Category Archives: Drones

Development, testing, deployment, and use of drones.

Drones in Africa: A Leap Ahead for Maritime Security

By CAPT Chris Rawley and LCDR Cedric Patmon

Technology adoption moves in fits and starts. The developing world cannot be forced into accepting new technology, but it can be enabled, and often in a surprising manner. A recent example is the leap in communications technology. During the 20th Century most of the world developed a robust network of terrestrial-based telecommunications based primarily on the ubiquitous land-line telephone system. Without this infrastructure in place Sub-Saharan African countries were largely left behind at the start of the information revolution. But at the turn of the new century something interesting happened. Rather than retroactively building an archaic phone system Africans embraced mobile phone technology. From 1999 through 2004 the number of mobile subscribers in Africa eclipsed those of other continents, increasing at a rate of 58 percent annually. Asia, the second fastest area of saturation, grew at only 34 percent during that time. The explosive growth of mobile phones and more recently smart phones across practically every African city and village has liberated economies and facilitated the free flow of information. This technology also enabled Africans to lead the world in mobile money payment solutions, bypassing increasingly obsolete banking systems.

Today, Africans have another opportunity to leap ahead in technology to protect one of their most important areas of commerce – their coastal seas. Africa’s maritime economy is absolutely critical to the continent’s growth and prosperity during the next few decades. On the edge of the Eastern Atlantic the Gulf of Guinea is bordered by eight West African nations, and is an extremely important economic driver. More than 450 million Africans derive commercial benefit from this body of water. The region contains 50.4 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves and has produced up to 5.5 million barrels of oil per day. Additionally, over 90 percent of foreign imports and exports cross the Gulf of Guinea making it the region’s key connector to the global economy.

Favorable demographics and industrious populations put coastal Africans in a position to prosper, but an increase in illegal fishing activities and piracy since the early 2000s has severely impeded this potential. The growth in acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea from 2000 onward points to the challenges faced by West African states.

According to Quartz Africa, illegal fishing activities in the region have a negative economic impact of $2-3 billion annually. “Fish stocks are not restricted to national boundaries, and that is why the solutions to end the overfishing of West Africa’s waters can only come from joint efforts between the countries of the region,” Ahmed Diame, Greenpeace’s Africa Oceans campaigner, said in a statement. Marine pollution, human, and narcotics trafficking are also major issues facing the region.

Due to the economic impact of illicit activities in and around West Africa a Summit of the Gulf of Guinea heads of state and government was held in 2013 in Yaoundé, Cameroon. This resulted in the adoption of the Yaoundé Declaration on Gulf of Guinea Security. Two key resolutions contained in the Declaration were the creation of an inter-regional Coordination Centre on Maritime Safety and Security for Central and West Africa, headquartered in Yaoundé, and the implementation of a new Code of Conduct Concerning the Prevention and Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery Against Ships, and Illegal Maritime Activities in West and Central Africa. Adoption of this agreement has laid the foundation for critical information sharing and resource cooperation that can be used to combat piracy, illegal fishing, and other illicit activities in the Gulf of Guinea.

Though the Code of Conduct established an architecture for maritime security in the region, without enforcement on the water, diplomatic efforts are largely impotent. Key to enforcement is the ability to identify, track, and prosecute nefarious actors on the high seas and in coastal areas. So-called maritime domain awareness is gradually improving in the area, but current options for maritime surveillance are limited. The largest local navies have offshore patrol vessels capable of multi-day over-the-horizon operations, but even these vessels have limited enforcement capacity. Patrol vessels face maintenance issues and fuel scarcity. Shore-based radar systems at best reach out 30 or 40 nautical miles, but are plagued by power and maintenance issues. Moreover, a shore-based radar, even with signals correlated from vessels transmitting on the Automatic Identification System, only provides knowledge that a contact is afloat, not necessarily any evidence to illicit actions.

Latin American navies face similar maritime challenges to those in Africa and have learned that airborne surveillance is simply the best way to locate, track, identify, and classify surface maritime targets involved in illicit or illegal activity. A retired senior naval officer from the region related a study in the Caribbean narcotics transit zone to one of the authors that compared different surveillance mechanisms for the 11,000 square nautical mile area. The probability of detecting a surface target within six hours rose from only five percent with a surface asset to 95 percent when maritime patrol aircraft were included. Only a handful of coastal African countries have fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters, but these aircraft face similar issues to surface assets with fuel costs and mechanical readiness resulting in limited flight time on station.

Drone Solutions to African Maritime Insecurity

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, as they are known colloquially, provide a way for African navies and coast guards to greatly enhance maritime security in a relatively inexpensive manner, similar to the ways mobile telephony revolutionized communications on the continent. Similar to the evolution of computing power outlined by Moore’s law tactical UAS are rapidly growing in capabilities while decreasing in cost. Improvements in sensors, endurance, and payload are advancing quickly. For any solution, acquisition cost, maintainability, and infrastructure required are key factors to be considered. The cost per flying hour of most UAS is negligible compared to their manned counterparts. Today’s fixed and rotary-wing systems, whether specifically designed for military use or for commercial applications, can be adapted for surveillance in a maritime environment without much additional cost.

A Falcon UAV unpiloted aircraft is bungee launched in a midday demonstration flight. (© Helge Denker/WWF-Namibia)

Because each country has unique requirements and budgets no single UAS solution is appropriate. Maritime drones can be based ashore or on coastal patrol vessels. One viable option for countries with limited resources involves services contracted by Western Partners, a model which has already been proven in the region for other applications. Alternatively, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct provides a framework for a possible shared model. This agreement can provide the timely sharing of critical information ascertained by maritime surveillance and reconnaissance systems to aid in the enforcement of the maritime laws and agreements in the region. Contractor-operated drones could be allocated across countries by leadership in the five Zones delineated by the Code. Multinational cooperation on maritime security has already been tested in the annual Obangame Express exercise and during real-world counterpiracy operations. Understanding that not all countries have the investment capability to purchase their own stand-alone systems, consideration could be given to sharing the initial investment costs between countries. The logistics of system placement and asset availability would have to be determined by the participating countries themselves but the benefit of such a program would positively impact the entire region economically, enhance interoperability, and assist in regional stability.

Drones are already being operated across Africa by Africans. Zambia recently purchased Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles for counter-poaching operations. There are also African unmanned systems flying surveillance missions over areas plagued by violent extremists groups. UAS are even being used to transport blood and medical supplies across the continent’s vast rural landscapes. Shifting these assets over water is a natural progression. One concern about using UAS is airspace deconfliction. However, this problem is minimized because there is little to no civil aviation in most parts of Africa. Additionally, most maritime UAS would be flying primarily at low altitudes over water from coastal bases.

Conclusion

The leap-ahead capabilities that unmanned surveillance aircraft could provide to coastal security around Africa are clearly evident. African navies with adequate resources should make acquisition of unmanned air systems a priority. Likewise, western foreign military assistance programs should focus on providing contracted or organic unmanned aircraft capabilities.

Captain Rawley, a surface warfare officer, and Lieutenant Commander Patmon, a naval aviator, are assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet’s Maritime Partnership Program detachment responsible for helping West African countries enhance their maritime security. The opinions in this article are those of the authors alone and do not officially represent the U.S. Navy or any other organization

Featured Image: GULF OF GUINEA (March 26, 2018) A visit board search and seizure team member from the Ghanaian special boat service communicates with his team during a search aboard a target vessel during exercise Obangame Express 2018, March 26. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Released)

Self-Driving Ships Will Soon Raise the Stakes at Sea

The following article originally appeared on the Kennedy School Review and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Cameron Lindsay

While Amazon continues to pilot its fully autonomous drone delivery system, Amazon PrimeAir, an autonomous delivery system millions of times larger is occurring at sea. And whether you are the passenger on-board a cruise ship or you hire a shipping company to transport your belongings overseas, in a few years, you will increasingly be at the mercy of a self-driving ship.

The prevalence of self-driving ships, or in more technical terms, autonomous surfaced vessels (ASV) or unmanned surfaced vessels (USV), which operate either remotely or completely independent of humans, is growing. And while for centuries mariners have sailed in awe of the ocean’s size and reverence of its might, the emergence of the self-driving ship ushers a new era of commercial economic opportunity as well as maritime security risks of miscalculation.

Similar to self-driving cars, most of the technology necessary for the development of a self-driving ship is mature and available at reasonably low cost. Using state-of-the-art computer algorithms within advanced radar, navigation, acoustic, and optical sensor payloads, self-driving ships are expected to operate more efficiently and safely than those operated by humans.

Self-driving ships present the opportunity for the commercial maritime industry to significantly increase profits through the reduction of costs associated with crew salaries, nourishment, fatigue, insurance, and decision bias. As described by the President of Rolls-Royce Marine Mikael Mäkinen, “autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. As disruptive as the smartphone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations. While Rolls-Royce is vying to build the first autonomous smart ship with Google, other companies like the Norwegian company Yara seek to be the world’s first remote controlled and then totally autonomous electric cargo ship in 2020.

However due to the technical complexity, lack of legal precedent, and political hedging associated with self-driving ships, one can expect the wave that brings higher commercial profits to also lower the propensity for international consensus on their use. Self-driving ships present challenges like those faced by federal and state governments today in implementing safeguards when introducing self-driving cars to the public. Yet unlike self-driving cars, these policies will need to address centuries-old maritime legal constructs, sovereignty protections, and universally established rules for how vessels interact on the high seas. The necessity of these policies to accommodate the commercial interests of ships longer than the height of the Empire State Building and communal practices of family owned fishing trawlers will be a significant challenge to policy makers.

Unlike driving your car on a well-regulated interstate highway system, moving further away from a given nation’s coast corresponds with the transition of sovereign territorial waters to an international patch work of treaty obligations under the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea and regulatory organizations, notably led by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). With its UN mandate to promote safe, secure, efficient, and environmentally sustainable shipping, the IMO has an opportunity to advance maritime safety, security, environmental protections, and economic opportunity through its embrace of technological innovation.

While the impact of self-driving ships will be a severe disruption to the commercial maritime industry, the technology will also punctuate a new era of maritime security strategy. Historically, the vast distance of the warship’s Captain from his state served to strengthen professional restraint while simultaneously weakening the temptation of jingoism. Using a command and control structure analogous to cyber and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), an artificiality to the context of conflict engagement will exist between state authority and state actor. Development efforts underway today have already produced machines that can replicate some of the functions of fighter pilots and sentries, among others, and it appears inevitable that military system capabilities will continue to expand into areas traditionally the domain of human operators.

Nations seeking to capture a maritime strategic advantage may see the application of self-driving ships as a force multiplier to maritime search and rescue, mine clearance, and offensive operations. Conversely some nations may view the application of self-driving ships as their relief valve to unusually high operational demands resulting in accelerated personnel fatigue and vessel deterioration. When coupled with future advances in sustainable energy sources (solar, nuclear, and lithium-ion battery), self-driving ships will become an attractive investment alternative for global powers in extending their ability to project power by sea. Undoubtedly this regional and global great power competition will heighten the risk of miscalculation and unintentional conflict escalation as evident in the December 2016 seizure of an American unmanned oceanographic survey ship by Chinese naval forces.

For international maritime bodies, such as the IMO, International Seabed Authority, and International Whaling Commission, self-driving ships offer a low-cost approach for monitoring and reporting nation-state and private violators of maritime conventions. Through member nation financial support, the UN application of self-driving ships could respond to sustained maritime humanitarian crises while depoliticizing involvement and the risk to entrapment by member nations. This may serve as a pretext for the establishment of a sustainable internationally recognized unmanned maritime peacekeeping mission with the capacity to actively investigate illegal fishing off Somalia’s coast, resource exploitation near Fiji, environmentally damaging practices to the Great Barrier Reef, or freedom of navigation within the disputed South China Sea.

However, before the rewards of self-driving ships can be realized, their challenges must be acknowledged, accepted, and addressed through a combination of active diplomacy, smart policy, and visionary thinking.

Cameron Lindsay is a Master in Public Administration candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and U.S. Navy Politico-Military Scholar. He is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. The views and opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Autonomous ship concept (Rolls Royce)

Unmanned Mission Command, Pt. 2

By Tim McGeehan

The following two-part series discusses the command and control of future autonomous systems. Part 1 describes how we have arrived at the current tendency towards detailed control. Part 2 proposes how to refocus on mission command.

Adjusting Course

Today’s commanders are accustomed to operating in permissive environments and have grown addicted to the connectivity that makes detailed control possible. This is emerging as a major vulnerability. For example, while the surface Navy’s concept of “distributed lethality” will increase the complexity of the detection and targeting problems presented to adversaries, it will also increase the complexity of its own command and control. Even in a relatively uncontested environment, tightly coordinating widely dispersed forces will not be a trivial undertaking. This will tend toward lengthening decision cycles, at a time when the emphasis is on shortening them.1 How will the Navy execute operations in a future Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) scenario, where every domain is contested (including the EM spectrum and cyberspace) and every fraction of a second counts? 

The Navy must “rediscover” and fully embrace mission command now, to both address current vulnerabilities as well as unleash the future potential of autonomous systems. These systems offer increased precision, faster reaction times, longer endurance, and greater range, but these advantages may not be realized if the approach to command and control remains unchanged. For starters, to prepare for future environments where data links cannot be taken for granted, commanders must be prepared to give all subordinates, human and machine, wide latitude to operate, which is only afforded by mission command. Many systems will progress from a man “in” the loop (with the person integral to the functioning), to a man “on” the loop (where the person oversees the system and executes command by negation), and then to complete autonomy. In the future, fully autonomous systems may collaborate with one another across a given echelon and solve problems based on the parameters communicated to them as commander’s intent (swarms would fall into this category). However, it may go even further. Mission command calls for adaptable leaders at every level; what if at some level the leaders are no longer people but machines? It is not hard to imagine a forward deployed autonomous system tasking its own subordinates (fellow machines), particularly in scenarios where there is no available bandwidth to allow backhaul communications or enable detailed control from afar. In these cases, mission command will not just be the preferred option, it will be the only option. This reliance on mission command may be seen as a cultural shift, but in reality, it is a return to the Navy’s cultural roots.

Back to Basics

Culturally, the Navy should be well-suited to embrace the mission command model to employ autonomous systems. Traditionally once a ship passed over the horizon there was little if any communication for extended periods of time due to technological limitations. This led to a culture of mission command: captains were given basic orders and an overall intent; the rest was up to them. Indeed, captains might act as ambassadors and conduct diplomacy and other business on behalf of the government in remote areas with little direct guidance.2 John Paul Jones himself stated that “it often happens that sudden emergencies in foreign waters make him [the Naval Officer] the diplomatic as well as the military representative of his country, and in such cases he may have to act without opportunity of consulting his civic or ministerial superiors at home, and such action may easily involve the portentous issue of peace or war between great powers.”3  This is not to advocate that autonomous systems will participate in diplomatic functions, but it does illustrate the longstanding Navy precedent for autonomy of subordinate units.

Another factor in support of the Navy favoring mission command is that the physics of the operating environment may demand it. For example, the physical properties of the undersea domain prohibit direct, routine, high-bandwidth communication with submerged platforms. This is the case with submarines and is being applied to UUVs by extension. This has led to extensive development of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) vice remotely operated ones; AUVs clearly favor mission command.

Finally, the Navy’s culture of decentralized command is the backbone of the Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) construct. CWC is essentially an expression of mission command. Just as technology (the telegraph cable, wireless, and global satellite communication) has afforded the means of detailed control and micromanagement, it has also increased the speed of warfighting, necessitating decentralized execution. Command by negation is the foundation of CWC, and has been ingrained in the Navy’s officer corps for decades. Extending this mindset to autonomous systems will be key to realizing their full capabilities.

Training Commanders

This begs the question: how does one train senior commanders who rose through the ranks during the age of continuous connectivity to thrive in a world of autonomous systems where detailed control is not an option? For a start, they could adopt the mindset of General Norman Schwarzkopf, who described how hard it was to resist interfering with his subordinates:

“I desperately wanted to do something, anything, other than wait, yet the best thing I could do was stay out of the way. If I pestered my generals I’d distract them:  I knew as well as anyone that commanders on the battlefield have more important things to worry about than keeping higher headquarters informed…”4

That said, even while restraining himself, at the height of OPERATION DESERT STORM, his U.S. Central Command used more than 700,000 telephone calls and 152,000 radio messages per day to coordinate the actions of their subordinate forces. In contrast, during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Nelson used only three general tactical flag-hoist signals to maneuver the entire British fleet.5

Commanders must learn to be satisfied with the ambiguity inherent in mission command. They must become comfortable clearly communicating their intent and mission requirements, whether tasking people or autonomous systems. Again, there isn’t a choice; the Navy’s adversaries are investing in A2/AD capabilities that explicitly target the means that make detailed control possible. Furthermore, the ambiguity and complexity of today’s operating environments prohibit “a priori” composition of complete and perfect instructions.

Placing commanders into increasingly complex and ambiguous situations during training will push them toward mission command, where they will have to trust subordinates closer to the edge who will be able to execute based on commander’s intent and their own initiative. General Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed training that presented commanders with fleeting opportunities and rewarding those who seized them in order to encourage commanders to act in the face of uncertainty.

Familiarization training with autonomous systems could take place in large part via simulation, where commanders interact with the actual algorithms and rehearse at a fraction of the cost of executing a real-world exercise. In this setting, commanders could practice giving mission type orders and translating them for machine understanding. They could employ their systems to failure, analyze where they went wrong, and learn to adjust their level of supervision via multiple iterations. This training wouldn’t be just a one-way evolution; the algorithms would also learn about their commander’s preferences and thought process by finding patterns in their actions and thresholds for their decisions. Through this process, the autonomous system would understand even more about commander’s intent should it need to act alone in the future. If the autonomous system will be in a position to task its own robotic subordinates, that algorithm would be demonstrated so the commander understands how the system may act (which will have incorporated what it has learned about how its commander commands).

With this in mind, while it may seem trivial, consideration must be made for the fact that future autonomous systems may have a detailed algorithmic model of their commander’s thought process, “understand” his intent, and “know” at least a piece of “the big picture.” As such, in the future these systems cannot simply be considered disposable assets performing the dumb, dirty, dangerous work that exempt a human from having to go in harm’s way. They will require significant anti-tamper capabilities to prevent an adversary from extracting or downloading this valuable information if they are somehow taken or recovered by the enemy. Perhaps they could even be armed with algorithms to “resist” exploitation or give misleading information. 

The Way Ahead

Above all, commanders will need to establish the same trust and confidence in autonomous systems that they have in manned systems and human operators.6 Commanders trust manned systems, even though they are far from infallible. This came to international attention with the airstrike on the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital operating in Kunduz, Afghanistan. As this event illustrated, commanders must acknowledge the potential for human error, put mitigation measures in place where they can, and then accept a certain amount of risk. In the future, advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence will yield algorithms that far exceed human processing capabilities. Autonomous systems will be able to sense, process, coordinate, and act faster than their human counterparts. However, trust in these systems will only come from time and experience, and the way to secure that is to mainstream autonomous systems into exercises. Initially these opportunities should be carefully planned and executed, not just added in as an afterthought. For example, including autonomous systems in a particular Fleet Battle Experiment solely to check a box that they were used raises the potential for negative training, where the observers see the technology fail due to ill-conceived employment. As there may be limited opportunities to “win over” the officer corps, this must be avoided. Successfully demonstrating the capabilities (and the legitimate limitations) of autonomous systems is critical. Increased use over time will ensure maximum exposure to future commanders, and will be key to widespread adoption and full utilization.  

The Navy must return to its roots and rediscover mission command in order to fully leverage the potential of autonomous systems. While it may make commanders uncomfortable, it has deep roots in historic practice and is a logical extension of existing doctrine. Former General Dempsey wrote that mission command “must pervade the force and drive leader development, organizational design and inform material acquisitions.”Taking this to heart and applying it across the board will have profound and lasting impacts as the Navy sails into the era of autonomous systems.

Tim McGeehan is a U.S. Navy Officer currently serving in Washington. 

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

References

[1] Dmitry Filipoff, Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War, CIMSEC, January 4, 2016, http://cimsec.org/distributed-lethality-and-concepts-of-future-war/20831

[2] Naval Doctrine Publication 6: Naval Command and Control, 1995, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a304321.pdf, p. 9      

[3] Connell, Royal W. and William P. Mack, Naval Customs, Ceremonies, and Traditions, 1980, p. 355.

[4] Schwartzkopf, Norman, It Doesn’t Take a Hero:  The Autobiography of General Norman Schwartzkopf, 1992, p.523

[5] Ibid 2, p. 4

[6] Greg Smith, Trusting Autonomous Systems: It’s More Than Technology, CIMSEC, September 18, 2015, http://cimsec.org/trusting-autonomous-systems-its-more-than-technology/18908     

[7] Martin Dempsey, Mission Command White Paper, April 3, 2012, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/concepts/white_papers/cjcs_wp_missioncommand.pdf

Featured Image: SOUTH CHINA SEA (April 30, 2017) Sailors assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 23 run tests on the the MQ-8B Firescout, an unmanned aerial vehicle, aboard littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Leigh Ellis/Released)

Unmanned Mission Command, Pt. 1

By Tim McGeehan

The following two-part series discusses the command and control of future autonomous systems. Part 1 describes how we have arrived at the current tendency towards detailed control. Part 2 proposes how to refocus on mission command.

Introduction

In recent years, the U.S. Navy’s unmanned vehicles have achieved a number of game-changing “firsts.” The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) executed the first carrier launch and recovery in 2013, first combined manned/unmanned carrier operations in 2014, and first aerial refueling in 2015.1 In 2014, the Office of Naval Research demonstrated the first swarm capability for Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV).2 In 2015, the NORTH DAKOTA performed the first launch and recovery of an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) from a submarine during an operational mission.3 While these successes may represent the vanguard of a revolution in military technology, the larger revolution in military affairs will only be possible with the optimization of the command and control concepts associated with these systems. Regardless of specific mode (air, surface, or undersea), Navy leaders must fully embrace mission command to fully realize the power of these capabilities.

Unmanned History

“Unmanned” systems are not necessarily new. The U.S. Navy’s long history includes the employment of a variety of such platforms. For example, in 1919, Coast Battleship #4 (formerly USS IOWA (BB-1)) became the first radio-controlled target ship to be used in a fleet exercise.4 During World War II, participation in an early unmanned aircraft program called PROJECT ANVIL ultimately killed Navy Lieutenant Joe Kennedy (John F. Kennedy’s older brother), who was to parachute from his bomb-laden aircraft before it would be guided into a German target by radio-control.5 In 1946, F6F Hellcat fighters were modified for remote operation and employed to collect data during the OPERATION CROSSROADS atomic bomb tests at Bikini.6 These Hellcat “drones” could be controlled by another aircraft acting as the “queen” (flying up to 30 miles away). These drones were even launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier (almost 70 years before the X-47B performed that feat).

A Hellcat drone takes flight. Original caption: PILOTLESS HELLCAT (above), catapulted from USS Shangri-La, is clear of the carrier’s bow and climbs rapidly. Drones like this one will fly through the atomic cloud. (All Hands Magazine June 1946 issue)

However, the Navy’s achievements over the last few years were groundbreaking because the platforms were autonomous (i.e. controlled by machine, not remotely operated by a person). The current discussion of autonomy frequently revolves around the issues of ethics and accountability. Is it ethical to imbue these machines with the authority to use lethal force? If the machine is not under direct human control but rather evaluating for itself, who is responsible for its decisions and actions when faced with dilemmas? Much has been written about these topics, but there is a related and less discussed question: what sort of mindset shift will be required for Navy leaders to employ these systems to their full potential?

Command, Control, and Unmanned Systems

According to Naval Doctrine Publication 6 – Command and Control (NDP 6), “a commander commands by deciding what must be done and exercising leadership to inspire subordinates toward a common goal; he controls by monitoring and influencing the action required to accomplish what must be done.”7 These enduring concepts have new implications in the realm of unmanned systems. For example, while a commander can assign tasks to any subordinate (human or machine), “inspiring subordinates” has varying levels of applicability based on whether his units consist of “remotely piloted” aircraft (where his subordinates are actual human pilots) or autonomous systems (where the “pilot” is an algorithm controlling a machine). “Command” also includes establishing intent, distributing guidance on allocation of roles, responsibilities, and resources, and defining constraints on actions.8 On one hand, this could be straightforward with autonomous systems as this guidance could be translated into a series of rules and parameters that define the mission and rules of engagement. One would simply upload the mission and deploy the vehicle, which would go out and execute, possibly reporting in for updates but mostly operating on its own, solving problems along the way. On the other hand, in the absence of instructions that cover every possibility, an autonomous system is only as good as the internal algorithms that control it. Even as machine learning drastically improves and advanced algorithms are developed from extensive “training data,” an autonomous system may not respond to novel and ambiguous situations with the same judgment as a human. Indeed, one can imagine a catastrophic military counterpart to the 2010 stock market “flash crash,” where high-frequency trading algorithms designed to act in accordance with certain, pre-arranged criteria did not understand context and misread the situation, briefly erasing $1 trillion in market value.9

“Control” includes the conduits and feedback from subordinates to their commander that allow them to determine if events are on track or to adjust instructions as necessary. This is reasonably straightforward for a remotely piloted aircraft with a constant data link between platform and operator, such as the ScanEagle or MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned aerial systems. However, a fully autonomous system may not be in positive communication. Even if it is ostensibly intended to remain in communication, feedback to the commander could be limited or non-existent due to emissions control (EMCON) posture or a contested electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. 

Mission Command and Unmanned Systems

In recent years, there has been a renewed focus across the Joint Force on the concept of “mission command.” Mission command is defined as “the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based upon mission-type orders,” and it lends itself well to the employment of autonomous systems.10 Joint doctrine states:

“Mission command is built on subordinate leaders at all echelons who exercise disciplined initiative and act aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission. Mission-type orders focus on the purpose of the operation rather than details of how to perform assigned tasks. Commanders delegate decisions to subordinates wherever possible, which minimizes detailed control and empowers subordinates’ initiative to make decisions based on the commander’s guidance rather than constant communications.”11

Mission command for an autonomous system would require commanders to clearly confer their intent, objectives, constraints, and restraints in succinct instructions, and then rely on the “initiative” of said system. While this decentralized arrangement is more flexible and better suited to deal with ambiguity, it opens the door to unexpected or emergent behavior in the autonomous system. (Then again, emergent behavior is not confined to algorithms, as humans may perform in unexpected ways too.) 

In addition to passing feedback and information up the chain of command to build a shared understanding of the situation, mission command also emphasizes horizontal flow across the echelon between the subordinates. Since it relies on subordinates knowing the intent and mission requirements, mission command is much less vulnerable to disruption than detailed means of command and control.

However, some commanders today do not fully embrace mission command with human subordinates, much less feel comfortable delegating trust to autonomous systems.  They issue explicit instructions to subordinates in a highly-centralized arrangement, where volumes of information flow up and detailed orders flow down the chain of command. This may be acceptable in deliberate situations where time is not a major concern, where procedural compliance is emphasized, or where there can be no ambiguity or margin for error. Examples of unmanned systems suitable to this arrangement include a bomb disposal robot or remotely piloted aircraft that requires constant intervention and re-tasking, possibly for rapid repositioning of the platform for a better look at an emerging situation or better discrimination between friend and foe. However, this detailed control does not “function well when the vertical flow of information is disrupted.”12 Furthermore, when it comes to autonomous systems, such detailed control will undermine much of the purpose of having an autonomous system in the first place.

A fundamental task of the commander is to recognize which situations call for detailed control or mission command and act appropriately. Unfortunately, the experience gained by many commanders over the last decade has introduced a bias towards detailed control, which will hamstring the potential capabilities of autonomous systems if this tendency is not overcome.

Current Practice

The American military has enjoyed major advantages in recent conflicts due to global connectivity and continuous communications. However, this has redefined expectations and higher echelons increasingly rely on detailed control (for manned forces, let alone unmanned ones). Senior commanders (or their staffs) may levy demands to feed a seemingly insatiable thirst for information. This has led to friction between the echelons of command, and in some cases this interaction occurs at the expense of the decision-making capability of the unit in the field. Subordinate staff watch officers may spend more time answering requests for information and “feeding the beast” of higher headquarters than they spend overseeing their own operations.

It is understandable why this situation exists today. The senior commander (with whom responsibility ultimately resides) expects to be kept well-informed. To be fair, in some cases a senior commander located at a fusion center far from the front may have access to multiple streams of information, giving them a better overall view of what is going on than the commander actually on the ground. In other cases, it is today’s 24-hour news cycle and zero tolerance for mistakes that have led senior commanders to succumb to the temptation to second-guess their subordinates and micromanage their units in the field. A compounding factor that may be influencing commanders in today’s interconnected world is “Fear of Missing Out” (FoMO), which is described by psychologists as apprehension or anxiety stemming from the availability of volumes of information about what others are doing (think social media). It leads to a strong, almost compulsive desire to stay continually connected.  13

Whatever the reason, this is not a new phenomenon. Understanding previous episodes when leadership has “tightened the reins” and the subsequent impacts is key to developing a path forward to fully leverage the potential of autonomous systems.

Veering Off Course

The recent shift of preference away from mission command toward detailed control appears to echo the impacts of previous advances in the technology employed for command and control in general. For example, when speaking of his service with the U.S. Asiatic Squadron and the introduction of the telegraph before the turn of the 20th century, Rear Admiral Caspar Goodrich lamented “Before the submarine cable was laid, one was really somebody out there, but afterwards one simply became a damned errand boy at the end of a telegraph wire.”14

Later, the impact of wireless telegraphy proved to be a mixed blessing for commanders at sea. Interestingly, the contrasting points of view clearly described how it would enable micromanagement; the difference in opinion was whether this was good or bad. This was illustrated by two 1908 newspaper articles regarding the introduction of wireless in the Royal Navy. One article extolled its virtues, describing how the First Sea Lord in London could direct all fleet activities “as if they were maneuvering beneath his office windows.”15 The other article described how those same naval officers feared “armchair control… by means of wireless.”16 In century-old text that could be drawn from today’s press, the article quoted a Royal Navy officer:

“The paramount necessity in the next naval war will be rapidity of thought and of execution…The innovation is causing more than a little misgiving among naval officers afloat. So far as it will facilitate the interchange of information and the sending of important news, the erection of the [wireless] station is welcomed, but there is a strong fear that advantage will be taken of it to interfere with the independent action of fleet commanders in the event of war.”

Military historian Martin van Creveld related a more recent lesson of technology-enabled micromanagement from the U.S. Army. This time the technology in question was the helicopter, and its widespread use by multiple echelons of command during Viet Nam drove the shift away from mission command to detailed control:

“A hapless company commander engaged in a firefight on the ground was subjected to direct observation by the battalion commander circling above, who was in turn supervised by the brigade commander circling a thousand or so feet higher up, who in his turn was monitored by the division commander in the next highest chopper, who might even be so unlucky as to have his own performance watched by the Field Force (corps) commander. With each of these commanders asking the men on the ground to tune in his frequency and explain the situation, a heavy demand for information was generated that could and did interfere with the troops’ ability to operate effectively.”17

However, not all historic shifts toward detailed control are due to technology; some are cultural. For example, leadership had encroached so much on the authority of commanders in the days leading up to World War II that Admiral King had to issue a message to the fleet with the subject line “Exercise of Command – Excess of Detail in Orders and Instructions,” where he voiced his concern. He wrote that the:

“almost standard practice – of flag officers and other group commanders to issue orders and instructions in which their subordinates are told how as well as what to do to such an extent and in such detail that the Custom of the service has virtually become the antithesis of that essential element of command – initiative of the subordinate.”18

Admiral King attributed this trend to several cultural reasons, including anxiety of seniors that any mistake of a subordinate be attributed to the senior and thereby jeopardize promotion, activities of staffs infringing on lower echelon functions, and the habit and expectation of detailed instructions from junior and senior alike. He went on to say that they were preparing for war, when there would be neither time nor opportunity for this method of control, and this was conditioning subordinate commanders to rely on explicit guidance and depriving them from learning how to exercise initiative. Now, over 70 years later, as the Navy moves forward with autonomous systems the technology-enabled and culture-driven drift towards detailed control is again becoming an Achilles heel.

Read Part 2 here.

Tim McGeehan is a U.S. Navy Officer currently serving in Washington. 

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

References

[1] Northrup Grumman, X-47B Capabilities, 2015, http://www.northropgrumman.com/Capabilities/x47bucas/Pages/default.aspx

[2] David Smalley, The Future Is Now: Navy’s Autonomous Swarmboats Can Overwhelm Adversaries, ONR Press Release, October 5, 2014, http://www.onr.navy.mil/en/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2014/autonomous-swarm-boat-unmanned-caracas.aspx

[3] Associated Press, Submarine launches undersea drone in a 1st for Navy, Military Times, July 20, 2015, http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/tech/2015/07/20/submarine-launches-undersea-drone-in-a-1st-for-navy/30442323/

[4] Naval History and Heritage Command, Iowa II (BB-1), July 22, 2015, http://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/i/iowa-ii.html

[5] Trevor Jeremy, LT Joe Kennedy, Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum, 2015, http://www.aviationmuseum.net/JoeKennedy.htm

[6] Puppet Planes, All Hands, June 1946, http://www.navy.mil/ah_online/archpdf/ah194606.pdf, p. 2-5

[7] Naval Doctrine Publication 6:  Naval Command and Control, 1995, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a304321.pdf, p. 6

[8] David Alberts and Richard Hayes, Understanding Command and Control, 2006, http://www.dodccrp.org/files/Alberts_UC2.pdf, p. 58

[9] Ben Rooney, Trading program sparked May ‘flash crash’, October 1, 2010, CNN, http://money.cnn.com/2010/10/01/markets/SEC_CFTC_flash_crash/

[10] DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, March, 2017, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdf

[11] Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp3_0.pdf

[12] Ibid

[13] Andrew Przybylski, Kou Murayama, Cody DeHaan , and Valerie Gladwell, Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out, Computers in Human Behavior, Vol 29 (4), July 2013,  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563213000800

[14] Michael Palmer, Command at Sea:  Naval Command and Control since the Sixteenth Century, 2005, p. 215

[15] W. T. Stead, Wireless Wonders at the Admiralty, Dawson Daily News, September 13, 1908, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=41&dat=19080913&id=y8cjAAAAIBAJ&sjid=KCcDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3703,1570909&hl=en

[16] Fleet Commanders Fear Armchair Control During War by Means of Wireless, Boston Evening Transcript, May 2, 1908, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2249&dat=19080502&id=N3Y-AAAAIBAJ&sjid=nVkMAAAAIBAJ&pg=470,293709&hl=en

[17] Martin van Creveld, Command in War, 1985, p. 256-257.

[18] CINCLANT Serial (053), Exercise of Command – Excess of Detail in Orders and Instructions, January 21, 1941

Featured Image: An X-47B drone prepares to take off. (U.S. Navy photo)