Category Archives: Drones

Development, testing, deployment, and use of drones.

The Battle of Locust Point: An Oral History of the First Autonomous Combat Engagement

Fiction Topic Week

By David R. Strachan

TOP SECRET/NOFORN

The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare. This is the first of an eight-part series with Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret), considered by many to be the father of autonomous undersea warfare, where we discuss the development of the Atom-class microsubmarine, and its role in the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

November 17, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

Interviewer: Lt. Cmdr. Hailey J. Dowd, USN


The last twenty-five years have witnessed extraordinary developments in naval warfare. Ever smaller, smarter, more lethal vehicles have revolutionized the way navies fight, and the way nations project power beyond their borders. Historians agree that the genesis of this “micronaval revolution” can be traced to the year 2016, when a disabled Russian Istina-class microsubmarine was recovered off the coast of Cape Charles, Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay Incident, as it became known, was a harbinger of things to come, for just ten weeks later, as crowds descended on Baltimore Harbor for Fleet Week and the commissioning of the U.S. Navy’s newest destroyer, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), Russian and U.S. microsubmarines would square off just beneath the surface in what would be the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

Historians also agree that the micronaval revolution can be traced to a single individual, an individual whose name, like Hyman Rickover, is virtually synonymous with the bold thinking that has come to define the modern U.S. Navy.

Admiral Jeremy Baynes Lacy, USN (ret.) graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1989, earning a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. He served at sea aboard the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN 735), USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730), USS Springfield (SSN 761), and the USS Pogy (SSN 647), deploying to the North Atlantic, Arctic, and Western Pacific, as well as conducting numerous strategic patrols. Ashore, Lacy earned a Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Naval/Mechanical Engineering, and served as Major Program Manager for Undersea Project 7, the Atom-class microsubmarine program. Following his work on the Atom-class, he established and commanded Strikepod Group (COMPODGRU) 1, eventually serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT). His personal decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (three awards), the Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (five awards), and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (two awards), in addition to numerous unit and campaign awards.

Admiral Lacy is currently enjoying his “retirement” as the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the United States Naval Academy. He was interviewed at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Would you tell us a little of your background? How did you end up in the Navy?

I was born and raised in the rural New Jersey hamlet of Port Murray, nestled among cornfields and cow pastures many people can’t believe exist the Garden State. My mother was a secretary at the local elementary school, and my father managed a printing plant just outside New York City. He grew up dirt poor on a farm in New Hampshire without a whole lot of options, so he enlisted in the Navy the day after he graduated from high school. After basic, he ended up in crypto school in California, then a Naval Security Group detachment in Turkey where he eavesdropped on Soviet communications. When I was little he used to make these veiled references here and there to his time in the service, but he never elaborated on anything. He took his secrecy oath very seriously, and it wasn’t until the mid 80s, when I was a curious teenager, that he felt comfortable opening up about what he did. I was totally captivated by the stories he would tell, and the meaning that the work gave him. As luck would have it, I was a pretty good student, and managed to get accepted to the Academy. Fast forward four years and I’ve got a degree in mechanical engineering, and five years of submarine service waiting for me.

Why did you choose submarines?

Never in a million years did I expect to end up choosing submarines. It was the time of Top Gun, and boy I was gonna fly jets! But during my summer service orientation I went for a cruise on the Nebraska, and that was it. I was hooked, and fifteen months later I’m on the Pennsylvania for my junior tour.

Would you say it was the submarine service that spurred your interest in unmanned vehicles?

Oh, definitely. When I was on the Pogy we worked with some very early prototypes sent up from [Naval Undersea Warfare Center] Newport for arctic testing. Nothing too sexy – ocean survey, bathymetry. But I guess at that time I was intrigued with the idea, and started imagining the possibilities, the implications. What if these things could think for themselves? What if they were weaponized?  And what if the bad guys had them? After my tour on Pogy, I ended up at the Naval Postgraduate School working on my masters, and actually wrote my thesis on UUVs – a survey of current architecture, an examination of future technologies and how these could be leveraged for unmanned systems, and how UUVs could be integrated into fleet operations.

Legend has it DOD wanted to classify it.

[Laughs] Well, not really. It was nothing more than a skillful integration of open sources, some analysis, and extrapolation. It did manage to attract some interest, though.

From ONR? DARPA?

Well, actually it was the folks at Newport who reached out to me initially. My advisor at NPS was friendly with the CO there, and at the time – around early 1999 – they were working with APL, SPAWAR, and some other folks on crafting the Navy’s UUV master plan. So they called me up, asked if I’d like to come aboard, and next thing I know I’m on a plane to Rhode Island.

What was your contribution to the 2000 UUV Master Plan?

Well, by the time I entered on duty, the bulk of the heavy lifting was pretty much complete. But I did manage to contribute some perspective on the vision, CONOPS (especially in ASW), as well as technology and engineering issues. But where I think I added the most value was regarding the feasibility of the SWARM [Shallow Water Autonomous Reconnaissance Modules] concept – the idea of utilizing large numbers of small AUVs to create a dynamic, autonomous sensor grid for wide area mine countermeasures.

Was the SWARM concept a precursor to the Strikepod?

Conceptually, yes. It was an early articulation of an undersea battle group, the idea of numerous autonomous vehicles cooperating together to complete a mission. But while the idea was entirely feasible, I felt that SWARM was rather narrow in its scope. As an MCM platform, I suppose it made sense, with scores of small, relatively inexpensive nodes spread across hundreds of square miles, air dropped from B-2s or Hornets. But what we needed was an entirely new class of vehicle that was flexible, adaptive, and capable of carrying out multiple missions, whether in networks of two or two thousand. So, then, I guess you could say that SWARM inspired both Strikepods and the Atom-class submarine, but for different reasons.

Can you talk about how the Atom-class program originated, and how the Strikepod concept evolved?

I’d been having discussions with some of the Newport and MIT folks while working on the Master Plan, and we were all pretty much in agreement on the core elements of a UUV pod structure – connectivity, redundancy and expendability. We were also in agreement that small is beautiful, if you will, but all of the work on miniaturization was being done in the universities. Long story short, not only did ONR find the funding, but agreed to bring the university people on board, and next thing we have a lovely, windowless compartment in the basement of the Navy Lab. And we had a nice, nondescript name: Undersea Project 7.

It was an exciting time, and it was a genuine privilege working with some of the brightest minds around, people who could have easily been making five times their salaries at Google, or JP Morgan. 

The technology was complex, and the work could be pretty tedious. Lots of highs and lows – two steps forward one step back. For some of the top brass it was hard to justify the expense, pouring all that money into a system that seemed unnecessarily complicated, and, for them, pure science fiction. Do we really need roaming schools of killer fish? Don’t forget, these were guys who came from the era of SOSUS. But that’s what we were offering – and more. A smart SOSUS that could be deployed anywhere, at any time.

We envisioned three variants – one for command & control, or what we called the Rogue, one for navigation and communications, which we called the Relay, and a third that could physically attach itself to vessels, mines, infrastructure. This we called the Remora. Together they could be organized in networks of any size, undersea strike groups capable of communicating with each other and, via the Relay, surface assets and ashore bases.

The Atom-class was under development for nearly fifteen years. Were you at all aware of what was happening with adversary developments, and did that play a role in the design?

Absolutely, and somewhat.  Over time, I became increasingly involved with the intelligence side of things – collection guidance, and analysis. There came a point where I was ping-ponging pretty regularly between Carderock and Suitland, especially by the late 2000s when we were really stepping up our efforts. We were well aware of Chinese interest in unmanned systems, and around 2010 we started receiving reports about the Shāyú program. We were also keeping close tabs on some tech transfer between North Korea and Iran, something reminiscent of their Yono and Ghadir cooperation. There was a real sense of urgency, that we needed to be out-innovating and out-classing our adversaries if we were going to stay ahead of the curve. But we believed strongly in the Atom and Strikepods, and while it was important to know what the other guys were up to, we didn’t let it distract us from our own vision.

The most intriguing stuff was the HUMINT coming out of Rubin [Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering] – concerning a Project S3, or “Istina” – references to unmanned systems, miniaturization, and a breakthrough in energy production. And then there were reports of Russian vessels showing up unexpectedly during our boomer patrols. They seemed to just know where we were. The counterintelligence guys were in overdrive – this was eerily familiar to the red flag that plagued Richard Haver before the Walker ring was exposed. So we couldn’t just stand there and scratch our heads. But everything checked out internally. So, if there was no security breach, then, how could they know?

So, I started compiling data, and mapped it all out. CIA and DIA both believed it could be evidence of a non-acoustic sensor of some kind, and while this was certainly plausible, the evidence was mostly hearsay. We had imagery of SOKS sensors, and journal articles, and public statements by high ranking officials, but no hard data to substantiate the existence of a viable, working platform. We were, however, receiving quality product on the Istina program that suggested the Russians had developed some kind of miniaturized naval platform capable of lurking silently off Groton or King’s Bay, then trailing our boats to expose their positions to the Russian Fleet.

But you couldn’t sell it?

[Laughs] Well, no, which, admittedly, was pretty frustrating. But something that gets lost in all the scandals and the slanted reporting is the commitment to analytic rigor that permeates the intelligence community. These folks understand that their work has a direct impact not only on U.S. policy, but ultimately on human lives. The difference between right and wrong can mean the difference between life and death, and they carry that burden every day. So, no, I couldn’t sell it. And it was back to the drawing board.

And then Cape Charles happened.

And then Cape Charles happened.

Can you tell us about that day?

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning, one of those heavy, dewy August mornings in D.C. I was out getting in my run before the heat of the day, when I get a call from Chandra [Reddy, the ONI liaison for Undersea Project 7]. He tells me I need to come in to the office. We were working weekends pretty regularly, but I’d blocked out that day for a round of golf with my dad. I kindly remind him of this, and all he says is, “Jay – we’ve got something.” An hour later I’m on an SH-60 out of Andrews with Chandra and four engineers from S&T, tracking the Potomac out to the Bay. 

They briefed me enroute. Apparently the Coast Guard in Cape Charles, Virginia got a call around 7:30 that morning from a fisherman about a mile off the coast who said he came across something that “looked military.” They send out an RB-M, and bring back what they believe is a U.S. Navy prototype submersible. They phone it in, and ninety minutes later we’re putting down on a grassy airfield in the middle of nowhere, where we’re greeted by an earnest seaman recruit who proceeds to leadfoot it all the way to the station.

It was being kept in a back room, sitting on a table under a blue tarp. When I first saw it, I thought it was just a radio-controlled sub, like someone’s weekend garage project had gone astray. It was basically a miniaturized Oscar II, maybe six or seven feet long, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, since the Oscar was built for capacity, and why go to the trouble of designing and developing a whole new hull form when you can just miniaturize one that’s already in the inventory? 

We didn’t know how long it had been disabled, or if the Russians were even aware. We did know that the [Vishnya-class intelligence ship] Leonov had been lurking offshore, and there were a couple of fishing boats we were keeping an eye on near Norfolk, but for all we knew the handlers were right nearby, somewhere on shore. We had to assume they would come looking, so we had to act quickly.

We cracked it open and took a look right there on the table. The guys from S&T were like pathologists, very careful and thorough. One of them had a video camera, which I eventually realized was patched in to the White House Situation Room. 

I don’t think I need to tell you that the intelligence value was immeasurable, a holy grail. It confirmed, of course, what I’d been speculating all along, but it also showed us just how far along the Russians were. The propulsion system alone was a quantum leap for them, and was very similar to what we had been developing for the Atom.

Too similar?

I’d say strikingly similar. Maybe alarmingly so. But there was so much information floating around in the public domain – academia, scientific journals – so much private sector R&D going on, the design could have originated anywhere. For sure there was plenty for the counterintelligence guys to lose sleep over, but at that moment we had bigger fish to fry.

Did you bring it back to Washington for further analysis?

Well, actually, no.

You see, during the autopsy, one of the tech guys notices something – a small explosive charge right against the hull, wired to the CPU. The damn thing had an autodestruct! It was right out of Mission Impossible, but it obviously had failed to activate. We’d been toying with just such an idea for the Atom-class – a small blast to punch a hole in the hull and allow it to disappear into the depths, then ping like a black box for eventual retrieval.

Chandra’s on the secure phone, presumably with the Situation Room, when he turns to me, pointing at the Istina. “They want us to blow it,” he says. “They want us to put it back.” Immediately I think – are they crazy? This is the biggest intelligence haul since K-129, and they want to just dump it?  But then I realize – of course!  The Bay is shallow enough that if the Russians come calling, they will expect to find it, and if they can’t, they’ll have to assume we did. We needed them to believe we were clueless, so we had to let them find it. That way they’d never know what we knew.

So we closed it up, drove it back out into the Bay, and scuttled it.

Was it then that the President authorized Operation Robust Probe?

The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: Is this an isolated penetration, or is it part of a larger operation? Prudence required that we take action to sanitize the Bay, so yes, Robust Probe was ordered, and the Navy immediately mobilized.

But as urgent as the situation was, there was also a need for discretion. We couldn’t exactly fill the Chesapeake Bay with destroyers. Even an increased presence of Coast Guard or small patrol craft would likely not go unnoticed, at least by the Russians. So, within hours the Navy had cobbled together a flotilla of private watercraft manned by cleared contractors and sailors in civies. They fanned out across the Bay, banging away with dipping sonar, fish finders, and whatever they could use.

Fortunately, we’d been putting Alpha, the first operational Strikepod, through its paces, and had been having a lot of success. So we fast-tracked sea trials, put a crew together, rigged up a mobile command post – the very first Strikepod Command – in what looks like a plain T.V. news van, and we’re in business. 

Within twenty-four hours Alpha had detected another Istina lurking just off Thomas Point Light. It was an odd mixture jubilation – knowing that the Atom-class was a success – and dread, the weight of knowing of what was at hand, that the Russians had not only designed, developed and deployed a sophisticated micro AUV, but they were using it to brazenly violate our territorial waters.

Was there any other reaction from the White House?

The President immediately convened the National Security Council, and, yes, yours truly was ordered to attend and provide the briefing. He was not happy. How did we not see this coming? I explained how we were aware of Russian efforts, but that our coverage had been spotty. And there were no indications that the Russians were on the brink of deploying a new vehicle to the fleet, much less inserting it into U.S. territorial waters. 

I remember how surreal it felt, sitting there in the Situation Room, the looks on the faces around me. 

Fear?

Not fear. More like a mixture of deep concern and disbelief as if no one could wrap his head around the fact that this was actually happening. And I think everyone in that room knew that things were about to change, that all of our theorizing, prognosticating, and preparing for the future of naval warfare was coming to a head. The future had arrived, right in our back yard. 

The prevailing opinion in the room was that we should move immediately to destroy it and contact the Russian government. The guys from CIA made a compelling argument for restraint – one with which I concurred – that this was more an opportunity than a threat. There was no reason to believe this was Russia’s opening move against the United States, and that if anything it was the latest example of resurgent Russian bravado and Putin’s longing for the Cold War days. This was an opportunity to gather as much intelligence as possible on a new foreign weapons platform. But there was also concern that, if weaponized, the Istinas could be used to stage a terror attack and sow further insecurity and political unrest in the United States. In the end, though, we managed to convince the President to hold off, but if at any point it was determined that there existed a threat to life or property, we would have to destroy it.

Did you personally have any theories as to its intentions?

Not many. There was Aberdeen [Proving Ground]. Theoretically an Istina could get in close enough to extract some SIGINT or MASINT, depending on the vehicle’s sensor capabilities. But who really knew? Maybe the Russians were just interested in ship spotting, or counting crabs.

And then it just kind of hit me. It was September – the following month was Fleet Week in Baltimore. The Navy would be showcasing its wares –warships, the Blues – which normally wouldn’t be such a big deal, except there was something else that year.

Zumwalt? 

Exactly. Zumwalt was on the agenda that year for commissioning. She’d be sailing up the Bay, and then docked for several days at Locust Point. We weren’t concerned with an Istina attacking Zumwalt, per se, but we knew that there was much to be had intelligence-wise. And while we had no desire to enable a Russian intelligence operation, we also wanted to collect as much as possible of our own.

When we examined the Istina in Cape Charles, we didn’t discover a warhead of any kind, so we assumed any others wouldn’t be weaponized either. And even if they were, it was unlikely that a single Istina could inflict any meaningful damage on an armored warship, unless the Russians had managed to develop a super compact, high yielding explosive, but there was no intelligence indicating such. Perhaps a group of Istinas detonating simultaneously could cause a problem, enough to raise some eyebrows or even provoke a crisis, but it would take dozens to equal the yield of even a single torpedo.

It was a delicate, rapidly unfolding situation that was unlike anything we’d ever experienced in the modern era. Of course, we’d ventured into Soviet waters in manned submarines during the Cold War, at great risk to both human life and the delicate balance that defined the Cold War. But had Parche or Halibut been detected or attacked and sunk during Ivy Bells, it would have provoked a political crisis that may well have triggered World War III. Were the stakes just as high now? It was anyone’s guess.

Were you able to deploy additional Strikepods?

Yes. Alpha had been working like a charm, but then abruptly it loses contact with the Istina as it moves under a passing tanker, which was of course disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. In the meantime, we’d deployed two more six-ship Strikepods – Beta to cover the central Bay, and Gamma the southern region. It was a lot of territory to cover, but that constituted the sum total of our Atom-class fleet at the time. There were eight currently in various stages of production, but it would be at least a day or two before we could deploy them.

Pretty soon we get word that Gamma has detected something down near Bloodworth Island.  At first we figured we’d reacquired the original, but an analysis of the acoustic data revealed that it was actually a new vehicle. It was alarming, for sure, knowing that there were now at least two Russian microsubmarines lurking in the Chesapeake Bay.

We tracked it for about two days, and then Beta manages to reacquire Istina number one. About twelve hours later, Alpha detects not one, but two more right at the mouth of the Patapsco River. That’s when everyone’s hackles went up. This was no longer a counterintelligence operation. 

Operation Robust Probe becomes Robust Purge?

Correct. Once we realized that we were dealing with at least four Istinas in the Bay, and they were lingering in Zumwalt’s path, the time for just being sneaky was over. We needed to at the very least disrupt, if not outright destroy them. 

By now the eight new Atoms have come off the line, so we fit them each with a makeshift warhead of C4, designate them Remoras, and deploy them immediately – four for Alpha, which was now tracking two separate targets, and two each for Beta and Gamma. They would only be employed if we felt that there was an immediate threat to life or property.

In the meantime, Zumwalt, Leyte Gulf, and Jason Dunham, and the other ships arrive, and as they transit the Bay, the Istinas take up position about 500 meters astern. Once the ships turn into the Patapsco, though, they back off and assume a position just outside the mouth of the river. They linger there for about twelve hours, until we get a burst from Alpha: One of the Istinas is headed up river.

So now we have a decision to make. Alpha is tracking two separate vehicles. Do we order Alpha to pursue, and break off contact with one of them? Turns out Sea Rays and Boston Whalers aren’t particularly effective ASW platforms, and Strikepods Beta and Gamma were both busy with their own tracks, well to the south, too far away to assist Alpha in time.

Then one of our brilliant engineers suggests splitting Alpha pod. We could repurpose one of the Remoras as a Rogue, and assign it an armed Remora and a Relay for coms. The engineers get on it, and in about fifteen minutes a small splinter pod breaks off and starts trailing the Istina up the Patapsco.  Things get increasingly tense as it nears the Key Bridge, and we decide that if the Istina begins moving toward the bridge supports, we would have no choice but to destroy it.

After a few anxious moments it passes under the bridge without incident, and continues on a path toward Locust Point, where the warships are docked. Word comes down from the Sit Room: The Istinas now present a clear and present danger, so immediately we order the splinter pod to attack. A minute later a Remora detonates about five meters below the surface, and we watch as it and the Istina disappear from the tactical display. Beta and Gamma attack as well, sending their respective contacts, as well as two Remoras, to the bottom of the Bay.

And just like that it was over?

It was over.

The Strikepods and surface vessels continued to prosecute Robust Purge until Zumwalt and the other ships made it safely to the Atlantic. By all accounts, Baltimore Fleet Week, including the commissioning of the Navy’s newest destroyer, came off without a hitch. No one had any idea that the first decisive battle of a new era in naval warfare had just occurred within throwing distance of Fort McHenry.

What were the takeaways?

Well, we had terabytes of data to analyze, of course, but perhaps even more importantly, there were myriad political, security, and even philosophical questions to consider. What exactly were AUVs? Were they vessels? Weapons? In a way they were like spies, but rather than round them up and expel them, or put them in jail, we’d have to disrupt them, or even kill them.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway, though, was the realization that a new form of conflict was dawning. Submarines had of course always been characterized by stealth and secrecy, and had engaged in high risk cat-and-mouse games in order to stay ahead of the adversary. But now that submarines were unmanned, and, like their stealthy manned cousins, operated far from the prying eyes of the public, a kind of limited war was now possible, a war with little or no risk of escalation, or political fallout, and most importantly, no loss of human life. A war characterized by secrecy, anonymity, and non-attribution.

In other words, as we sit here today in my living room, in the year 2033, with the benefit of hindsight, our vision of AUVs as merely an extension of the Fleet’s eyes and ears was really rather primitive.

And only the beginning of the story.

[End Part I]

David R. Strachan is a writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems, explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. Contact him at strikepod.systems@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Arctic Sub Base by Jon Gibbons (via Deviant Art)

Will Artificial Intelligence Be Disruptive to Our Way of War?

By Marjorie Greene

Introduction

At a recent Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting Warren Buffett said that Artificial Intelligence – the collection of technologies that enable machines to learn on their own – could be “enormously disruptive” to our human society. More recently, Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, predicted that planet Earth will only survive for the next one hundred years. He believes that because of the development of Artificial Intelligence, machines may no longer simply augment human activities but will replace and eliminate humans altogether in the command and control of cognitive tasks.

In my recent presentation to the annual Human Systems conference in Springfield, Virginia, I suggested that there is a risk that human decision-making may no longer be involved in the use of lethal force as we capitalize on the military applications of Artificial Intelligence to enhance war-fighting capabilities. Humans should never relinquish control of decisions regarding the employment of lethal force. How do we keep humans in the loop? This is an area of human systems research that will be important to undertake in the future.       

Self-Organization

Norbert Wiener in his book, Cybernetics, was perhaps the first person to discuss the notion of “machine-learning.” Building on the behavioral models of animal cultures such as ant colonies and the flocking of birds, he describes a process called “self-organization” by which humans – and by analogy – machines learn by adapting to their environment. Self-organization refers to the emergence of higher-level properties of the whole that are not possessed by any of the individual parts making up the whole. The parts act locally on local information and global order emerges without any need for external control. The expression “swarm intelligence” is often used to describe the collective behavior of self-organized systems that allows the emergence of “intelligent” global behavior unknown to the individual systems.

Swarm Warfare

Military researchers are especially concerned about recent breakthroughs in swarm intelligence that could enable “swarm warfare” for asymmetric assaults against major U.S. weapons platforms, such as aircraft carriers.  The accelerating speed of computer processing, along with rapid improvements in the development of autonomy-increasing algorithms also suggests that it may be possible for the military to more quickly perform a wider range of functions without needing every individual task controlled by humans.

Drones like the Predator and Reaper are still piloted vehicles, with humans controlling what the camera looks at, where the drone flies, and what targets to hit with the drone’s missiles. But CNA studies have shown that drone strikes in Afghanistan caused 10 times the number of civilian casualties compared to strikes by manned aircraft. And a recent book published jointly with the Marine Corps University Press builds on CNA studies in national security, legitimacy, and civilian casualties to conclude that it will be important to consider International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in rethinking the drone war as Artificial Intelligence continues to flourish.

The Chinese Approach

Meanwhile, many Chinese strategists recognize the trend towards unmanned and autonomous warfare and intend to capitalize upon it. The PLA has incorporated a range of unmanned aerial vehicles into its force structure throughout all of its services. The PLA Air Force and PLA Navy have also started to introduce more advanced multi-mission unmanned aerial vehicles. It is clear that China is intensifying the military applications of Artificial Intelligence and, as we heard at a recent hearing by the Senate’s U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission (where CNA’s China Studies Division also testified), the Chinese defense industry has made significant progress in its research and development of a range of cutting-edge unmanned systems, including those with swarming capabilities. China is also viewing outer space as a new domain that it must fight for and seize if it is to win future wars.

Armed with artificial intelligence capabilities, China has moved beyond just technology developments to laying the groundwork for operational and command and control concepts to govern their use. These developments have important consequences for the U.S. military and suggest that Artificial Intelligence plays a prominent role in China’s overall efforts to establish an effective military capable of winning wars through an asymmetric strategy directed at critical military platforms.

Human-Machine Teaming

Human-machine teaming is gaining importance in national security affairs, as evidenced by a recent defense unmanned systems summit conducted internally by DoD and DHS in which many of the speakers explicitly referred to efforts to develop greater unmanned capabilities that intermix with manned capabilities and future systems.

Examples include: Michael Novak, Acting Director of the Unmanned Systems Directorate, N99, who spoke of optimizing human-machine teaming to multiply capabilities and reinforce trust (incidentally, the decision was made to phase out N99 because unmanned capabilities are being “mainstreamed” across the force); Bindu Nair, the Deputy Director, Human Systems, Training & Biosystems Directorate, OASD, who emphasized efforts to develop greater unmanned capabilities that intermix with manned capabilities and future systems; and Kris Kearns, representing the Air Force Research Lab, who discussed current efforts to mature and update autonomous technologies and manned-unmanned teaming.

DARPA

Finally, it should be noted that the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) has recently issued a relevant Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) titled “OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics” – as part of the Defense Department OFFSET initiative.  Notably, it includes a section asking for the development of tactics that look at collaboration between human systems and the swarm, especially for urban environments. This should certainly reassure the human systems community that future researchers will not forget them, even as swarm intelligence makes it possible to achieve global order without any need for external control.

Conclusion

As we capitalize on the military applications of Artificial Intelligence, there is a risk that human decision-making may no longer be involved in the use of lethal force. In general, Artificial Intelligence could indeed be disruptive to our human society by replacing the need for human control, but machines do not have to replace humans in the command and control of cognitive tasks, particularly in military contexts. We need to figure out how to keep humans in the loop. This area of research would be a fruitful one for the human systems community to undertake in the future.  

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

Featured Image: Electronic Warfare Specialist 2nd Class Sarah Lanoo from South Bend, Ind., operates a Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) console in the Combat Direction Center (CDC) aboard USS Abraham Lincoln. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Patricia Totemeier)

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

By Marjorie Greene

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

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

Forward, into Autonomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Networked Machine…

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

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

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

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

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

…And The Connected Human

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

The Future of Sea-Air Drones and Protecting Maritime Assets

By Jack Whitacre

What are some of the ways the U.S. and other countries could defend maritime assets against swarms of Sea-Air drones? Consider a convoy system with human centered technology, algorithms from nature, and elements of gaming.

Loon-Copter-Drone
Oakland University’s Loon Copter works equally well above and below the water’s surface. Photo: Oakland University

The FAA estimated that one million drones would be sold during this 2015 holiday season. This estimate was based primarily on the proliferation of flying drones, however new domains of operation may open up soon. Premiering in 2015, the Loon Copter proves that, in time, these devices will be capable of traditional aerial flight, on-water surface operations, and sub-aquatic diving. Embedded Systems Research at Oakland University created the Loon Copter in 2014. In 2016, the design placed third in the UAE Drones for Good competition. The system works in air as well as in water because the four rotors balance and cut through air and water equally well.  

dronemap1
A map of nations with a drone program as of 2011. Courtesy Defense One, via RAND Corporation.

According to the New America Foundation, at least 19 countries possessed or were acquiring armed drone technology as of 2015. The Washington Post and The Aviationist reported in July of 2014 that even non-state actors like Hamas have manufactured drones capable of firing rockets or missiles. At the time of reporting it was unknown whether this specific group had the ability to launch missiles, but the story does show the willingness of non-state actors to weaponize technology. The same Washington Post article describes how low-tech “suicide” drones effectively function as guided missiles. With the history of state actors increasingly acquiring armed drones and non-state actors weaponizing drones, Sea-Air drones could open new realms of battlespace.

“The profound influence of sea commerce upon the wealth and strength of countries was clearly seen long before the true principles which governed its growth and prosperity were detected.” –Alfred Thayer Mahan 

Sea-Air drones are not currently available off the shelf, so their ramifications are not yet recognized. If non-state or state actors designed suicide drones with sufficient range, it would be very difficult to defend global maritime trade against these threats due to the sheer size of the oceans. The Canadian Military Journal hypothesized that it is only a matter of time before pirates use drones offensively. Articles like these contemplate an important issue, but are limited by only considering the skies. Currently, our ability to detect air drones far exceeds capabilities to detect devices beneath the surface of the ocean. Even by diving ten or fifteen meters beneath the surface, Sea-Air drones may be able to elude satellites. NASA’s Ocean surface topography site describes how the best satellites measuring ocean temperature pierce only one inch below the ocean’s surface.

Shrouded by shadowy depths, would-be aggressors could potentially take down or ransom large freight vessels and trade flows that are so essential to many countries’ survival. According to Rose George in Ninety Percent of Everything,” nearly 90% of goods are transported by sea. The stakes are high and the arena is huge. While it’s unlikely that every inch of the sea will become a combat zone, NOAA estimates that there are nearly 321,003,271 cubic miles of water in the world’s oceans. To this end, DARPA is re-thinking distributed defense by creating small aircraft carrier cooperatives. In the face of such a large and deep strategic chessboard, what are some of the ways the U.S. and other maritime nations could defend shipping from Sea-Air Drones? One option would be to revive the convoy system. The tipping point for such a decision may have to unfortunately be a tragedy with lives lost at sea. By contemplating these scenarios now, we could build in defenses before deaths occur.

“When [the enemy] concentrates, prepare against him.” –Sun Tzu

The cost of drone technology, like other innovations, continues to decrease; beginners models are available for less than $100. As this trend is likely to also occur in the maritime arena, it would be wise to match high-value vessels with an accompanying group of friendly Sea-Air drones offering constant defensive protection. In other words, a convoy must have the ability to destroy or electronically neutralize attacking drones. A ship with a 24/7 security presence would likely be safer than standard battle group coordinated operations. This is because there are simply too many ships at sea at any given time to protect them all through traditional means. The International Chamber of Shipping estimates there are least 50,000 merchant ships plying the oceans at any given time. Having constant convoys would reduce vulnerability amidst the uncertainty of when, where, and how an enemy might attack.

These convoys could be combinations of complex programmable drones capable of truly autonomous decisions and human operated systems. The most successful formations might be inspired from millions of years of evolution and derived through phenomena like flocks of birds and schools of fish. In such swarms it would be possible to make a human operator the “lead,” balancing machine autonomy with human decision-making. To this end, P.W. Singer and August Cole’s futuristic Ghost Fleet novel describes human helicopter pilots flying missions in conjunction with drones. The video below shows many different formations that could be programmed for swarms.

In order to recruit talent, the defense community might consider incorporating crowd-sourcing and gaming to meet increasing demands, at least until convoy defense systems can function in fully automatized ways. Pilots could be given a convoy interface (like Eve Online) and point systems tied to real world rewards to incentivize behavior. With this approach, the U.S. could capitalize upon large reserves of talent to protect trade, coasts, and even fishing vessels. This is merely an opening suggestion. There would, of course, be clear difficulties with such a strategy, such as ensuring a clearance system, similar to that of the Merchant Marine, payments to operators, and contract stipulations surrounding the use of force. However, the proliferation of third-party defense contracting proves that new types of defense arrangements can be made quickly in the face of emergent threats.
 
It may be many years before Sea-Air drones, suicide drone piracy, and other forms of maritime threats emerge in full force. However, there are already clear modes of attack and high valued targets. The future may be hard to predict but that shouldn’t it preclude it from strategic thinking.  

Jack Whitacre is an entrepreneur and former boat captain who studied international security and maritime affairs at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.