployment Program. These views are presented in a personal capacity.


[1] Wayne P. Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, The Naval Institute Press (Annapolis, MD: 2000) 167-168.

[2] D.M. Giangreco, Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan 1945-47, Naval Institute Press (Annapolis, MD: 2009)

[3] Ibid, 113.

[4] John Keegan, The Second World War, Penguin Books (New York, NY: 1989) 573.

[5] Robert C. Stern, Fire from the Sky: Surviving the Kamikaze Threat, Naval Institute Press (Annapolis, MD: 2010) 321.

[6] Giangreco, Hell to Pay, 182.

[7] Ibid, 118.

[8] Denis Warner and Peggy Warner, The Sacred Warriors; Japan’s Suicide Legions, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company (New York, NY: 1982) 185.

[9] Giangreco, Hell to Pay, 111.

[10] Bernard Millot, Divine Thunder:  The Life and Death of the Kamikazes, McCall Publishing (New York, NY: 1971) 206-207.

Featured Image: 40mm guns firing aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-12) on 16 February 1945, as the planes of Task Force 58 raid Tokyo. (Wikimedia Commons)

Unmanned Units Need Tenders for Distributed Operations

Unmanned Maritime Systems Topic Week

By Griffin Cannon

Over the past few years the United States Navy has slowly come to the realization that it must once more prepare to contest control of the world’s oceans, particularly the vast expanse of the Pacific, against peer state competitors. Simultaneously, technological developments have allowed the development of new types of warships, namely unmanned vessels, that will present new opportunities as well as new challenges to the force. Looking to the past, the precedent of the Pacific War, in which fleet tenders provided engineering support to a mobile fleet, suggests a path forward. Basing a support and sustainment model for Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) on 21st century tenders would both fulfill the unique support needs of USVs and help build the ability to fight and deter a war in the Pacific. This analysis will briefly discuss the role tenders played in the Pacific War, why tenders are the ideal model for sustaining USV units, then turn to what modern USV tenders should look like.

Tenders as Force Multipliers

Needless to say, the Pacific War began poorly for the United States. Not only was the bulk of the battleship fleet smashed at Pearl Harbor but forward bases in the Philippines also fell to the Japanese faster than expected. The fleet that would ultimately fight its way to the Japanese home islands would have to do so through rapidly constructed forward bases, fleet anchorages, and the constant efforts of fleet auxiliaries. Tankers and supply ships helped extend patrols, but for ships with little ability to repair themselves, engineering support was required.

Here was the role of the tender. In addition to basic sustainment needs, the submarine, seaplane, and destroyer tenders were in effect mobile naval bases, capable of deploying to underdeveloped anchorages throughout the theater. They would conduct practically any repair job short of those that required drydocking, serve as administrative centers for squadrons, and also provided respite from the cramped conditions of smaller warships.1 Rather than steaming back to Pearl Harbor or the West Coast, ships could be based, supported, and repaired just behind the frontlines. This allowed the United States Navy to generate far more presence with far fewer ships than would otherwise have been the case. Tenders helped make up for the early lack of major regional bases, and supplemented the bases that were eventually constructed.

While forthcoming USV designs have little in common with WWII-era submarines, seaplanes, destroyers, and PT boats, all share the relative inability to self-repair underway. Although the lack of crew on an unmanned warship does eliminate some of the constraints that come with providing for humans, it significantly limits the ability of the vessel to endure the accidents and mechanical failures a warship is bound to experience at sea, let alone damage from enemy action.

A tender would provide the operationally flexible engineering support that will be uniquely vital to USVs (and indeed UUVs as well). Being able to turn around a damaged USV from a nearby bay or island saves days lost in transit to regional basing hubs and lightens the load on those facilities substantially.

Indeed, the burden on shore facilities is poised to increase significantly. Looking at the numbers even briefly suggests that with the sacrifice of just two large surface combatants, one could acquire scores of unmanned surface vessels. The Sea Hunter prototype for example costs a reported $23 million dollars.2 Assuming a larger version with integrated weapons would cost between four and five times more, an even $100 million, one could still acquire 16 for the same price as a DDG.3 While the costs of unmanned platforms will vary wildly based on size, mission, and complexity, it is reasonable to expect the costs of such platforms to stay at least one, perhaps two orders of magnitude below those of the large manned platforms the Navy is accustomed to. If certain missions required (or would allow for) small, simple, and expendable single-purpose vessels, it might even be possible to reduce cost per platform an order of magnitude further. Regardless of the exact numbers, if anything resembling these price ratios continues, one should expect quite a number of these types of warships to begin populating the Navy inventory over the course of the next decade or two. The logistical backbone of the fleet must adapt in parallel.

Any large expansion of the unmanned force will thus necessarily increase the demand on existing basing facilities. Even leaving aside space concerns, the increased demand for maintenance facilities and man-hours would be substantial. Rather than concentrating still more sustainment capabilities at two or three major bases, it would be safer, though less efficient in some respects, to concentrate USV sustainment capabilities on tenders that would be able to replenish and affect repairs on the vessels at locations across the theater.4 Rather than rely on existing bases or build new ones to support a large USV force, placing sustainment and repair afloat will both keep USVs ready and do so in an operationally flexible manner.

While such a model might be possible for manned assets, it is uniquely practicable for unmanned platforms. This is because, unsurprisingly, USVs have no crews. There would be no shore leave, no fresh food deliveries, and when not underway unmanned vessels could drift afloat or sit anchored in protected waters, waiting. When routine maintenance is required, the supporting tender could rendezvous with the USV in question, anchor for a few days if needed, and be on its way. Friendly military and civilian ports, bays, atolls, or perhaps even the open seas if conditions permit, all could hold dispersed USVs and their tenders.

Dispersing both the tender and the supported USVs would reduce both the ability and the incentive for adversaries to strike first in a crisis. Rather than present concentrated targets of double or triple berthed warships vulnerable to preemptive strikes, a dispersed force creates uncertainty for potential adversaries.5 Even if one could reliably disrupt regional hubs such as Guam, Yokohama, and Sasebo, a tender and USV force permanently dispersed across the Western Pacific would be hard to locate, let alone reliably strike in an opening salvo. Not only would warships be harder to strike in the first place, distributed logistics would allow those vessels that survived the first wave to stay in the fight indefinitely. The ambiguity this creates in the mind of the adversary is the bedrock of deterrence and a core advantage of distributed maritime operations.

Tender Requirements

Turning now to the requirements for a modern USV tender, it should first be noted that the reasons given above for a tender sustainment model for USVs hold true regardless of displacement or mission. There will however be substantial variation in requirements for a tender based on the supported platform. One should also note that the Navy currently has two submarine tenders in inventory that were originally commissioned in the 70s. These vessels however are allocated to an existing mission and will be retired in 2029 and 2030, respectively.6

All notional USV tenders would require engineering spaces capable of the traditional welding, fabrication, and machining functions of the tender. New 3D printing technologies would ideally save space and increase efficiency, but the degree of utilization would depend more on the design of the tended than the tender. There should also be substantial flexibility and a slight overcapacity in facilities that would provide a degree of future-proofing, allowing the tender to support a range of rapidly evolving USV designs. Additionally, if a tender model of sustainment were adopted, future USV designs should take the capabilities of tenders into account and use parts and materials that would allow for rapid repair and replacement by these vessels.

As for variation based on USV type, larger unmanned platforms would probably require support much closer to that provided by existing submarine tenders while emphasizing the capability to perform such duties at a broad range of locations. These vessels should be expected to conduct all maintenance short of drydock work, keeping a large number of deployed, patrolling vessels ready for combat. In the Pacific War, a dozen or more vessels were supported by a single tender.7 Unless testing shows that the unmanned nature of large USVs radically changes the rate at which they will require maintenance, a similar ratio, if somewhat lower, should be expected. Additionally, given the relatively large volume of these vessels, carrying fuel or weapon reloads for more than a handful would probably necessitate either excessively large tenders or frequent replenishment of the tender itself. Thus, these types should be refueled and rearmed through the traditional methods, primarily oilers and ports, rather than trying to push these capabilities onto the tender. The large USV tender would also be required to reposition periodically, both to support a broadly dispersed force and to avoid easy targeting. While it would need the internal fuel to conduct frequent repositioning, the vessel itself need not be exceptional in terms of speed or self-defense.

Medium and small USV tenders would behave differently. These vessels should act more like a mothership than a floating maintenance facility. Given the smaller displacement of the vessels supported, replenishment would be both more feasible for a tender of reasonable displacement, as well as more regularly required. Support would likely be required somewhat further forward, probably more frequently at austere locations than the larger USV tender, and potentially in areas of elevated risk. Additionally, rearming and refueling may be a function of the small or medium USV tender. A handful of ASW torpedoes or small anti-ship missiles are easier to store and reload than even a small VLS bank. The shallower the magazine, the lesser the combat endurance of the platform. One might expect a large USV to go through an engagement or two without requiring rearming; a fast attack craft on the other hand, for whom a single salvo is its entire armament, becomes immediately combat ineffective after a single engagement. Rapidly turning around vessels such as these is essential to wringing as much combat power as possible from them. Finally, one can expect less redundancy on smaller vessels. Thus, the ability to rapidly repair and rearm, potentially far forward, will be all the more important for vessels tasked with tending these types. As for the tenders themselves, speed would be more important for vessels expected to maneuver closer to the enemy and basic self-defense weaponry would be advisable.


While the large-scale introduction of Unmanned Surface Vehicles will create problems for adversaries, it also creates logistical problems for the U.S. Navy. Rather than grafting a growing number of USVs onto the existing logistics infrastructure in the Pacific, adopting a tender model to support this force would better suit the platform and create a more agile, present, and lethal fleet. Whether tenders are large or small, ducking in and out of archipelagos to rearm small craft or conducting maintenance at unimproved anchorages, a reintroduction of the tender is needed to support emerging USVs.

Griffin Cannon is a budding navalist and graduating senior from the University of Notre Dame’s Security Studies program. He has interned with the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower in previous summers and will be working at the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School this upcoming fall.


1. Akers, George CDR USNR. Tender Memories. Proceedings Magazine, Vol. 69/2/490, Dec 1943.


3. (Pg. 159)


5. Ibid

6. The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan (FY 2020) states that the AS vessels will be replaced with an AS-(X), potentially a variant of the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platform (CHAMP). While such a move would be advisable, replacing on a one for one basis creates no excess capacity to support a growing USV force, at least certainly not in the manner described in this article.

7. Coletta, Paolo CDR USNR. Destroyer Tender. Proceedings Magazine, Vol. 84/5/663. May, 1958

Featured Image: PEARL HARBOR (March 22, 2017) The Emory S. Land-class submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) arrived at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton/Released)

Create an Unmanned Experimental Squadron and Learning System

Unmanned Maritime Systems Topic Week

By Dustin League and LCDR Daniel Justice


The U.S. Navy faces a future where large portions of its fleet will be composed of non-traditional assets. Specifically, unmanned systems comprise a significant portion of the CNO’s “key platforms and payloads” which the Navy seeks to acquire.1 That direction from the top is further born out in the Navy’s most recent shipbuilding plan which includes 10 large unmanned surface vessels and 191 unmanned undersea vehicles of various sizes. These numbers contrast with the total of 55 “battle force ships” planned to be built over the same period.2 Tonnage obviously also plays a role in this type of comparison, but by sheer numbers the Navy is moving toward unmanned vice manned platforms. The Navy must think past the engineering hurdles and determine how to effectively employ these new assets. To do so, we propose that the Navy revisit history and revitalize the complex learning system it used to exploit an earlier set of new capabilities prior to World War II. Specifically, we call for the Navy to accelerating standing up a dedicated experimental squadron with the purpose of exploring advanced tactics for employing unmanned systems in a series of tactically challenging, objective-based exercises.      

The Precedent

Unmanned systems create new tactical and operational opportunities for the U.S. Navy and adversaries. But this is not the first time in the Navy’s history where technological advances have called into question old operating patterns. The Navy has come through similar transitions, with varying levels of success. Sometimes the Navy stayed ahead of transitions, taking advantage of technology before war (effectively employing naval air power) and sometimes it learned more slowly and at greater cost (for example, night-time battles in the Solomon Islands). What allowed the Navy to successfully adapt in these circumstances – whether fast or slow – was, as Trent Hone discusses in his book Learning War, its complex learning system.

Hone identifies the basic four-part pattern the Navy employed between 1898-1945 to adapt its tactics and doctrine and incorporate a host of new technologies:

  • Identify the problem
  • Establish constraints
  • Encourage parallel experimentation
  • Exploit the best-fitting solution3

These components formed a complex system that allowed the Navy to transform after the Spanish-American War, provide support to the British during World War I, and eventually defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II. These four components were, to various degrees, embodied by different organizations within the Navy. The Naval War College was a key component in this structure and utilized war games to explore tactical innovations. However, the Navy’s success relied on operationalizing the concepts through actual fleet maneuvers. It accomplished this through various means like the Atlantic Fleet Torpedo Flotilla under Sims and Knox and the Fleet Problems of the 1920s and 1930s. Today, as it grapples with UxV employment, the Navy first needs to ensure it still functions as a complex learning system similar to what its predecessors designed.

Identify the problem. The Navy is introducing a host of new unmanned systems to the fleet, but what is the problem? Perhaps the Navy doesn’t know how to best use all these new systems and employing them poorly imposes opportunity costs. Should swarms of UxVs be sent separately and autonomously ahead of a battle fleet? Would they be better used as autonomous “wingmen” to manned systems? How do we get the best robot bang for our AI buck? Money spent on deploying a highly capable UxV in a way which utilizes only a fraction of its capability is money that could be better spent on systems the Navy knows how to use to full effect.

Establish constraints. Unmanned systems are not magic. They have significant limitations, not all of which are yet understood. In the undersea realm particularly, energy storage and sensing will continue to impose far greater restrictions on UUVs than have been seen on UAVs. Other constraints will emerge over time as more experience is gained operating with these systems. Hard limits on autonomous behaviors, on clandestine recovery, or on communications may yet be discovered and which may eventually drive system CONOPs. Rules of Engagement and associated human-in-the-loop requirements also pose considerable constraints. Efforts will continue to overcome these issues, but solving any limitation will be less important than understanding the constraints. Understanding and characterizing constraints allows for the simulation of a system—a method the Navy has long embraced.

Encourage parallel experimentation. To determine how to use a new system, the Navy has to try and be willing to fail. Hone describes the development of long-range gunnery techniques as an example of parallel experimentation in a safe-to-fail environment.4 In that process, the Navy allowed the ships and squadrons of its fleet to trial new systems, technologies, and tactics without forcing the entire Navy to adopt a single solution too early. This flexible approach, where systems were incorporated into the existing architecture of combatants, prevented the Navy from making a selection too early in the development process. It also prevented a “race to the bottom” solution where every ship was forced to implement the lowest common denominator option. UxV experimentation should utilize the same methodology and safe-to-fail mentality.  

Exploit the best-fitting solution. Fleet-wide adoption of solutions present its own challenge. Here the Navy’s learning system of the early 20th century can be augmented by more recent research on innovation and adaptation. Since the mid-1980s academics studying business innovation have understood that there is a distinction between “invention,” the act of coming up with a new idea, and “innovation,” the act of causing a new idea to be widely accepted in an organization.5 It is not a given that a large, complex organization will naturally pick up and start using the best solutions to its problems, even after they are identified. Deliberate effort needs to be taken on the part of leadership to ensure the organization adopts the new methods.

In The Innovator’s Way, Peter Denning and Robert Dunham compiled and analyzed the results of two decades of innovation research. Their work helps to understand the challenges the Navy will face in exploiting new solutions—what Denning and Dunham refer to as “Third Adoption” or “Sustainment.”6 First, large organizations can be resistant to new approaches.7 This phenomenon has been recognized in naval circles for some time, often referred to as the “frozen middle.”Denning recommends leaders overcome resistance by adopting allies inside the network they seek to influence and continually reshaping the narrative about the new tactics to improve their “innovation story.”9 Second, once new ideas are spread through the Navy, leadership will have to ensure they do not drop out of use before they are truly obsolete. To ensure this, Navy leadership must ensure UxV CONOPs are enabled and supported.10 This entails continued training, material support, and continued value communication.11

Adopting the Process for Unmanned Systems

Many of the pieces required to replicate the success of the early 1900s are already understood by today’s Navy leaders. The Navy has already recognized the need for a squadron devoted to exploring how new systems are best employed. Vice Admiral Richard Brown, Commander, Naval Surface Forces and Naval Surface Forces Pacific, has called out the need for an experimental squadron to test new technologies, systems, and CONOPs for surface warfare. His assessment that the Navy needs “aggressive experimentation” is spot on.12 The Navy needs to move from saying the right things to committing to an actual organization to implement the modern-day equivalent of Hone’s parallel experimentation using real-world forces.

The best-fit platform for an experimental squadron will be one that is good enough, not perfect. A perfect experimental squadron will never exist. It is easy to imagine an experimental squadron made up of all our best and most capable new systems. One should also be able to imagine the horrendous cost, not only in terms of paying for and maintaining those systems but also the opportunity cost. A destroyer assigned to an experimental squadron is one that can’t be supporting the Navy’s vital needs elsewhere, imposing more strain on already thin force structure. So, rather than the ideal, the Navy must work with “good-enough.”

The Littoral Combat Ship was never meant to be the ideal solution to any kind of naval warfare, it was meant to be a good-enough solution to several. It is apt then, that its very organization provides a good-enough solution to a Navy problem it was never explicitly designed to fit all. In 2016, responding to a host of issues, the LCS program was reorganized to include a test division within LCSRON 1. The first four LCS’s grouped together with a mandate to “focus solely on testing hardware, software and concepts of operations to support bringing new mission module equipment into the fleet.”13 This is the mission description of an experimental squadron—only it is a single division of a single unit class of dubiously capable ships. Still, it is good enough.

The employment of an experimental squadron provides the Navy with a test-bed for unmanned systems. Designed with mission adaptability in mind, the LCS should serve as an excellent platform for employing a wide range of unmanned systems across a variety of missions. Echoes of this approach, using small ships in conjunction with unmanned systems to test and develop tactics and techniques, can been seen in previous Navy efforts such as the Center for Asymmetric Warfare’s (CAW) efforts with the small patrol craft CSW-1.14 It is also feasible to combine this suggested LCSRON test squadron approach to the “concept development hubs” whose formation is directed in the second iteration of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.15 Having multiple ships dedicated to employing UxVs to solve common operational challenges promotes creative and competitive problem solving. Having a single unit (such as UUVRON) devoted to the logistic and engineering challenges of the family of unmanned systems makes sense, but exploring new tactics is a task better suited to a diversified organization. The four-ship experimental squadron should be seen not as the sole solution for perfecting UxV tactics, it can only serve as a hotbed to be backed by follow-on fleet experimentation. The entire fleet should be involved. We add two precepts for how the Navy can best employ this learning system as embodied by the experimental squadron.

Objectives-based exercises. The test squadron must focus on real experimentation, which brings with it the opportunity for failure. The Navy must accept the likelihood that many of their experiments will fail. Deriving lessons from failure through hotwashes and critiques is not a new concept in the Navy. Tightly-scripted evolutions which showcase the ability of a system to complete specified tasks provide minimal insight, especially when they are devoid of capable opposition forces. They are demonstrations, not real exercises. Experiments and exercises provide more insight in failure than success—failure illuminates new constraints; success delivers only the expected. Technical demonstrations prove viability and build operator confidence in the system, but they do not provide tactical insight or shape doctrine. That kind of insight comes from allowing the fleet to experiment in pursuit of operational and tactical objectives.

This concept was seen in the early 20th century with the development of The Combat Air Patrol (CAP), first employed by Ernest King as part of Fleet Problem XII.[16] It was not employed as part of an exercise which detailed a flight schedule for CAP aircraft—a technical demonstration of capability, instead it was employed because King saw a need to protect his carrier while he sought to meet the tactical and operational demands of the Problem. These kinds of exercises, where commanders are given broader objectives to achieve rather than specific evolutions to perform will elicit real insight and experimentation. The problems must be challenging, the kind where today’s tactics, doctrine, and systems are allowed to fail. Only when old tools fail will commanders innovate new, successful methods.

Levels of reality. Putting ships to sea is expensive, turning on computers is cheap, and assigning problems to students is even cheaper. Even a relatively cheap experimental squadron like the one proposed here cannot test every new tactical theory or CONOP. A hierarchy of experimentation should be constructed which allows for the most promising ideas to bubble up to the experimental squadron for real-world vetting.

At the base level the Navy needs to draw on the tactical acumen and creativity of its line officers. The Naval War College and Postgraduate School provide excellent venues for this exploitation. Consideration should also be given to expanding this exploratory phase to civilian institutions with strong security studies programs. The War College has a storied history of employing wargames in developing new tactics and doctrine. Students can be assigned problems to research and design tactical and operational solutions. These solutions can then be wargamed—using constraints derived from real-world operations—to sort the wheat from the chaff. The goal should not be to find one solution but a set of solutions worthy of further exploration in the real world.

Wargames are an excellent venue for testing operational concepts, but they require time and manpower. The number of them that can be run—even by incorporating organizations beyond the traditional—will always be lower than the demand. Computer simulation, by contrast, requires much less time. There is considerable resource demand in building the models for simulation, but running them consumes far less time than human wargames.17 This allows for testing hundreds or thousands of cases stochastically with varying parameters. The fidelity of these models can also vary, with pure software at the lowest level and hardware-in-the-loop models incorporating the actual, physical systems. Hardware-in-the-loop testing can reveal the limitations in a CONOP which might not be apparent during a wargame due to insufficiently granular constraints.

At the highest level of fidelity the experimental squadron can test CONOPs using real hardware in its actual operating environment. The fidelity of computer simulations and even wargames will never match the real world. Ships at sea putting UxVs through stressing—both engineering and tactically—evolutions will expose flaws and opportunities that the best models will miss. Such exercises will generate the feedback needed to revise the constraints of the wargames and computer simulations, ensuring that the next batch of CONOPs to percolate up to the squadron are more robust and ready for primetime. 

The experimental squadron itself should employ various degrees of simulation. The tenure of William Sims as commander of the Atlantic Torpedo Flotilla provides the model for how to employ the squadron.18 Sims created tactical problems for his ships, utilized conferences and games to conceptualize new approaches and tactics, and then used the ships of his command to play them out at sea. The ships of LCSRON 1’s development division, enhanced with a family of UxV systems, should be employed in the same manner. The LCS’s can employ onboard trainers to conduct software- and hardware-in-the-loop simulations, the ships’ captains can game new tactics, and they can conduct live exercises at sea. At times the LCS’s themselves can play the roles of simulated combatants of other types (destroyers, cruisers, carriers19) but there should also be opportunities to train with the fleet.

Disseminate knowledge. After the proposed squadron develops new tactics and doctrines, there remains a final challenge, to disseminate them to the fleet and encourage their adoption. A brilliant new tactic is useless when it only sits on the page of a never-read exercise after action report or in a rarely consulted tactics publication. It must be actually adopted and practiced by units and commands during real operations.

Any ship in the fleet can develop new tactics or new operational concepts. The benefits of institutionalizing learning systems are not only their ability to generate new concepts, but to transform them into useful doctrine. The Combat Information Center revolutionized naval warfare, enabling the U.S. Navy to process the information available from new sensors (primarily radar) and act on it faster than their WWII opponents. Officers like Lieutenant Commander J. C. Wylie responded to the demands of combat with innovation, making do with the systems at hand—jury-rigged as necessary—by creating new methods.20 Their innovations helped deliver American victories throughout the Pacific, but only because the Navy exploited and shared their discoveries by drafting new doctrine and standing up schools to train its officers in the new methods.

Tactics, shared, become doctrine. Doctrine provides the fleet with a shared bedrock of knowledge. As Captain (Ret.) Wayne Hughes says, “Tactical doctrine is the standard operating procedure that the creative commander adapts to the exigencies of battle.”21 That common ground is an enabling constraint which allows commanders to understand what choices their subordinates are likely to make during combat. But doctrine represents only one form of knowledge dissemination, perhaps not the most important, when exploring new systems and technologies. Knowledge must be effectively shared horizontally and vertically—information must also flow through the “levels of reality” discussed above. This allows the creation of feedback loops, another important feature of a complex learning system. Shortening the loop from CONOPs ideation, to fleet testing, and back to the “drawing board” will limit the loss of critical information and drive an upward spiral. Slow, cumbersome chains of communication between the fleet and its supporting organizations will drive frustration within the process and promote the stillbirth of promising concepts.


Unmanned systems tantalize with the possibility of revolutionizing naval warfare. They have the potential to extend the fleet’s reach further than ever before. They may allow the Navy to hold targets at risk despite our adversaries’ best attempts to erect anti-access/area-denial defense systems while putting far fewer Sailors in harm’s way. Failing to develop the tactics and doctrine which best exploits that potential will risk leaving critical capabilities off the table. Exploiting unmanned systems to the hilt requires the Navy to look back in history to the last time it faced such challenges both in terms of incorporating new technology and facing great power maritime competition – the interwar and WWII periods. The Navy created within itself a complex, adaptive learning organization that was able to bring radar, airpower, combat information, and submarines into battle across the Pacific Ocean against a powerful adversary and win. 

We have proposed one method for re-creating that success. The Naval War College, and other institutions, should challenge students to formulate new tactics and CONOPs for employing unmanned systems. The Navy and its industry partners should use modeling and simulation to trial those tactics. But perhaps most importantly, a dedicated experimental squadron hosting the whole family of unmanned vehicles should put the most promising tactics into action in live, challenging, objective-based exercises with the results fed back to restart the loop. Only the best ideas will survive these trials and deliver on the full promise of unmanned systems to tomorrow’s fleet.

Dustin League is a Senior Military Operations Analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. and a former U.S. Navy Submarine Warfare Officer. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of SPA, Inc.

LCDR Dan Justice is a U.S. Navy Foreign Affairs Officer and former Submarine Warfare Officer. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy. 


[1] (Richardson 2018)

[2] (Navy 2019)

[3] (Hone 2018, 338)

[4] (Hone 2018, 55-91)

[5] (Denning and Dunham 2010, xiv)

[6] (Denning and Dunham 2010, 187)

[7] (Denning and Dunham 2010, 200)

[8] (Knudson 2016)

[9] (Denning and Dunham 2010, 200)

[10] (Denning and Dunham 2010, 205)

[11] (Denning and Dunham 2010, 209)

[12] (Eckstein, Navy Pursuing ‘Surface Development Squadron’ to Experiment with Zumwalt DDGs, Unmanned Ships 2019)

[13] (Eckstein, Littoral Combat Ship Program Vastly Different a Year Into Major Organizational, Operational Overhaul 2017)

[14] (Cawcontacts 2010)

[15] (Richardson 2018)

[16] (Hone 2018, 333)

[17] For an excellent description of the benefits and difficulties of iterative wargaming see James Lacy’s article “How does the next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons from a Wargame” (Lacy 2019)

[18] (Hone 2018, 114-117)

[19] It would be exceedingly difficult for an LCS to play a mock submarine.

[20] (Hattendorf 1967)

[21] (Hughes and Girrier 2018)


Denning, Peter, and Robert Dunham. The Innovator’s Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation. MIT Press, 2010.

Eckstein, Megan. “Littoral Combat Ship Program Vastly Different a Year Into Major Organizational, Operational Overhaul.” USNI News. September 6, 2017. (accessed April 9, 2019).

“Navy Pursuing ‘Surface Development Squadron’ to Experiment with Zumwalt DDGs, Unmanned Ships.” USNI News. January 28, 2019.

Hattendorf, John B. “Introduction.” In Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control, by J.C. Wylie. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1967.

Home, Trent. Learning War: The Fighting Doctrine of the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018.

Hughes, Wayne Jr., and Robert P. Girrier. Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (Third Edition). Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018.

Knudson, Jason. “The Frozen Middle and the CRIC.” USNI Blog. February 2016. (accessed April 2019).

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 27, 2019) The Independence variant littoral combat ships USS Independence (LCS 2), left, USS Manchester (LCS 14), and USS Tulsa (LCS 16) are underway in formation in the eastern Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe/Released)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.