Category Archives: Drones

Development, testing, deployment, and use of drones.

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.


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.

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.  

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.

Impacts of the Robotics Age on Naval Force Structure Planning

The following is adapted from an abstract for presentation at the Naval War College EMC Chair Symposium’s panel on Force Structure.

By Jeffrey E. Kline, CAPT, USN (ret)

This paper’s theme is that our overly platform-focused naval force structure planning and acquisition system is burdened with so many inhibitors to change that we are ill prepared to capitalize on the missile and robotics age of warfare. Refocusing our efforts to emphasize the “right side” of an offensive kill chain to deliver kinetic and non-kinetic effects will aid in overcoming these challenges and prioritize our efforts where cutting edge technology can best be applied in naval warfare. I will address traditional foundations for force structure planning, inhibitors to changing force structure, and how focusing on the packages delivered instead of the delivery platforms will allow us to better leverage new technologies in the 2020 timeframe.

Ideally, naval force structure grows from national strategy, national treasure, technological advancement, and potential adversary capabilities. National strategy provides the rationale, purpose, and priority of choices to be made in creating a fleet. National treasure provides both the resources, and constrains that force strategic choices. New technologies provide opportunities for increasing fleet effectiveness, and may also potentially expose vulnerabilities for fleet survival when adversary capabilities are considered. This is a complex problem with only these four factors. However, U.S. force structure acquisition is also challenged by other influences. These other pressures inhibit capitalization of new technologies and slow reaction in the face of new challenges.

The most powerful of these is the inertia caused by an existing fleet being a large national capital investment with long build and life times. Ships and aircraft cost billions to design, build, and maintain. They require a capital-intensive industry requiring heavy equipment, infrastructure, and a skilled workforce, all generations in the making. The consequence is annual programming and budgeting decisions marginal in nature. It is the nature of a large fleet to evolve slowly, in lieu of revolutionary changes to its composition. This is a reality each Chief of Naval Operation faces when considering change to naval forces. Their relatively short tenure restricts their ability to execute a maritime strategy which has a real effect on ship and aircraft procurement.

Since our first six frigates were authorized in 1794, internal political and economic factors have been another major influence on fleet composition. Illustrated well by Ian Toll in his Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, the potential windfalls on local economies when selected to provide force structure generate powerful political pressures on force generation decisions and create the desire for stabilization once those selections are made. The senators and congressman representing districts which build ships and aircraft rightfully defend existing programs for the benefit of their constituents.

This image provided by the US navy shows sailors moving an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator onto an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The drone was launched off the George H.W. Bush to be the first aircraft carrier to catapult launch an unmanned aircraft from its flight deck. (AP Phioto/U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter)
US navy sailors moving an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator onto an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The drone was launched off the George H.W. Bush to be the first aircraft carrier to catapult launch an unmanned aircraft from its flight deck. (AP Phioto/U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter)

Next, the overly compartmentalized nature of fleet planning, budgeting, building, and maintenance due to large and resource-competing bureaucracies create a lethargic and inefficient environment for change. Multiple oversight agencies, including Congress, make any decision made by one program manager susceptible to overly zealous scrutiny which disincentivizes innovation. Our ability to implement rapid change is lost when stakeholders exceed the point where responsibility and authority can be clearly defined. This is not to argue that Congress should abandon their Constitutional authority to maintain a Navy, but the real change is needed inside the programming, acquisition, and maintenance system to return to a more efficient hierarchy of command to control fleet composition.  Many of these changes will require Congressional action to amend regulatory burden.

Finally, the very nature of a fleet’s strategic value engenders conservatism in senior naval leadership when faced with the options for change. This is not necessarily an unhealthy view as the loss of the fleet can mean the loss of sea lines of communication and therefore a war.  Nonetheless, overvaluing what worked in the last major maritime war at the expense of not recognizing technology that changes the conveyance of maritime power can mean a fleet unprepared to combat an enemy that is not so inhibited.   

None of these influences on force structure planning can be lightly dismissed. The danger is that collectively they result in a harmful escalation of commitment toward obsolete platforms and only marginal changes in force structure in the face of major technological changes. The result today is a brittle U.S. Fleet that is susceptible to capability surprise and slow to react to adversary’s threats.

DARPAs Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV).

The United States is not unique in facing these challenges. Historically, major changes to naval force structure have resulted from war and/or great technology leaps. Ramming, row, and boarding vessels gave way to the naval cannon and sail; sail to steam; rifled gun and armor to aircraft; aircraft to missiles; and now we are on the dawn of a robotics age. Missiles, robots, miniaturization, hypersonic technologies, and artificial intelligence give the advantage to smaller, many, faster, and more lethal offensive capabilities. Our challenge is to not allow the restraints on the current force structure planning process to cede these advantages to potential adversaries.

Meeting each of the 2015 maritime strategic capabilities like all domain access, deterrence, sea control, power projection, and maritime security while constrained by the budget and procurement process and contested by potential adversaries’ growing capabilities will require new thinking in platforms, weapons, and command and control. Advancement into the robotic age allows us to emphasize options to achieve a desired tactical end state which enables our operational and strategic goals. This is somewhat a reversal in the traditional hierarchy of the levels of war. Yet, it is historically accurate. Technology empowers a tactical edge in maritime warfare, providing new operational and strategic choices. For example, investing in a very “smart” long range autonomous offensive missile that can out-range those of our adversary may permit us to build less expensive, less well defended ships from which to launch them thereby making sea control more affordable.

A Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) integrated on F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. US Navy photo.

Consider a new frigate equipped with unmanned aerial vehicles to hunt, and long range missile to kill, against today’s DDG Flight III without a long range surface missile. Granted, better to have a DDG Flight III armed with the same long range missile, so long as we can afford sufficient DDGs with these capabilities to meet all the other requirements around the world, the most capacity-demanding being maritime security, but our budget constrains us. The message here is not necessarily to favor a frigate over a DDG, but to refocus our investments on less expensive “payloads” delivered, kinetic or cyber, not the more expensive delivery platforms. A stark example is a weapon that has huge maritime influence but no maritime platform, the DF-21. Focusing on offensive payloads also lessens many of the political, economic, and bureaucratic challenges associated with large capital investments associated with platform programs. 

This “package focus” first is particularly applicable in the electromagnetic and cyber realm. Inexpensive, disposable UAVs employing radar reflectors or chirp jamming may be better delivery platforms for EM “packages” than a F-18 Growler. In the defense, developing “Left of kill chain” effects against an adversary need not be expensive, but does require synchronization with the movement of actual forces. The desired effects may rely as much on adversary perception as on physical outcomes. The solutions here may be more organizational, training, and in the area of concept of employment than force structure additions. However, it again allows us new options in force structure alternatives.

When building a fleet for contested environments with real financial constraints, our investments should be focused on the right side of our offensive kill chain, and on the left side of an adversary’s kill chain. In addition to putting the focus of warfare close to the enemy and further from us, this enables us to capitalize on technologies provided by the missile and robotics age and constrains the inhibitors to change from a platform focused acquisition system. Seeing missiles and unmanned systems as entities themselves, and not just extensions of manned platforms, is a concept needing early adoption. Creating an unmanned system resource sponsor in OPNAV N99 is a good first step. Empowering them with sufficient resources will be the next.

We are not there yet.  In the FY17 DoD President’s budget, a bit over 40% is allocated for aircraft procurement and shipbuilding, only 9% for munitions. Real change will be required, involving Congress and the Department of the Navy.

A retired naval officer with 26 years of service, Jeff is currently a Professor of Practice in the Operations Research department and holds the Chair of Systems Engineering Analysis. He teaches Joint Campaign Analysis, executive risk assessment and coordinates maritime security education programs offered at NPS. Jeff supports applied analytical research in maritime operations and security, theater ballistic missile defense, and future force composition studies. He has served on several Naval Study Board Committees. His NPS faculty awards include the Superior Civilian Service Medal, 2011 Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS) Award for Teaching of OR Practice, 2009 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Homeland Security Award, 2007 Hamming Award for interdisciplinary research, 2007 Wayne E. Meyers Award for Excellence in Systems Engineering Research, and the 2005 Northrop Grumman Award for Excellence in Systems Engineering. He is a member of the Military Operations Research Society and the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science.  

Could Robot Submarines Replace Australia’s Ageing Collins Class Submarines?

This article originally featured on The Conversation. It can be read in its original form here.

By Sean Welsh

The decision to replace Australia’s submarines has been stalled for too long by politicians afraid of the bad media about “dud subs” the Collins class got last century.

Collins class subs deserved criticism in the 1990s. They did not meet Royal Australian Navy (RAN) specifications. But in this century, after much effort, they came good. Though they are expensive, Collins class boats have “sunk” US Navy attack submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers in exercises.

Now that the Collins class is up for replacement, we have an opportunity to reevaluate our requirements and see what technology might meet them. And just as drones are replacing crewed aircraft in many roles, some military thinkers assume the future of naval war will be increasingly autonomous.

The advantages of autonomy in submarines are similar to those of autonomy in aircraft. Taking the pilot out of the plane means you don’t have to provide oxygen, worry about g-forces or provide bathrooms and meals for long trips.

Taking 40 sailors and 20 torpedoes out of a submarine will do wonders for its range and stealth. Autonomous submarines could be a far cheaper option to meet the RAN’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) requirements than crewed submarines.

Submarines do more than sink ships. Naval war is rare but ISR never stops. Before sinking the enemy you must find them and know what they look like. ISR was the original role of drones and remains their primary role today.

Last month, Boeing unveiled a prototype autonomous submarine with long range and high endurance. It has a modular design and could perhaps be adapted to meet RAN ISR requirements.

Boeing is developing a long range autonomous submarine that could have military applications.

Thus, rather than buy 12 crewed submarines to replace the Collins class, perhaps the project could be split into meeting the ISR requirement with autonomous submarines that can interoperate with a smaller number of crewed submarines that sink the enemy.

Future submarines might even be “carriers” for autonomous and semi-autonomous UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and UUVs (unmanned undersea vehicles).

Keeping People on Deck

However, while there may be a role for autonomous submarines in the future of naval warfare, there are some significant limitations to what they can achieve today and in the foreseeable future.

Most of today’s autonomous submarines have short ranges and are designed for very specific missions, such as mine sweeping. They are not designed to sail from Perth to Singapore or Hong Kong, sneak up on enemy ships and submarines, and sink them with torpedoes.

Also, while drone aircraft can be controlled from a remote location, telepiloting is not an option for a long range sub at depth.

The very low frequency radio transceivers in Western Australia used by the Pentagon to signal “boomers” (nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarines) in the Indian Ocean have very low transmission rates: only a few hundred bytes per second.

You cannot telepilot a submarine lying below a thermocline in Asian waters from Canberra like you can telepilot a drone flying in Afghanistan with high-bandwidth satellite links from Nevada.

Contemporary telepiloted semi-autonomous submarines are controlled by physical tethers, basically waterproof network cables, when they dive. This limits range to a few kilometers.

Who’s the Captain?

To consider autonomy in the role of sinking the enemy, the RAN would likely want an “ethical governor” to skipper the submarines. This involves a machine making life and death decisions: a “Terminator” as captain so to speak.

This would present a policy challenge for government and a trust issue for the RAN. It would certainly attract protest and raise accountability questions.

On the other hand, at periscope depth, you can telepilot a submarine. To help solve the chronic recruitment problems of the Collins class, the RAN connected them to the internet. If you have a satellite “dongle on the periscope” so the crew can email their loved ones, then theoretically you can telepilot the submarine as well.

That said, if you are sneaking up on an enemy sub and are deep below the waves, you can’t.

Even if you can telepilot, radio emissions directing the sub’s actions above the waves might give away its position to the enemy. Telepiloting is just not as stealthy as radio silence. And stealth is critical to a submarine in war.

Telepiloting also exposes the sub to the operational risks of cyberwarfare and jamming.

There is great technological and political risk in the Future Submarine Project. I don’t think robot submarines can replace crewed submarines but they can augment them and, for some missions, shift risk from vital human crews to more expendable machines.

Ordering nothing but crewed submarines in 2016 might be a bad naval investment.

Sean Welsh is a Doctoral Candidate in Robot Ethics at the University of Canterbury. The working title of his dissertation is Moral Code: Programming the Ethical Robot. He spent 17 years working in software engineering for organisations such as British Telecom, Telstra Australia, Fitch Ratings, James Cook University and Lumata. He has given several conference papers on programming ethics into robots, two of which are appearing in a forthcoming book, A World of Robots, to be published by Springer later in the year.

Sean Welsh does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Featured Image: HMAS Rankin at periscope depth. United States Navy, Photographer’s Mate 1st Class David A. Levy