Tag Archives: autonomous

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.


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)

Forward…from the Seabed?

Seabed Warfare Week

By David R. Strachan

Events of the past decade have forced the United States Navy to re-imagine undersea warfare in light of two emerging and interrelated trends: the rise of sophisticated unmanned undersea systems, and a dramatic increase in geopolitical tensions suggesting the return to an era of near-peer competition and great power conflict. Russian activities in the Crimea, Middle East, and the Arctic, as well as China’s growing regional influence in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean are prompting the Navy to shift its priorities from confronting lesser threats such as rogue states and nonstate actors, and being a “global force for good,” to planning and preparing for the possibility of large-scale warfare against a well-equipped, modern navy. As such, warfighting concepts and operations mothballed after the Cold War are now in need of urgent re-tooling for the current era.1

One such operation experiencing a kind of renaissance is mine warfare which, when combined with unmanned technologies and key infrastructure based on the ocean floor, transforms into the more potent strategic tool of seabed warfare. But even the concept of seabed warfare is itself in transition, and is on track to be fully subsumed by the broader paradigm of autonomous undersea warfare. Mines and associated sensors, as currently employed, will be a thing of the past as their functionality is absorbed by fleets of smart, mobile, autonomous vehicles. More profound still will be the range of new threats unleashed by autonomous undersea warfare. The U.S. Navy must anticipate these threats and recognize that its continued dominance of the undersea domain will rest on its ability to prepare for the kind of combat the coming era of unmanned undersea conflict will entail.

Not Your Father’s Seabed

Warfare conducted on and from the ocean floor is nothing new. For the better part of a century, ships, aircraft, and submarines laid mines and encapsulated torpedos fitted with an array of magnetic, acoustic, and pressure sensors. SOSUS provided valuable intelligence on Soviet naval activities, and during the 1970s, U.S. spy submarines successfully tapped Soviet undersea cables, resulting in what is arguably one of the greatest intelligence coups of the Cold War. But while conceptually seabed warfare may not be new, it is evolving, and is poised to be more fully developed and integrated into the wider grid of unmanned maritime operations.

The U.S. Navy and DARPA have anticipated this evolution, and have proposed a variety of operating concepts to prepare for it, namely:

  • Advanced Undersea Warfare System (AUWS) – A distributed network of remotely controlled unmanned systems that can be rapidly deployed and custom configured for battlespace shaping and A2/AD. 2
  • Forward Deployed Energy and Communications Outpost (FDECO) – An array of fixed undersea docking stations providing recharging, communications, and data transfer to extend UUV reach and endurance.
  • Modular Undersea Effectors System (MUSE) – A system of fixed, encapsulated payloads capable of deploying weapons, decoys, communications nodes, and other such “effectors.”3
  • Hydra – A DARPA-led initiative that calls for a distributed undersea network of unmanned payloads and platforms “trucked in” and deployed from large UUVs.
  • Upward Falling Payloads (UFP) – Similar to MUSE, this DARPA initiative proposes fixed, self-contained payloads on the seabed for remote activation and deployment.

The future state of seabed warfare lies somewhere in the integration of these five operational concepts. Appropriately, each one showcases the dominant role of unmanned, autonomous or semi-autonomous systems that are tightly networked to both manned and unmanned assets operating above, on, and below the sea. But they also rely heavily on the deployment of fixed seabed infrastructure, specialized hardware that may be required in the near-term, but will present logistical challenges and also leave critical systems vulnerable to attack. We should expect that in the opening days, if not hours, of a war with Russia or China, seabed systems will be at the top of the target list. Therefore, while this configuration may work for coastal defense of the United States and our allies, its cumbersome and resource intensive nature will only add a layer of operational complexity that could compromise readiness in a forward deployed environment.

Nipping at Our Heels

Our adversaries are not standing still, and are inching ever closer to technological parity with the United States in both unmanned undersea systems and seabed warfare. Both Russia and China maintain robust search and development programs that have resulted in impressive gains over the past few years alone.

Since 2007, Russia has made great strides in undersea warfare, deploying several new classes of submarines, and conducting deep sea operations on the floor of the Arctic Ocean, and has made no secret of its intention to build a robust undersea capability to offset the asymmetric advantage of the United States. Among some of Russia’s more impressive initiatives include:

  • Project 09852 Belgorod – At 600 feet, this modified Oscar II-class is the largest nuclear submarine ever built. It is designed to operate on or near the Arctic seabed, and deploy an array of unmanned vehicles, manned submersibles, and other systems, “including ones that do not yet exist.”4
  • Oceanic Multipurpose System Status-6 – An intercontinental nuclear powered autonomous torpedo, purportedly capable of speeds of up to 100 knots and a running depth of 1000 meters, this doomsday weapon is armed with a 100 megaton “salted cobalt” warhead capable of destroying ports and naval installations and rendering the area uninhabitable for decades.
  • Harmony – A SOSUS-style network of bottom sensors placed on the floor Arctic Ocean and powered by small nuclear reactors.5
  • Project 09851 Khabarovsk – A submarine designed ostensibly as a deployment platform for Status-6.6

Russian submarines have also been observed near undersea cables in the North Atlantic, prompting speculation that Moscow is either exploiting or interfering with global information flows, or preparing for the possibility of severing critical information infrastructure in the event of war.

Diagram of Russian Project 09852 Belgorod. (via Hisutton.com)

China, on the other hand, seems content, at least publicly, to assume a more defensive posture and focus on establishing a wide network of fixed and mobile sensors in the South China Sea. Chinese vessels have been aggressively mapping the seabed and gathering oceanographic data for scientific and military applications. Last summer, a dozen Haiyi undersea gliders were released into the South China Sea, reaching record depths while transmitting data in real-time to land-based laboratories, suggesting a breakthrough in undersea communications.7 And China State Shipbuilding Corporation has put forth a concept it calls the “Great Undersea Wall,” a distributed network of air, surface, and subsurface sensors to identify and track submarines in the South China Sea.8 A three dimensional model of the project featured an array of sensors, UUV docking stations, and undersea cables, very similar to FDECO.9  While publicly China’s seabed warfare efforts appear to be mirroring those of the United States, given the breathtaking extent of China’s activities in the Spratly Islands, we can only speculate as to what may be occurring on the ocean floor, and whether it moves beyond benign surveillance to something more lethal.

What do these developments by our potential adversaries mean for the United States Navy? Clearly both Russia and China are achieving significant technological milestones that should concern if not alarm Navy leaders. As such, we are reaching a point where it may not be enough to deploy passive, defensive systems that do little more than blunt offensive capabilities. The Navy is, at the end of the day, a fighting force, and it should be prepared to fight, and the fight may be soon happening on or near the seabed.

Preparing for a New Kind Of Conflict

Numerous seabed and UUV programs are currently under development or deployed to the Fleet. Given that we are still very much in the infancy of unmanned undersea warfare, this should be expected and encouraged. The Navy should indeed cast a wide net in an effort to understand the potential and the limits of unmanned systems. However, while “letting all the flowers grow” has its merits, the time for greater clarity in roles and expectations for these systems is here, particularly as advancements in adversary programs continue unabated.10

While any AUV program should integrate a full spectrum of effectors, it is critical that it also be capable of intercepting enemy unmanned vehicles and striking enemy seabed infrastructure. To date, however, the development of unmanned undersea craft has been driven by non-combat requirements – oceanographic research, intelligence gathering, mine countermeasures and other roles deemed too dangerous or tedious for human involvement. Other than passing references to anti-UUV operations, little has been written regarding the potential for equipping unmanned undersea vehicles for combat or strike operations. This may be due to the infancy of the technology, or ethical considerations surrounding autonomy, or that it smacks too much of science fiction, but it may also be due to the fact that actual undersea combat (i.e. submersible vs. submersible, submersible vs. seabed target) has been largely nonexistent, and in fact has only resulted in one kill in the history of submarine warfare.11 Since World War II, undersea warfare has been more a high-stakes game of cat and mouse, to deliver cruise missile attacks, gather intelligence, and maintain a viable nuclear deterrent.

But whereas in peacetime there is every reason to avoid confrontations between manned platforms, such reasoning may not necessarily hold in the case of unmanned systems. Unencumbered by this imperative, and with the cover of the opaque undersea environment, as well as plausible deniability to cloak them, fleets of unmanned vehicles will be free to disrupt, degrade, and destroy seabed infrastructure – and one another – at will.

As such, the Navy should move to develop a single, highly modular class of autonomous undersea vehicle that operates in “Strikepods,” adaptive, autonomous undersea strike groups comprised of any number of vehicles, and designed to execute missions of varying scale and complexity, such as ASW, ISR, MCM, and EMW, but also, importantly, counter-AUV and time-critical strike. Deployed from shore, surface ships, aerial assets, or submarines, and operating either within the water column or on the seabed, they would effectively eliminate the need for cumbersome, costly, and vulnerable fixed infrastructure on the sea floor.

Given its highly modular design, each vehicle would be capable of performing the role of any effector, from sensor to communications node to weapon, whether mobile, hovering, or fixed on the seabed, and ideally would be capable of dynamically reconfiguring at a moment’s notice to compensate for losses or malfunctions and ensure mission success. Strikepods could clandestinely penetrate the A2/AD defenses of an adversary and then deploy to the seabed as fixed bottom sensors, or EMW nodes, or could await further orders and dynamically activate as a bottom mines, or CAPTOR-style mines to attack enemy submarines or surface ships. In a combat role, Strikepods could be programmed to swarm and attack enemy submarines or surface ships, seek and destroy enemy unmanned vehicles, or attack enemy seabed infrastructure.

Autonomous undersea combat vehicles represent a logical progression in the emerging era of undersea warfare, a fact that will not be lost on our adversaries. They too will one day be capable of deploying AUVs in a covert, standoff manner, and operating within our territorial waters and inland waterways with impunity. Moreover, their low cost and eventual proliferation could enable rogue states and nonstate actors to acquire their own “poor man’s navy” and threaten U.S. forces at home or abroad. Thus, the need for a coastal undersea defense network will be vital to counter this threat. For example, an “Atlantic Undersea Defense Network” (AUDEN) would be a regional tactical grid comprised of numerous Strikepods deployed along the coast near ports, chokepoints, naval installations, and critical infrastructure. AUDEN Strikepods would operate both within the water column and on the seabed to deter incursions of adversary AUVs, and, if necessary, detect and engage them.


As the world undergoes a shift toward near-peer competition, the U.S. Navy must reexamine its role as a fighting force in light of unmanned undersea systems, and the aspirations of ever more technologically sophisticated adversaries. Seabed warfare in particular, understood as a combination of “old school” mine warfare with advanced technologies, is evolving rapidly, and is poised to be more fully developed and integrated into the new paradigm of autonomous undersea warfare. The Navy’s continued undersea dominance will rest on its ability to master seabed warfare, and to anticipate and prepare for the kind of challenges, threats, and opportunities autonomous undersea conflict will present. It will no longer be enough for the Navy to simply out-fight its adversaries. In the era of autonomous conflict, it will have to out-innovate them.

David R. Strachan is a naval analyst and writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems (strikepod.com), explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. He can be reached at strikepod.systems@gmail.com.


[1] Dmitry Filipoff, “The Navy’s New Fleet Problem Experiments and Stunning Revelations of Military Failure,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), March 5, 2018. http://cimsec.org/the-navys-new-fleet-problem-experiments-and-stunning-revelations-of-military-failure/35626

[2] See: Dave Everhart, “MINWARA Technical Session I, Advanced Undersea Weapons System (AUWS) [PowerPoint presentation], May 8, 2012. https://cle.nps.edu/access/content/group/3edf6e90-24e8-4c31-bffd-0ee5fb3581a6/public/presentations/Tues%20pm%20A/1330%20Everhart%20AUWS.pdf, Scott D. Burleson, David E. Everhart, Ronald E. Swart, and Scott C. Truver, “The Advanced Undersea Weapon System: On the Cusp of a Naval Warfare Transformation,” Naval Engineers Journal, March 2012. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/asne/nej/2012/00000124/00000001/art00010;jsessionid=76tt4k2q2j7d9.x-ic-live-02, Joshua J. Edwards and Captain Dennis M. Gallagher, USN, “Mine and Undersea Warfare for the Future,” Proceedings Magazine, August, 2014. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-08/mine-and-undersea-warfare-future

[3] Scott Truver, “Naval Mines and Mining: Innovating in the Face of Benign Neglect,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), December 20, 2016. http://cimsec.org/naval-mines-mining-innovating-face-benign-neglect/30165

[4] David Hambling, “Why Russia is sending robotic submarines to the Arctic,” BBC, November 21, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20171121-why-russia-is-sending-robotic-submarines-to-the-arctic

[5] HI Sutton, “’Harmony’ submarine detection network, Covert Shores, November 12, 2017. http://www.hisutton.com/Spy%20Subs%20-Project%2009852%20Belgorod.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stephen Chen, “Why Beijing is Speeding Up Underwater Drone Tests in the South China Sea”, South China Morning Post, July 26, 2017. http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2103941/why-beijing-speeding-underwater-drone-tests-south-china

[8] Catherine Wong, “’Underwater Great Wall:’ Chinese firm proposes building network of submarine detectors to boost nations defence,” South China Morning Post, May 19, 2016. http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1947212/underwater-great-wall-chinese-firm-proposes-building

[9] Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, “The Great Underwater Wall of Robots: Chinese Exhibit Shows Off Sea Drones,” Popular Science, June 22, 2016. https://www.popsci.com/great-underwater-wall-robots-chinese-exhibit-shows-off-sea-drones

[10] Testimony of Bryan Clark, House Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, Game Changers – Undersea Warfare, 114th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 7, October 27, 2015. https://armedservices.house.gov/legislation/hearings/game-changers-undersea-warfare

[11] Sebastien Roblin, “The True Story of the Only Underwater Submarine Battle Ever,” The National Interest, November 18, 2017. http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-true-story-the-only-underwater-submarine-battle-ever-23253

Featured Image: Russian Harpsichord-2P-PM (via Hisutton.com)

Autonomous War

The following is an entry for the CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. Winners will be announced 7 November.

By Matthew Hipple

               As the knife slides out, Foxtrot 2-1-1 doesn’t notice the blood. The enemy officer’s hand slumps away from the leg holster. Firearms are powerful, and a powerful comfort… but they’re useless when you’re sitting down and a blade is closer than the length of the barrel. Screens flash as untended command prompts stack up from systems patrolling several surrounding blocks. 2-1-1 feels an impulse transmitted from outside. He plants the charge as he leaps out of the torn metal hatch. Prone on the pavement outside, 2-1-1 is sprayed with rocks as an unmanned bipedal weapon vehicle (UBWV) smashes a short-cut through a corner storefront.

               With a “thump”, smoke pours out of the armored vehicle. The UBWV’s Gatling cannons whirr softly – one aimed at 2-1-1, the other aimed at his fireteam in the second-story window above. Rounds remain disengaged as it awaits target approval from the smoking corpse. Fireteam Foxtrot-2-1 has 5 seconds until the UBWV shifts its engagement prompt to another station, or engages automatically if RoE has changed. 2-1-1 leaps up, knife still in hand. He pulls the knife across a protective joint seam as his second hand comes up with his sidearm. Bypassing layers of armor plating and protective industrial coating, a full magazine of 9mm is enough to fry the UBWV’s ability to move, detect, and engage.

               Unmanned systems are powerful, and a powerful comfort.

               But like the bloody mess slumped over his darkened consoles, some commanders couldn’t learn to let go. Their confidence increased apace with technology’s subtler cognitive abilities, but they could never resist the urge to reach back. Even when the blade was at their throat, they couldn’t resist the urge to reach out for the comfort and cleanliness of human control.

               2-1-1 holds up his hand, the fireteam stacking up behind him before the next street. Like finding that word you haven’t been able to put your finger on, each member of 2-1 suddenly receives a series of mental images, intentions, and concepts outlining their next direction and target from Foxtrot Actual. They disappear through a doorway as a humming echoes from over one of the rooftops.

               Fireteam 2-1 hides from aerial surveillance, picking its way through jagged passageways and unnatural, twisting stairs. It is a dusty labyrinth created when alleyways and building interiors are re-arranged by explosives. Burrows are dug throughout the ruin, gaunt figures hiding from a war between man and machine. Each piece of data is collected, assessed, and stored temporarily away in the subconscious for later use or transmission.

               Claws scrape across the concrete. Rubble and blood explode from the rear of the team. Foxtrot 2-1-4 is in a heap, a metallic, dog-sized quadruped pinning him down. 2-1-4 screams as the sharp claws dig in and an articulating maw of blades remove the rasping throat. Against every instinct, everyone drops their weapons as they fall to the ground. Detecting no armed, moving objects of roughly human temperature – the “thing” stands by for one of the limited foot patrols to check the targets.

               One of the warm shapes move, drawing a pistol from a hidden chest holster. As the “thing” leaps down upon him, the two shapes on either side rise up, pull the “thing” up and onto its back from either side – smashing it down onto a piece of rebar sticking through a cratered wall.

               The “thing” represented the reality commanders didn’t want to face – they couldn’t control everything from over the horizon. The abandoned command vehicle, so close to the battlefield, was a bastion against electronic warfare and the limitations of physics. The “thing”, however, was invested with the autonomy eventually demanded by the enemy’s ingenuity.
               Unfortunately, a certain fear, combined with an institutional lack of creativity, always left autonomous systems with exploitable weaknesses. Commanders combined the worst of their self-confidence with their hesitancy to commit. Whole suites of artificially limited systems were deployed into the field with the assurance of a cure-all.

               With a foot patrol inbound, and the fireteam within the security perimeter, Foxtrot-Actual sends its final collection of images and directives. 2-1-1 turns to 2-1-2, saluting in one of the few remaining traditions. The sentiment represents a larger series of command processes and adaptations that have transferred the designation of 2-1-1, fireteam leader, to 2-1-2. Former 2-1-1 continues through the rubble, now designated by Foxtrot Actual as Foxtrot 2-X. 2-1-1 leads the remaining fireteam members – and the incoming foot patrols – away from the area.

               The warfighter on the ground had always been a dangerous and adaptable machine.  Even the greatest autonomous system would, in some aspects, be a cheap attempt to imitate millions of years of evolution. In the air, at sea – the speed and range of combat, the type of platforms involved, had changed to the point that the human was almost secondary to the equation. On the ground – from the easily fueled musculature to advanced cognitive functions – a human may always be best. An augmented human – cognition enhanced chemically with electrically driven muscles pulling joints wrought with new alloys and plastics – but still a human.

               But where was automation’s competitive advantage? Computers had become progressively better at understanding vast logistical and operational problems: streamlining global transport networks, beating humans at “Go”, automating a large portion of global market trading. Smaller issues of context were mastered as well, from the ability to recognize animals to human emotions. Computers could read data from minds – and had just started to show glimmers that data could be contextualized.

               After leadership’s repeated failures to understand or properly exploit autonomy in the field, someone aimed the question in a different direction. “How much Operational Availability do I sacrifice when everything from procurement to maintenance is derailed by egos or self-deceit? What is the human cost of the collected seconds, minutes, hours, and days of human friction as the front awaits orders? Do I need warfighters constrained by the indecision of dozens of human beings attempting to interpret their intelligence & advice before directing action?” Was an autonomous system’s competitive advantage… in the field?

               With a sentry’s severed hand pressed up against the door access panel, Foxtrot 2-X enters the enemy’s field command. Several dozen figures hunch over flickering screens in the dark – directing assets based on the verbal and written reports from units across the battlefield. Amid hushed voices, fingers patter across touch-screens in response to a constant stream of command prompts from unmanned systems.

               Of the several dozen or so figures in the room, only a handful realize what is about to happen. Unlike the isolated command vehicle, this space is large, and at least three weapons are drawn to kinetic effect on Foxtrot 2-X.  Two white phosphorous grenades roll onto the watch floor as a bleeding 2-X aims his collapsing body against the door – closing the heat and screaming watch standers inside.

               With his final breath, a mix of conscious and subconscious observations, passively collected signals intelligence, observations on base defenses and sentry procedures, and a series of final stress levels, queues, and correlated emotive reactions is transmitted to Foxtrot Actual.

               In orbit around the battlefield, Foxtrot Actual’s systems receive, analyze, and integrate this data for further operational planning and live assessments of troop stress levels. 2-X’s personnel file, last noted tactical adaptations, and final mission report are archived for analysis and dissemination. His fireteam’s method of destroying bladed quadrupeds has already been uploaded from 2-1, and was transmitted to Foxtrot’s human fighters. Finally, designation 2-X is made available for re-application.

               Through the collective cloud of its forces’ thoughts, Foxtrot Actual perceives a smattering of enemy soldiers retreating through a wasteland of stalled robotics. Foxtrot Actual directs Foxtrot units into the new vacuum. It catalyzes the decision making of its forces as they plot their movements, a machine in the subconscious ghost. Somewhere, an extra cooling fan kicks on as Foxtrot Actual determines how best to exploit these latest opportunities.

               Rather than replacing the warfighter, someone asked, “maybe it’s time to replace the commander?”

Matthew Hipple is a Surface Warfare Officer in the US Navy, and President Emeritus of CIMSEC. He used to write frequently for USNI and War on the Rocks, but spends most of his time now amusing a precocious 10 month old.*

*Due to CIMSEC affiliation this piece was not under consideration during the judging process and is published along with all other pieces submitted in response to the Fiction Contest call for articles.

Featured Image: B-7 Beagle unmanned surface vehicle from Al Makareb. (Al Makareb)

Sea Control 89 – ONR Autonomous Swarm Boats

Wseacontrol2e discuss the Office of Naval Research (ONR’s) James River test of an autonomous swarm of boat drones, or Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV’s). These USV’s were modified version of boats found on most US Navy ships. CAPT Carl Conti (USN, ret) is one of the developers and leaders on this project, and will discuss the history, technology, future, and human interaction of this exciting project.

DOWNLOAD: ONR Autonomous Boat Swarm

Music: Sam LaGrone

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