Category Archives: Drones

Development, testing, deployment, and use of drones.

Why We Will Never See Fully Autonomous Commercial Ships

By Commander David Dubay, USCG

The world will never see fully autonomous transoceanic commercial cargo ships. In fact, autonomous vessels are likely to operate in only very limited situations. In recent years, the prospect of fully autonomous vessels has become a hot topic for commercial shipping. The same fast-paced advances in technology that have led to projects to automate vehicles in every other sector of the transportation industry have also found their way to the shipping industry. Advances in camera technology, sensors, electromechanical actuators, and satellite technology appear to promise a world in which ships will soon traverse the oceans without a human on board. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Comité Maritime International (CMI) are already exploring how autonomous vessels would fit into the existing framework of international maritime law.

Yet, while it is laudable to plan for the future, autonomous vessels operated by computers and remote operators quite simply pose too many vulnerabilities and they likely will prove too expensive to replace today’s manned vessels. The professional merchant mariners who operate ships today are the crucial on-scene decision makers, repairmen, and physical security providers who make commercial shipping secure, efficient, and inexpensive. Once we get past the promises and hyperbole, the risk of collisions, legal liabilities, and environmental calamity will ensure that some critical number of humans will persist onboard ships. Advances in technology will continue to make shipping safer and more efficient, but they will not eventually replace the human masters and crews that serve on today’s commercial vessels.

Despite all the excitement, the benefits of autonomous ships are still very much up for debate. For shipping companies, a switch to autonomous vessels promises cost savings from not having to pay for a master and crew, and perhaps from increased safety. But scores of new operators and technicians would be required to make a system of autonomous vessels work. The equipment to automate a ship will be extremely expensive and would introduce many new potential points of failure into commercial shipping. Autonomous vessels may reduce the number of accidents caused by human negligence, however, the relative safety of autonomous vessels versus manned vessels is pure speculation at this point. Autonomous ships could potentially be more efficient if the space for the crew could be dedicated to additional cargo. But ships will still likely need to have systems and controls in place to allow them to be operated with human master and crew when there are system failures. Autonomous vessels may result in better working conditions overall in the shipping industry as they would eliminate the need to find workers to fill the many difficult and hazardous jobs at sea. But the elimination of merchant mariner jobs would be a tremendous financial blow to those workers in those jobs today.

Recent articles have proclaimed that autonomous vessels are here or just on the horizon and seem to take the adoption of autonomous vessels as a certainty. At an initial glance, the future of autonomous vessels appears very promising. For small vessels the technology that is needed to automate a vessel is here today and is available enough that even a hobbyist can build an autonomous vessel. In 2017, SEA CHARGER, a small solar powered and unmanned home-built boat successfully completed a trip from California to Hawaii using GPS and a satellite modem for guidance and connectivity. And companies in the shipping industry are already using technologies that could eventually be used to automate larger vessels. The newest vessel of the the Red and White Fleet, a San Francisco charter boat company, is a hybrid diesel electric with a 160 kilowatt lithium ion battery pack that provides enough power for the ship to do a one-hour Golden Gate cruise on battery power alone.

One present obstacle for automating larger vessels is battery technology. At the outset, today’s batteries simply do not have the energy density necessary to power larger commercial vessels. Higher capacity and more powerful electric batteries that are powerful enough to move larger ships will likely be developed in the future. However, current battery technology has limitations. Lithium ion batteries, the type used for automated vehicles and aircraft, can explode if overcharged and further, large lithium ion batteries need to be temperature controlled to work properly.

Even more challenging obstacles to the success of autonomous vessels will be the expense and complexity of designing such systems. The technical challenge of operating a large cargo ship autonomously on the open oceans for days or weeks at a time will require a command and control system that does not exist today and may be impractical to build. Seamanship and navigating a ship safely is a challenge with a full complement of crew members on board. Automated ships will require command centers, computers, advanced satellite communications systems, other electronic devices, remote operators, and other technicians. Autonomous vessels would save money by not having a crew, but shipping companies will in many cases be simply replacing merchant mariners with other workers, most likely more expensive technical workers, who will work in offices on land or will be on call to assist autonomous ships across the oceans. Shipping companies will likely need multiple redundant command centers to provide the robust level of connectivity required for the safe and secure operation of these ships.

All of this advanced technology will be very expensive and much of the expense will be the cost of designing and operating a system capable of providing the propulsion, navigation controls, and stopping power necessary to operate a ship continuously in the harsh ocean environment. Weather, wind, waves, fog, obstructions, marine mammals, salt water, weather, birds, other ships, sounds, and almost anything else imaginable is encountered out on the open ocean. An autonomous ship will require incredibly complex technology to withstand the chaos of the ocean environment and enable a ship to respond remotely to any incident or emergency. It is still an open question whether today’s controls and communications technologies are sufficiently robust and capable so as to be relied on for commercial shipping in place of a human crew.

The most serious concern regarding autonomous vessels is the one that will very likely keep them from ever being employed: the risk of exploitation by adversaries, hackers, terrorists, criminals, and other malign actors. Autonomous vessels’ dependence on the electromagnetic spectrum and cyberspace infrastructure coupled with the lack of any human on-scene responders will provide an opportunity for others to interfere with these ships and potentially use them as weapons or for profit. The challenge for system designers is that the characteristics or features that make an automated system feasible for commercial application, such as standardization, continuous communications, and periodic updates, also provide exploitable opportunities for bad actors. Autonomous commercial cargo vessels would provide too easy a target of opportunity for theft, misuse, interference, or worse.

Conclusion

Some reality must be injected into the debate over autonomous ships. It is a truism that electronic and mechanical systems will eventually fail. For vital applications where human lives are at risk such as for aircraft, system engineers design in wide tolerances, safeguards, and multiple levels of redundancy to ensure an adequate margin of safety. The challenge in designing autonomous vessels is building both a safe and secure system that will function effectively in all ocean and maritime conditions without human beings on board and one that is not capable of being exploited by bad actors. Such a system, even if possible to build, would likely be too expensive for companies to build and operate compared to human crew. As a result, autonomous vessels are extremely unlikely to displace the human network of maritime professionals that have always made the maritime transportation system safe and secure.

Commander David Dubay is a Military Professor of International Law and Associate Director for the Law of Maritime Operations, Stockton Center for International Law, U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, or the U.S. Naval War College.

Featured Image: HMM Dream (Wikimedia Commons)

Unmanned Systems Week Wraps up on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

Last week CIMSEC published articles submitted in response to our call for articles released in partnership with the Navy’s Unmanned Maritime Systems program office. Authors discussed how to experiment with unmanned systems, how unmanned systems can contribute to amphibious assaults and fleet air defense, among other operational and developmental questions. We thank the authors for their excellent contributions. 

Create an Unmanned Experimental Squadron and Learning System” by Dustin League and LCDR Daniel Justice

“…we propose that the Navy revisit history and revitalize the complex learning system it used to exploit an earlier set of new capabilities prior to World War II. Specifically, we call for the Navy to accelerating standing up a dedicated experimental squadron with the purpose of exploring advanced tactics for employing unmanned systems in a series of tactically challenging, objective-based exercises.”

Unmanned Units Need Tenders for Distributed Operations” by Griffin Cannon

“Looking to the past, the precedent of the Pacific War, in which fleet tenders provided engineering support to a mobile fleet, suggests a path forward. Basing a support and sustainment model for Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) on 21st century tenders would both fulfill the unique support needs of USVs and help build the ability to fight and deter a war in the Pacific.”

Autonomous Pickets for Force Protection and Fleet Missile Defense” by 1st Lt. Walker D. Mills

“In all cases, the ability to form a protective perimeter of unmanned systems beyond the edge of the fleet would significantly boost survivability and increase options for the fleet commander by lowering risk. A flotilla of autonomous pickets, armed with effective CIWS and multi-spectrum missile countermeasures, can function as a powerful yet affordable force multiplier. Such a force would provide the Navy with an increased ability to operate and project power inside an anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) network and help the fleet weather storms of missile salvos. “

Accelerating the Renaissance of the U.S. Navy’s Amphibious Assault Forces” by George Galdorisi

“The ship-to-shore movement of an expeditionary assault force was—and remains—the most hazardous mission for any navy.  The value of real-time ISR and IPB is difficult to overstate. It is this ability to sense the battlespace in real time that will spell the difference between victory and defeat. For this reason, it seems clear that the types of unmanned systems the Department of the Navy should acquire are those systems that directly support naval expeditionary forces that conduct forcible entry operations. “

Providing Secure Logistics for Amphibious Assault with Unmanned Surface Vehicles” by Neil Zerbe

“…the Navy would be better served by embracing the always successful “crawl, walk, run,” method and use commercial off-the-shelf technology to evolve an already proven logistics capability before committing to ambitious plans with unmanned surface ships that aren’t yet on the drawing boards. Far from distracting Navy officials from these more lofty ideas for using unmanned systems, demonstrating this capability in Navy-Marine Corps exercises would likely accelerate the Navy’s embrace of unmanned systems.”

The Case for Unmanned Surface Vehicles in Future Maritime Operations” by Wayne Prender

“While it is encouraging to see Navy plans to move quickly to bring initial Medium and Large USVs into the fleet, other unmanned platforms are equally ready for such an approach. Innovation is the key to shaping tomorrow’s Navy, and getting USVs of all shapes and sizes to the fleet for Sailors to try out is the best approach to achieving it.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: PEARL HARBOR (Nov. 2, 2018) The medium displacement unmanned surface vehicle (MDUSV) prototype Sea Hunter is moored onboard Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. Sea Hunter’s arrival in Hawaii demonstrates that MDUSVs are capable of deployed blue-water operations, enabling a new class of naval system. Highly autonomous USVs like Sea Hunter are creating a new paradigm for Navy surface forces, as they are capable of carrying a variety of payloads and performing many missions, including independent operations from manned Navy ships. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird/Released)

The Case for Unmanned Surface Vehicles in Future Maritime Operations

Unmanned Maritime Systems Topic Week

By Wayne Prender

As U.S. naval forces further develop and implement distributed maritime operations concepts to address great power competition with Russia and China, more ships spread across wider distances will be required. This, in turn, will lead to a changing fleet composition with larger numbers of small ships and vessels of all types, as well as provide the additional required logistical support over expanded distances. Far greater participation of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) of all types will be needed as a part of this new construct due to budgetary necessity and operational imperative.

While new unmanned ships, such as those planned under the Medium USV and Large USV programs, are expected to be fielded in the dozens, smaller unmanned vessels and craft numbering in the hundreds can play vital complimentary rolls. Already, the Navy has USV programs underway that will help remove humans from dangerous operational environments, such as minefields. Additionally, concepts are under development for similar platforms to extend the fleet’s reach through a range of networked sensors and weapons.

The quickest, best value, and lowest risk path forward to developing long-term solutions for new missions is to adapt existing, proven, and already paid-for unmanned vehicle designs by swapping out their mission-specific equipment. The idea is to use a common unmanned vessel that can easily and quickly incorporate a variety of payloads for diverse mission sets, or haul people and material in the payload bay area.

In the case of the Textron Systems’ Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV), which was selected under competition as the platform for the Navy’s Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS) program, payloads are rapidly interchangeable. Much like a standard International Standards Organization (ISO) shipping container that can be quickly moved via crane onto and off of a tractor trailer, the CUSV uses ISO locks and standard electrical interfaces so that payloads can be changed rapidly, allowing mission flexibility. Unmanned craft such as the CUSV, which offer large amounts of electrical power as well as 5,000 pounds of payload capacity, can serve as the basic “trucks” for carrying a wide variety of potential mission packages that are tailored for specific tasks.

New Missions: Endless Possibilities

To date, naval plans for such USVs have been limited to the mine-countermeasures (MCM) mission areas, with the UISS initially intended for mine-sweeping. With that program being subsumed into the MCM USV program, mine-hunting payload options are being added and mine-neutralization equipment is being envisioned, which would facilitate the entire detect-to-engage process in a single MCM sortie.

While taking the man out of the naval minefield was a natural first mission to address, U.S. naval forces have only begun to scratch the surface of what USVs of all sizes can accomplish. In 2017, Textron Systems and the Naval Surface Warfare Center-Dahlgren established a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), which allows for the exploration of advanced missions, concepts, and capabilities. Initial explorations have evaluated different payloads for a Surface and Expeditionary Warfare Mission Module that could counter fast-attack craft and swarming boats, as well as provide armed escort. Payloads, such as an integrated remote weapon station (RWS) armed with .50 caliber machine gun, have already shown during mock intercepts that the craft can identify, lock, and maintain a fix on a moving target. Integration of a Hellfire missile is planned, and other lethal payloads such a 30mm cannon, low-cost loitering munition, or even larger systems like the Naval Strike Missile, could be considered.

Such capabilities would allow the USV to support a wide array of missions. For example, a USV carrying a mix of armament, such as .50 cal RWS, combined with non-lethal capabilities would give operators a range of engagement escalation options during the conduct of harbor patrol, port security, or counter-piracy escort duties. For more stressing force protection, armed interdiction and escort missions, those payloads could be exchanged for a launcher carrying Hellfire missile or other armaments.

The craft does not need to carry a mission package to be useful. Its empty payload areas can haul cargo for resupply and logistics – a capability that will be in greater demand as part of distributed operations. Similarly, a USV in “cargo configuration” could be of significant utility during humanitarian operations, delivering supplies to needy areas, and evacuation of people under duress.

With significant excess onboard power and substantial available space and weight, such USVs could also be equipped to conduct electronic warfare; pull an anti-submarine warfare sensor array; host intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors; or carry a communications relay payload. This is just the beginning of exploring the art of the possible. The best way to quickly determine the most promising technologies and concepts is to get a number of the craft into the water for experimentation. 

Not Just for Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) 

Consideration needs to be given regarding how a CUSV-sized craft can support a variety of new roles and missions. Although the MCM USV program envisions the craft as being initially operated from the LCS, recent demonstrations have shown such USVs are not limited to just that class. In fact, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Ship Mounts Bay successfully operated the CUSV during a recent naval experiment. The USV can also been deployed off the shore, as well as from additional platforms which have a crane or wet dock. For example, the CUSV has demonstrated this concept operating off the Expeditionary Transfer Dock USNS John Glenn. 

While a forward operating base or mothership is needed for the craft of this size to be forward deployed, several options are worth considering. Depending on the specific mission profile, such craft typically operate for approximately eight-hour sorties between refueling. Additionally, refueling does not need to be provided by specific manned ships, but could instead come from a wider variety of places. Imagine, for example, a future destroyer escorted by 10 to 20 armed USVs operating as part of a distributed operating concept. Each of those USVs could, in turn, be a mothership for additional smaller unmanned craft (unmanned aerial systems, unmanned underwater systems and USVs), that are netted together to create a truly layered defense. These smaller craft, if autonomously refueled, including by the larger medium and large USVs, could potentially stay on station for days, weeks, or even months without needing to return to port.

Ready Technology: Powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) 

The basic building blocks of AI technology that will enable such operations already exist. USVs have demonstrated during naval experimentation that they are fully capable of autonomous navigation and seakeeping operations, collision avoidance, and International Regulations for Preventing Collision at Sea (COLREGs) compliance, and that evolution continues. At the upcoming Advanced Naval Technology Experiment (ANTX) at Camp Lejeune this summer, the CUSV will be put through its paces to demonstrate that these craft possess operational maturity in their ability for autonomous basic operations, as well as advanced concepts such the hand-off of control of the craft to another platform to test manned-unmanned teaming concepts.

Improvements and evolution of AI technology will add capabilities to these craft in many areas. It will help increase the level of autonomy in the craft such that it can be operated without need for human intervention in its basic movements and navigation. This will, in turn, reduce the operational burden on a craft operator and could lead to additional manpower reductions. While most missions will require one person to operate the vessel and another operator for the payload, decision tools enabled by AI could make a single operator feasible.

Consider, for example, how commercial companies like Waymo plan to use a controller to oversee a fleet of road vehicles. Future control technologies could also enable one operator to control multiple craft simultaneously, allowing their teammates to focus on the payload sensor or weapons. These control technologies do not have to be restricted to USVs. Textron Systems’ Synturian family of multi-domain control and collaboration technologies can control craft such as CUSV, as well as various unmanned aircraft systems, raising the possibility of seamless control for a multitude of different systems.

Advances in AI will also be vital in providing USVs with self-diagnostic technologies for predictive maintenance. Combined with increase component reliability, these technologies will enable craft to go longer between maintenance periods while more predictably knowing when that maintenance is needed. Such logistical schemes, in additional to autonomous refueling, are a key to the future ability of USVs to stay on station for longer durations.

Ramp Up Experimentation

Technological advances, fiscal pressures, and rising peer competitor capabilities suggest that the Navy must adapt its core warfighting strategies and concepts, and a changing fleet composition to one that uses unmanned platforms of all types and sizes to a greater degree. For all the excitement that USVs and the attenuate technologies bring, the details of how best to leverage those vessels are still in their infancy. Experience has repeatedly shown that the best way to generate and test new warfighting concepts ideas is through experimentation, specifically done at sea by Sailors themselves. Fortunately, the Navy has the Other Transactional Authorities (OTA) mechanism at its disposal, a ready-made and proven means to quickly procure prototypes for such experimentation while longer-term concepts and requirements are refined.

Specifically, getting USVs of all types into the hands of Sailors and planning for increased experimentation will provide insights into key questions such as which missions the various unmanned craft should undertake, and how those vessels best fit into the wider naval tactical and operational construct. Development of those new doctrines, strategies, and tactics is needed, and with rapidly developing technologies and capabilities of potential adversaries, we no longer have the luxury of time to go through the traditional, decade-long requirements and acquisition process just to get the first iteration of new systems to the fleet for experimentation.

While it is encouraging to see Navy plans to move quickly to bring initial Medium and Large USVs into the fleet, other unmanned platforms are equally ready for such an approach. Innovation is the key to shaping tomorrow’s Navy, and getting USVs of all shapes and sizes to the fleet for Sailors to try out is the best approach to achieving it.

Wayne Prender is Senior Vice President of Applied Technologies & Advanced Programs (ATAP), as well as a member of the Textron Systems Executive Leadership Team. Prior to assuming his current position, Prender served as Vice President, Control & Surface Systems for Textron Systems’ Unmanned Systems business, focusing on programs including the Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV), Cased Telescoped (CT) weapons and ammunition, and Command and Control (C2) Technology programs. He also served in the U.S. Army as a Platoon Leader, Shop Officer, Battalion Intelligence Officer in Iraq, where he was awarded the Bronze Star, and Aide-de-Camp for the Commanding General of the U.S. Army’s 20th Support Command (CBRNE). Prender holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from St. Louis University, and a Master of Science degree in Technology Management and an MBA from the University of Maryland (UMUC).

Featured Image: Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle. (Textron image)

Providing Secure Logistics for Amphibious Assault with Unmanned Surface Vehicles

Unmanned Maritime Systems Topic Week

By Neil Zerbe

Introduction

After almost two decades of languishing in near-obscurity while U.S. Marine Corps forces were engaged in ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps amphibious assault force is experiencing a revival. The reason is clear: this warfighting formation is the one that is most vital in a wide-array of missions across the globe and across the spectrum of conflict. This has been true throughout this history of the Navy-Marine Corps team, and is perhaps more true today as the United States faces a new spectrum of threats from peer-competitors, to unstable rogue states, to the threat of global terrorism.

While today’s Navy-Marine Corps amphibious assault force is unlikely to conduct a major, brigade-level amphibious offensive involving thousands of troops, the ability to put a substantial number of Marines and gear ashore in response to terrorist activity, a natural disaster, or to deliver credible combat power for a higher-end fight is something the U.S. military must be prepared to do. Indeed, as the Director of National Intelligence capstone publication, Global Trends: Paradox of Progress, notes, “The chance of conflict in the next five years has never been higher.”1 U.S. Marines will likely be in any conflict engaged in by this nation.

Most people – and even many naval professionals – have only a rudimentary understanding of the complexities of amphibious operations. Unlike armies that move supplies over land with an armada of trucks and other vehicles, everything that Marines need when they land on the beach must travel with them in a variety of amphibious assault vehicles and landing craft, often in the face of well-entrenched enemy fire.

But that is only half the story. Once the Marines – who are equipped with only what they can carry in their pack – are on the beach and in the fight, everything they need to keep fighting must be delivered to them from the amphibious assault ships standing offshore. This includes ammunition (and lots of it), food, water, medical support, fuel for vehicles, and every other item imaginable.

The name for this resupply effort is logistics. This military art has been a mainstay of warfare for millennia. As Alexander the Great famously said, “My logisticians are a humorless lot…they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay.” Over 2,300 years later, logistics is still vital to any military operation, and of all the U.S. military services, the U.S. Marine Corps is the one that is defining and refining this art.

The Navy-Marine Corps Team: Leading the Way in the Military Art of Logistics

Almost four decades ago, General Robert Barrow, USMC, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, coined a phrase that is still a staple of U.S. War College curricula, “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” Today, that emphasis on logistics is ingrained in U.S. Marine Corps DNA. As Brigadier General Arthur Pasagian, USMC, Commander, Marine Corps Systems Command, noted at a recent symposium, “Logistics is a key enabler for all we do.”2 The Marine Corps has refined this logistics ability to a fine art and is seeking new technology to enable it to better perform this mission.

 Partnering with the U.S. Marine Corps in delivering capability from the sea, the U.S. Navy provides the ships and the craft to bring logistics supplies ashore to support Marines on the beach. This teamwork was emphasized in the U.S. Navy’s strategic guidance, Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 (Design 2.0) which calls for, “Deepening integration with our natural partner, the U.S. Marine Corps.”3

The Navy-Marine Corps team has risen to this challenge by being proactive in exploring new technologies to increase the lethality of the nation’s amphibious assault forces in a series of exercises, experiments, and demonstrations. During the author’s years on a numbered fleet warfighter’s staff, he had the opportunity to observe a number of carrier strike group and expeditionary strike group exercises. These included a recent exercise, the INDOPACOM Joint Exercise Valiant Shield 2018, overseen by Commander Marine Forces Pacific (MARFORPAC) and conducted on the Marianas Island Range Complex as well as on the island of Guam, where new logistics concepts were explored.

Valiant Shield: Leveraging New Technology to Support Marines on the Beach

While recent exercises such as Bold Alligator and a series of Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) events have looked at a wide range of technologies that could make expeditionary assault forces more lethal, agile, and survivable, others have looked at more discrete missions conducted by the Navy-Marine Corps team. Valiant Shield 2018 looked to use emerging technology – often off-the-shelf equipment – to support Marines on the beachhead during this critical juncture of any amphibious assault. To this end, a significant part of this exercise focused on logistics.

While many functions are important in an amphibious assault, once the assault is underway and Marines are on the beach, logistics is the critical factor in ensuring their success. The operation will often only succeed if the Marines are able to have rapid, reliable, and continuous resupply. Using manned naval craft to do this puts operators and vessels at unnecessary risk. Furthermore, using scarce manned craft to perform this mission takes them away from more vital roles. That is why this major Navy-Marine Corps amphibious exercise evaluated the ability of unmanned surface vehicles to conduct this resupply mission.

During Valiant Shield 2018, MARFORPAC demonstrated the ability to have unmanned surface vehicles resupply the landing force. The amphibious force commander used a 12-foot MANTAS USV to provide rapid ship-to-shore logistics resupply. While this small, remotely operated, USV carried only one hundred and twenty pounds of cargo; the proof-of-concept worked and successfully demonstrated that unmanned surface vehicles could safely and effectively resupply Marines ashore.

Using unmanned vehicles, either controlled by operators or programmed to follow a prescribed course, could be a game-changer for amphibious assault forces. Beyond taking operators out of harm’s way, using USVs for this mission frees manned craft for other missions. Additionally, having a continuous, preprogrammed, logistics resupply process to perform one of the dull, dirty, and dangerous functions important in an amphibious assault enables the commander to focus on other warfighting tasks in the heat of battle.

While the proof-of-concept with a 12-foot MANTAS USV was successful and received positive reviews from Commander Marine Forces Pacific logistics staff personnel, resupply in 120-pound increments is not the total solution to the enormous logistics requirements of even a squad of Marines ashore. Much more is needed. For this reason, the maker of the MANTAS family of USVs was asked by the Navy and Marine Corps to scale-up the 12-foot USV and develop a larger proof-of-concept unmanned surface vehicle for this mission.

MANTAS USV being lowered for launch from a U.S. Navy ship. (Photo courtesy of MARTAC)

Plans for larger MANTAS unmanned surface vehicles, ranging from 38-foot to 50-foot long, are on the drawing board for further review by Navy and Marine Corps officials. While this may not be the ultimate size for the USV the expeditionary assault force needs as a long-term solution, it will go a long way to advancing the state-of-the-art in providing for the substantial logistics needs of Marines on the beach.

Developing a Robust Unmanned Logistics Resupply Capability

The promising unmanned logistics resupply results demonstrated during Joint Exercise Valiant Shield can open up new possibilities to support Marines on the beach with continuous, reliable resupply using unmanned surface vehicles. While there are numerous designs for unmanned surface vehicles, for the amphibious resupply mission, a shallow-draft USV would best fit the mission profile. Additionally, since the near-shore surf zone is an inherently unstable environment, the stability conferred by a catamaran hull is beneficial to ensure that the resupply craft can safely reach the beach.

One such shallow-draft catamaran hull vessel is the 38-foot MANTAS (T38) USV. This craft is the next step up to provide a steady, continuous stream of logistics support to Marines on the beach. The T38 USV can travel at a cruise speed of 25 knots with a burst speed of 80 knots, weighs 6,500 pounds, and draws just 18 inches of draft. The T38 has the ability to carry a payload up to 4,500 pounds. Given the speed and carrying capacity of the T38-sized USV, it is readily apparent how it can fulfill logistics functions in amphibious operations.

MANTAS USV begins high speed run from amphibious flotilla to the beach. (Photo courtesy of MARTAC)

There are a wide array of forthcoming amphibious exercises in the years ahead such as additional Valiant Shield and Valiant Blitz events, yearly Bold Alligator exercises, Sea Dragon, RIMPAC and additional Advanced Technology Exercises (ANTX). Continuing to refine the ability of successively larger unmanned surface vessels to resupply Marines on the beach and in the fight should be woven into these events. Indeed, as Vice Admiral William Merz, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems recently noted, “We have a lot to learn about unmanned surface vessels.”[4] Advancing the art of resupply of Marines on the beach is one sure way to accelerate this learning curve.

Great Concept, But What Would It Look Like?

When the author served on a numbered fleet warfighter’s staff they looked at a great many new technologies that could potentially help Sailors and Marines. The commanders always insisted that the staff come up with a CONOPS – a concept of operations – before embracing a new technology. In other words, we were tasked to demonstrate what this technology would accomplish operationally, that is, what an operation would look like if this technology was in the Fleet today. Rear Admiral Ronald Boxall, the Navy’s Director of Surface Warfare on the CNO staff, said as much at the recent SNA Symposium where he noted:

“We are going to design unmanned platforms with that we we’re going to put people on them in the near term. Then we will move toward fully unmanned when we think the technology and understanding of how to use them matures [emphasis added].”5

Keeping CONOPs development in mind, some back-of-the-envelope math can help understand what an expeditionary strike group equipped with a number of T38s could do to resupply Marines on the beach.

An ESG typically stands no more than 15-25 nautical miles off the beach being assaulted. Using a notional stand-off distance of 20 nautical miles, an ESG equipped with four T38s traveling at their cruise speed of 25 knots could deliver 18,000 pounds of material from the ESG to the beach per hour, allowing the short time needed for loading and unloading the craft. Multiply that by twenty-four hours and you get a buildup of well-over 400,000 pounds of vital material per day, enough to support a substantial force of Marines ashore. One can also consider retrograde or bringing injured personnel from shore to ship.

The U.S. Navy is making an enormous commitment to unmanned systems – especially unmanned surface systems. For example, the Navy is considering establishing a “Surface Development Squadron,” to experiment with unmanned ships.6 Future development ideas call for a “Ghost Fleet” of autonomous unmanned surface ships that could operate against an enemy force without putting sailors in harm’s way.7

As an interim step, however, Navy officials envision operating these potentially unmanned ships with human crews until the technology matures.8 More recently, as reported in April of this year in USNI News, the Navy announced its intention to spend $2.7B into researching and buying ten large unmanned surface ships over the next five years as part of an overall plan to buy 232 unmanned surface, underwater, and aerial vehicles of all sizes over the next five years.9

These plans are laudable – and ambitious – and may eventually reach fruition. But the Navy would be better served by embracing the always successful “crawl, walk, run,” method and use commercial off-the-shelf technology to evolve an already proven logistics capability before committing to ambitious plans with unmanned surface ships that aren’t yet on the drawing boards. Far from distracting Navy officials from these more lofty ideas for using unmanned systems, demonstrating this capability in Navy-Marine Corps exercises would likely accelerate the Navy’s embrace of unmanned systems.

Conclusion

The need for continuous logistics resupply for Marines on the beach will not disappear in any future warfighting scenario. This was true 2,500 years ago when Sun Tzu noted, “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics,” and this same emphasis on logistics is embodied today in U.S. military doctrine, with Joint Pub 1: Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces noting, “Logistics sets the campaign’s operational limits.”10 Demonstrating how unmanned surface vehicles such as the MANTAS T38 can rapidly and reliably resupply Marines on the beach should be a Navy-Marine Corps priority.

Neil Zerbe is a retired Naval Officer and F-14 aircraft carrier aviator.  As a former, frontline, technology “end user,” Neil remains tightly connected with DoD organizations to understand emerging technology requirements. Neil provides industry marketing support to companies with new, innovative, emerging technology who are seeking to find the right interested parties whether that be DoD/USG or other aerospace and defense industry partners seeking such technology to support their offerings.  

References

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

[2] Brigadier General Arthur Pasagian, panel remarks, USNI/AFCEA West Symposium, February 13-15, 2019.

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

[4] Megan Eckstein, “Navy Betting Big on Unmanned Warships Defining Future of the Fleet,” USNI News, April 8, 2019.

[5] Vice Admiral Ronald Boxall, Keynote Remarks, Surface Navy Symposium, January 14-16, 2019.

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

[7] Osborn, “Navy to Test ‘Ghost Fleet’ Attack Drone Boats in War Scenarios.

[8] David Larter, “U.S. Navy Looks to Ease Into Using Unmanned Robot Ships With a Manned Crew,” Defense News, January 29, 2019.

[9] Eckstein, “Navy Betting Big on Unmanned Warships Defining Future of the Fleet.”

[10] Joint Pub 1: Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, November 14, 2000).

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 28, 2015) The Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) participates in a simulated straits transit. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christopher B. Janik/Released)