Category Archives: Future Tech

What is coming down the pipe in naval and maritime technology?

The Navy Wants To Put Its Head In The Cloud

By Christian H. Heller

The Navy is pushing toward an IT future based on cloud computing that promises enormous benefits and can set the foundation for a future force shaped by emerging technologies. The incremental adoption of cloud services by the Department of the Navy (DON), other services, and private industry already holds much promise, but the stakes are high. Getting the cloud migration right can underpin revolutionary developments like artificial intelligence and give the Navy the advantage it needs for the coming decades.

What Is the Cloud

Cloud computing is the linking of computer systems and networks over the internet. Instead of storing all information and computer programs on physical hard drives in a single site, the cloud takes advantage of spare storage and processing capacity across widespread locations. This system allows the using agency – the DON – to only pay for the services it needs without maintaining large-scale IT infrastructure in numerous areas.

Cloud services offer many benefits to organizations which adopt them. The cloud helps to overcome physical information technology (IT) limitations, limitations on manpower, and overlapping and cumbersome small-scale contracting measures. Cloud computing is extremely cost-efficient for large organizations and reduces the organic cost of installing computer hardware and IT infrastructure. The lack of required hardware supports scalable operational requirements around the globe. Cloud services provide fast and responsive transfers of information which increases organizational flexibility. Since it connects all subordinate networks, cloud systems also support computing performance when and where it is needed while guaranteeing reliability from backups. Cloud-based networking can also support regular and timely comprehensive upgrades to security systems to better support the Navy’s cybersecurity needs.

The Navy demands extensive requirements from its cloud adoption. The naval services conduct a vast array of missions in diverse global environments. Naval platforms gather information from dozens of sensors and communications systems at any given second. Command and control networks facilitate effective fleet management and direction. The Navy can disperse its needs between organic cloud networks onboard deployed ships which then forward information to larger shore-based clouds whenever bandwidth and operations allow. For a scale comparison, the Navy collects new data equivalent to the Library of Congress – approximately 200 terabytes – every day. This number is increasing faster every year, and any cloud system must be able to accommodate the variety and velocity of this data collection.

Benefits of the Cloud

A major benefit of cloud computing for the Navy is the ability to combine disjointed information systems spread amongst various units. The integration of these networks in the cloud is necessary for the DON to harness the benefits of big data and machine learning. In effect, the transition to the cloud is the first step of many in the DON’s transition to the future of warfare and technology. This cloud infrastructure must not only be widely implemented, but optimized for data processing and proper use.

Other benefits of cloud computing for the DON are numerous. Cloud computing can allow departments to do more with less by supporting greater speed for administrative and technological processes (such as audits and inventories), all the while occupying fewer personnel. It also facilitates quicker access to and reconciliation of data between distant units which supports expeditionary operations and better coordination. These more efficient information transfers will increase commanders’ situational awareness both locally amongst squadrons or distantly between fleets.

Other militaries have already had success migrating to the cloud. The United Kingdom has implemented a “cloud-first approach” which mandates that all purchases of IT products and services must first be considered through the cloud. Private firms helped the Australian Department of Defence move various systems to the cloud, including its non-material procurement, material procurement, and other acquisition programs. This process involved linking 13 different, non-interacting systems into a transparent and interlinked procurement program accessible by all users.

Amazon Web Service (AWS), one of the largest cloud service providers in the U.S., already supports other government entities such as the intelligence community. The CIA spent $600 million migrating to the cloud in what former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon called, “one of the best decisions we made.” AWS created its own “secret region” to support government needs across the full range of classifications, an offering which the Navy also would require. U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command saved $3.5 million in 2019 by transitioning to the cloud. Additionally, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides an example of how the Navy can benefit from cloud-based weather systems for more accurate research and forecasts.

The government has laid out four critical requirements that cloud services must meet to support operational units. Any cloud system must support all classification levels, must have a global reach, must be synced and interoperable with other government cloud initiatives, and, most importantly, must support the future needs of artificial intelligence and machine learning programs. The current steps by the Navy meet these requirements and promise substantial return on investment.

Current Steps Forward by the Navy

The DON has pursued cloud computing services over the past decade. Its Chief Information Officer (CIO) issued guidance in 2015 on the acquisition of commercial cloud services for the Navy’s various branches and commands. Some units like the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) Atlantic embraced the cloud and have pushed forward under Department of Defense (DoD) instruction to accelerate cloud migration. Its pilot programs involved multiple major cloud service providers like Microsoft and Amazon.

Last year the Navy awarded $100 million for commercial cloud service contracts as a preliminary step towards future cloud adoption. Earlier last summer, the Navy completed its largest cloud migration to date. The DON migrated its Enterprise Resource Program (ERP), its financial system of record, this past August in one of the largest cloud transitions in North American history. The program, which tracks over $70 billion annually and maintains half of the DON’s financial and logistics dealings and involves 72,000 users, took ten months to complete and paved the way for future large-scale naval IT conversions. The Navy also operates one of DoD’s only two cloud computing access points to transfer high-impact unclassified data to and from the commercial cloud, a bottleneck which the Defense Innovation Unit seeks to overcome.

An early cloud transition for logistics programs makes sense as a proven method for quick benefits. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) upgraded its educational systems to the cloud as an early test of large-scale cloud-hosting for sensitive information. U.S. Army Logistics Activity (LOGSA), which manages 40 million different data points daily, transitioned to the cloud to implement better analytics tracking cost-saving benefits. Data-driven maintenance is an additional area where the Navy stands to benefit in the near-term from moving to cloud-based management systems. The DON also employed an early cloud transition for its Fleet and Family Readiness Division. The Navy’s GovCloud system only maintained unclassified information but demonstrated the benefits of a cloud enterprise through its maintenance of 95 websites, 10 regional content management systems, and 113 mobile phone applications, delivering more than six terabytes of data every month.

Another major goal for the Navy’s cloud evolution is to establish a digital environment for rapid software development, testing, and implementation. This “Cloud-to-Edge” (CTE) environment could be employed on either individual ships or entire strike groups and allow the navy to adapt more rapidly to changing environments. One key component of the CTE was successfully tested last year with the AEGIS system on the USS Arleigh Burke, USS Ralph Jonson, and USS Thomas Hudner which developed and deployed software updates within 24 hours.

The Bureaucracy Gets a Vote

Bureaucratic decision-making has already played a major role in the Navy’s cloud transition and will likely lead to additional changes in the future. In 2015, the Navy decided to consolidate cloud-leadership within its Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems (PEO-EI). Two years later, it divided that authority between eight functional community commands. The DON intends to pursue its primary cloud enterprise contract for 95 percent of the naval services’ needs. These eight other commands – including Navy Installations Command and Military Sealift Command – will be allowed to establish individual cloud networks for mission-specific needs and will oversee their units’ transitions and readiness for the cloud implementation. The preparation of commands and systems to migrate to the cloud will be vital in facilitating the DON’s goal of a total cloud migration by 2021.

Overlapping strategic guidance will require daft navigation by DON leaders. DOD officials issued strategic guidance in February to provide some cohesion and direction to the various cloud processes currently underway amongst the services. The Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) issued its own Cloud Computing Strategy which, if naval intelligence units are to utilize the full assets of the intelligence community, the DON will need to adopt (at least on a select basis).

The DOD and the services have knocked heads over cloud implementation throughout this period of change. Despite the DOD’s push for an overarching, large-scale cloud under the JEDI program, individual services and departments will continue operating their multiple clouds already in place. In total, DOD already spends more than half a billion dollars on cloud technology every year, and the department will continue working on new ways to integrate service-specific clouds with DOD enterprise clouds.

Inspector General investigations and reviews by the Secretary of Defense will also likely alter the path forward for the Navy’s cloud adoption in the coming years. In October, DOD announced it awarded the JEDI contract to Microsoft. The contract has a potential period of 10 years and the total payments could range from $1 million to $10 billion. A single-source contract with such potential has sparked significant backlash from other competitors. Oracle is suing the federal government for a third time. Amazon announced a challenge soon after. The impact upon the Navy from such developments is unclear for now, though they will certainly will affect cloud developments over the coming years.

Conclusion

The current transition is only the latest example of the difficulties faced by the DON as it adopts major projects for the next era of warfare. Similar challenges accompany every major change in naval technology. Future administrative battles over artificial intelligence, unmanned vehicles, and advanced weapons like hypersonic missiles will inevitably ensue, but the cloud will be the link which enables their effective application. The Navy cannot afford to get it wrong.

Christian Heller is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Oxford. He currently works as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, and can be followed on Twitter @hellerch.

Featured Image: MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Jan. 30, 2011) Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Jeffrey Bennett, left, and Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Joseph Camino observe the proper configuration of a high-frequency radio aboard the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Felicito Rustique Jr./Released)

Black Hat 2019 and DEFCON: Leveraging Private Sector Talent for Cyber Capability

By Christian Heller

The U.S. defense complex is looking to private industry and civilian research to gain an advantage on the battlefield as advanced technologies push warfare in new directions. In cyber capabilities especially,the U.S. and its naval services lean on civilians, contractors, and independent cybersecurity companies to gain a competitive national edge. Every year these groups descend upon Las Vegas, Nevada for back-to-back information security and hacking conventions dubbed Black Hat USA and DEFCON. The Department of Defense follows in step to search for best practices, advanced insights, experimental tools, and new talent.

The 2019 editions of Black Hat and DEFCON held plenty for national security analysts to ponder. Dino Dai Zovi, the head of mobile security at the credit card processing company Square, spoke of the need for security software with effective user interfaces which keeps pace with advances in technology. Security programs must be built for “observability” to better “understand if the protections are working and also perform anomaly detection.” Such a requirement is not only necessary for the Navy, but finds a strong historical precedent. The Navy has a long history of simplifying advanced technologies into easier, usable forms for better employment by young sailors.

Identity intelligence, one of the most utilized capabilities of U.S. forces during the past two decades of counterinsurgencies, has also been a main effort for Chinese military and government development. Researchers from the Chinese firm Tencent demonstrated the ability to spoof biometric authentication devices with common eyeglasses. They did so not by convincing the systems that the user was a different person, but rather that the user was a photo instead of a living person. Low budget defenses against identity intelligence tools may prove just as frustrating to U.S. forces in future stability operations as space blankets did against early UAVs.

Major tech leaders like Apple and Microsoft announced new measures to search externally for IT security support through the use of rewards. Apple, which normally treats its technology and systems with close-hold protections, will now award upwards of $1 million to hackers who identify critical vulnerabilities in Apple technology. Microsoft is also offering up to $300,000 to hackers who identify exploits in its Azure cloud technology systems. To facilitate this outside support, Microsoft is creating Azure Security Labs where participants can experiment on Azure networks without affecting the existing customer base.

These bounty programs have already benefited organizations like the Marine Corps which may lack the capacity or skillsets to facilitate internal network testing. At last year’s conference, the Marine Corps hosted a hacking program to test the durability of its public websites and the Marine Corps Enterprise Network, or MCEN. One hundred ethical hackers spent nine hours testing the Marine Corps’ systems and found 75 vulnerabilities in return for $80,000 in combined prize money. Though the payment pales compared to private industry awards, these events are an important way for defense agencies to engage with community experts who are willing to support the military while gaining valuable organizational knowledge in the process. The Pentagon has hosted hacking projects since 2016 and recently leveraged three security firms – Bugcrowd, HackerOne, and Synack – via contract to conduct sustained network testing. Additionally, if data scientists and cyber specialists are going to play a pivotal role in the future Navy and Marine Corps, engaging with non-traditional audiences at events like Black Hat and DEFCON help to expose the hacking world to the armed services.

The Air Force is embracing conferences like DEFCON to leverage technical expertise and open up the service to these communities. It hosted two events at this year’s conference. One challenged hackers to gain entry into an airbase, and the other tested data transfer hardware for the F-15 fighter. The Trusted Aircraft Information Download Station, or TADs, is an independent subsystem of the F-15 which helps collect sensor inputs like images. Next year the Air Force wants to bring an entire F-15 aircraft to the convention and host a hacking event involving a live satellite.

This year’s events also pointed toward the changing battlespace in which U.S. forces will operate. Harvard lecturer and fellow Bruce Schneier discussed “hacking for good,” a movement which is becoming more prevalent throughout the world. Just as military forces found themselves operating around civilians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Iraq and Afghanistan, the future cyber battlespace may be filled with hacktivists trying to do good or “grey hat” operators taking advantage of disorder to pursue alternative motives.

Hacktivist campaigns have occurred in almost every recent global crisis including Sudan, Venezuela, Pakistan, and Libya. Hacktivist campaigns usually involve unsophisticated denial of service attacks to take down websites and servers which achieve mixed results. However, as cyberspace conflict between great powers becomes routine, such groups are sure to increase operations and become regular actors in the same competitive spaces in which government agencies and militaries interact.

Another feature of the changing cyber battlefield is internal competition between state actors. Kimberly Zenz, a senior official with the German cybersecurity organization DSCO, explained at Black Hat that Russia’s intelligence agencies and hacking organizations should be viewed as individual groups competing for influence with one another. This competition can lead to chaos and risk-taking in cyberspace as groups minimize coordination amongst one another and compete to showcase their abilities to senior officials. The results could be similar to the $10 billion dollars in damages caused by the NotPetya malware.

An information graphic depicting the dangers of cyber attacks. (U.S. Navy graphic/Click to Expand)

For the Navy, Marine Corps, and Department of Defense, the consequences of these foreign internal rivalries could be sporadic and disproportionate cyber attacks. Leaders may struggle not only to determine which actor initiated the attack, but what the target, intentions, and overall scale truly are. From the defender’s point of view, probes and attacks which could seem like a coordinated and widespread operation may instead be many. They may also be part of a concerted “persistent engagement” strategy with long-term but subtle objectives. In this case, a defender’s response could be disproportionate to what the attacker intended. These factors make deterrence in cyberspace an elusive goal for policymakers.

One final takeaway from the 2019 conventions is the intention and ability of nefarious actors to target defense users and systems outside of official government channels. Agencies may spend millions to harden networks, but users, such as service members at home, may be the greatest vulnerability in the system. They are often the softest target for foreign powers and criminal groups to exploit with simple techniques. One presenter demonstrated a fully-functioning, charging-capable Apple USB which contains a Wi-Fi implant and allows nearby hackers to access the connected computer. Another speaker showed how she used information from common online subscription services such as Netflix and Spotify to access bank accounts and personal financial data. Using common talking points, customer service helplines, and classic identity theft techniques, she was able to get access to private account information at major financial institutions without any advanced technology. A separate group, Check Point Research, demonstrated the ability to hack digital cameras to spread malware through home networks and hold personal information for ransom.

The military’s efforts to increase information technology security in the workplace may need to extend to personal services and education for service members to prevent workforce distractions, blackmail, or the further spread of malware throughout units and networks. Currently, the individual Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine is the easiest objective for hostile cyber actors to target, whether for criminal, intelligence, or military purposes. The main lessons from Blackhat and DEFCON may be that nowhere is safe, and the services should explore a wider range of protection services for the users they rely on to carry out missions.

Christian Heller is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and University of Oxford. He currently serves as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Follow him on Twitter, @hellerchThe opinions represented are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the United States Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

Featured Image: DefCon attendees gather in Las Vegas to learn about new technology vulnerabilities and cyberattacks. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Why Unmanned Systems Are The Go-To Option for Gray Zone Ops in the Gulf

Securing the Gulf Topic Week

By Heiko Borchert

Introduction

Current incidents in the Arabian Sea should be seized as an opportunity to advance naval conceptual thinking about unmanned maritime systems in gray zone operations. Gray zone activities are an astute object for concept development, as they “creep up on their goals gradually,” rather than involving decisive moves, as Michael Mazarr has argued. In response, Mazarr contends, gray zone operations will “call for a greater emphasis on innovation” as these operations take different forms and intensities and thus require varied responses. This coincides with the general need to devote more attention to concepts development that drives the use of new naval technologies such as unmanned systems.

Applying Unmanned Systems to Gulf Security

Maritime stability in the Arabian Sea has deteriorated significantly over the past couple of weeks. In response to the Iranian seizure of the Stena Imperio, a Swedish oil tanker under British flag, London reached out to different European capitals in view of establishing a maritime protection mission escorting commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.

This incident and prior events in the Arabian Sea such as harassing commercial vessels with speedboats and assaults on commercial vessels are a perfect illustration of so-called gray zone activities. Located between war and peace, gray zone activities involve “coercive actions to change the status quo below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response,” as Lyle J. Morris and others have suggested.

These activities raise an obvious question: How best to respond? Staying out of the region for an interim period, as the British government has advised U.K. shipping, has been interpreted as a watershed moment “when the UK admits it can no longer protect its merchant vessels.” But even if political support for the maritime protection mission matured, the question would remain if there were enough adequate platforms to do the job.

Deploying big capital ships or surface combatants to escort merchant vessels might send a strong message of resolve to Iran, but doubts remain if this approach is adequate. Past experiences in the Arabian Sea have made it clear that naval vessels remain vulnerable to speedboats operating at a high tempo in distributed maneuver operations. While this is certainly only one method of attack, it is most important for strategic communication. Small boats successfully attacking or deterring prestigious naval ships delivers a message that all gray zone actors want to convey.

It is time to supply navies with an additional option using unmanned systems. Unmanned maritime systems (UMS) have been developed and used for quite some time, but right now, the majority of unmanned maritime systems are used for mine countermeasures. There is an obvious operational need to do the job, concepts of operations are in place, and technology is mature. This makes a perfect fit, but more can be done.

Unlike gray zone activities in the South China Sea that involve the building of artificial islands to underline sovereignty claims and the use of naval militia and the coast guard to intimidate neighbors, Iran’s actions are of a different quality. In the Arabian Sea, mosaic defense emphasizes mass, speed, and surprise. Unmanned maritime systems would be ideal to respond because they can be built to be lost. This levels out current asymmetries between speed boats and big capital ships and denies the adversary the offensive on strategic communications. This attrition-like role is only one mission UMS could play in future maritime protection missions. Overall, the mission envelope could be much broader.

First, assuming that a maritime protection mission depends on persistent situational awareness and understanding, unmanned systems can be used to collect intelligence and provide reconnaissance. For this mission the emphasis should be on closing the sensor chain from seabed activities through the undersea world to the sea surface into airspace and space. In all of these domains unmanned systems are already in use, but more needs to be done to fuse data to augment the existing Recognized Maritime Pictures (RMP), for example to detect anomalies stemming from adversarial behavior at sea.

Second, unmanned systems at sea can push the defense perimeter out. Forward deployed unmanned surface vehicles (USV) could be used to intimidate an adversary’s embarking speed boat fleet thus delaying the launch of operations and creating “noise” that would send alarms to the RMP. A more wicked though not yet technically mature option would focus on very small, mine-like unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). These assets could be deployed covertly by submarines or by air assets. These UUV could turn into a sort of adhesive explosives that stick to boats running over them, thus rendering them dysfunctional.

Third, unmanned maritime systems could be used for deception operations. A swarm of USV could enter a theater of operation disguised as a big capital ship on the adversary’s sensors. As the adversary prepares to counter the ship the USV swarm would disperse into many different smaller platforms thus out tricking the adversarial defense posture. A similar mission can be envisaged for the underwater domain where UUV are already used to imitate the signature of submarines.

Fourth, USVs could constitute the outer ring of maritime protection missions. Robust platforms could be equipped with remote-controlled weapon stations, like the Protector USV developed by Rafael Advanced Systems, to engage incoming speed boats or flying platforms. In addition, USV could be used to deploy electronic counter-measures, for example, to jam adversarial sensors and take out communications between unmanned aerial assets and the respective control units. 

Conclusion

While some of these ideas are closer to reality than others, what matters most is that concepts and operational requirements need to drive the use of unmanned maritime systems in gray zone operations. So far, the discussion about UMS mainly focuses on providing solutions to meet the needs that emerge in naval warfare areas such as mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, or anti-surface warfare. However, gray zone activities cut across all of these tasks. Adequate responses need to adopt a more horizontal approach, as well looking at the technological building blocks that can be used for all missions. Here, the most recent decision of Belgium and the Netherlands to develop a toolbox of unmanned systems for mine-countermeasures shows the way to the future. This approach could be turned into a holistic concept to deal with UMS for maritime gray zone activities.

Putting extra emphasis on innovation and concepts development also opens up avenues for fruitful cooperation with the Gulf states that step up efforts to expand their own naval capabilities while at the same time ramping up efforts to establish a local naval industrial base. Involving them from the start would make sure that specific regional requirements could be adequately addressed while at the same time contributing toward building up local technology expertise in important  areas and incentivizing the establishment of local capabilities and concepts. In the long run this joint approach could help shoulder the burden to provide maritime stability in one of the world’s most pivotal regions.

Dr. Heiko Borchert runs Borchert Consulting & Research AG, a strategic affairs consultancy.

Featured Image: A Bladerunner craft fitted with the MAST system. (Wikimedia Commons)

U.S.-China Tensions and How Unmanned Military Craft Raise the Risk of War

This article originally featured in the Nikkei Asian Review under the title, “US-China tensions — unmanned military craft raise risk of war,” and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Evan Karlik

The immediate danger from militarized artificial intelligence isn’t hordes of killer robots, nor the exponential pace of a new arms race.

As recent events in the Strait of Hormuz indicate, the bigger risk is the fact that autonomous military craft make for temping targets – and increase the potential for miscalculation on and above the high seas.

While less provocative than planes, vehicles, or ships with human crew or troops aboard, unmanned systems are also perceived as relatively expendable. Danger arises when they lower the threshold for military action.

It is a development with serious implications in volatile regions far beyond the Gulf – not least the South China Sea, where the U.S. has recently confronted both China and Russia.

If China dispatched a billion-dollar U.S. destroyer and a portion of its crew to the bottom of the Taiwan Strait, a war declaration from Washington and mobilization to the region would undoubtedly follow. But should a Chinese missile suddenly destroy an orbiting, billion-dollar U.S. intelligence satellite, the White House and the U.S. Congress might opt to avoid immediate escalation.

“Satellites have no mothers,” quip space policy experts, and the same is true for airborne drones and unmanned ships. Their demise does not call for pallbearers, headstones, or memorial statues.

As autonomous systems proliferate in the air and on the ocean, military commanders may feel emboldened to strike these platforms, expecting lower repercussions by avoiding the loss of human life.

Consider when Chinese naval personnel in a small boat seized an unmanned American underwater survey glider in the sea approximately 100 kilometers off the Philippines in December 2016. The winged, torpedo-shaped unit was within sight of its handlers aboard the U.S. Navy oceanographic vessel Bowditch, who gaped in astonishment as it was summarily hoisted aboard a Chinese warship less than a kilometer distant. The U.S. responded with a diplomatic démarche and congressional opprobrium, and the glider was returned within the week.

U.S. Navy oceanographic gliders record temperature and salinity, and are remotely piloted from a round-the-clock operations center in Mississippi. (U.S. Navy photo)

Lately, both Chinese and Russian navies in the Western Pacific have shown themselves bolder than ever. Early in June, south of Okinawa, the Russian destroyer Admiral Vinogradov came within tens of meters of the U.S. guided-missile cruiser Chancellorsville.

In September 2018, the American destroyer Decatur conducted a freedom of navigation transit near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea; it nearly collided with a Chinese destroyer attempting to ‘shoulder’ the American vessel off its course through these hotly contested waters.

In coming years, the Chinese military will find increasingly plentiful opportunities to intercept American autonomous systems. The 40-meter prototype trimaran Sea Hunter, an experimental submarine-tracking vessel, recently transited between Hawaii and San Diego without human intervention. It has yet to be used operationally, but it is only a matter of time before such vessels are deployed.

The U.S. Navy’s nearly $3 billion ‘Ghost Fleet’ initiative aims to develop a total of 10, 2,000-ton unmanned warships. Boeing recently edged out Lockheed Martin to begin construction of four extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles, each capable of transiting twelve thousand kilometers autonomously, for $43 million.

China’s navy may find intercepting such unmanned and unchaperoned surface vessels or mini-submarines too tantalizing to pass up, especially if Washington’s meek retort to the 2016 glider incident is seen as an indication of American permissiveness or timidity.

With a captive vessel, persevering Chinese technicians could attempt to bypass anti-tamper mechanisms, and if successful, proceed to siphon off communication codes or proprietary artificial intelligence software, download navigational data or pre-programmed rules of engagement, or probe for cyber vulnerabilities that could be exploited against similar vehicles.

No doubt Beijing is closely watching how the Trump administration responds to Iran’s downing of a Global Hawk surveillance drone on June 20, assessing U.S. willingness to punch back in kind, or to escalate.

Nearly 100,000 ships transit the strategically vital Singapore Strait annually, where more than 75 collisions or groundings occurred last year alone. In such congested international sea lanes, declaring a foreign navy’s autonomous vessel wayward or unresponsive would easily serve as convenient rationale for towing it into territorial waters for impoundment, or for boarding it straightaway.

More than 4,000 AI and robotics researchers have joined an open letter advocating a ban on autonomous offensive weapons that function without human supervision, and this past March, the U.N. Secretary-General decried such machines as “politically unacceptable, morally repugnant,” and worthy of international prohibition.

Such limits or controls on artificial intelligence would be immensely more difficult to verify when compared to existing inspection regimes for nuclear missiles or centrifuges. In the meantime, urgent action is needed.

A memorandum of understanding signed five years ago by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese defense ministry, as well as the collaborative code of naval conduct created at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium, should be updated with an expanded right-of-way hierarchy and non-interference standards to clarify how manned ships and aircraft should interact with their autonomous counterparts. Without such guidance, the risk of miscalculation increases.

An incident without any immediate human presence or losses could nonetheless trigger unexpected escalation and spark the next conflict.

We should fear that, much more than killer robots.

Evan Karlik is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. He served last year as a Defense Fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives. His views are his own and are in no way intended to reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Featured Image: (Feb. 1, 2019) The Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned sea surface vehicle developed in partnership between the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).(U.S. Navy photo)