Tag Archives: DARPA

Neuro-Navy and Future War Impact

Neuro-Navy:  Potential advances in cognitive functions, combat career screening, and treating combat-stress injuries.

In my current capacity as a military student, one of my requirements is to complete a master’s thesis focused on future warfare.  This year I have decided to write on the implications of  future neuroscience developments and the impact on naval warfare, (up to ~15 years out).  Below is my thesis proposal, which I submit to your view in the hopes of starting a conversation.  I look forward to your comments and further discourse.  

Proposed Research Question: How will advances in neuroscience improve naval capabilities?

Proposed Thesis:  Future advances in neuroscience research and development will improve naval capabilities in both the cognitive executive functions of decision makers and enhanced situational awareness through a melding of neurotechnology with biological sensory.

Discussion:  Many discussions on the fog and friction of war relate to the common denominator of the human mind.  Despite advances in unmanned and autonomous technology, the basis of all military strategy and campaigns is the ultimate execution by military personnel, reliant on cogent decision-making. 

The field of neuroscience has seen drastic growth in the last decade.  Exceeding its biological origins the field has exploded, infusing research with psychics, psychology, medicine, and computer science – to name a few.  Through studies of the nervous system at numerous levels (functional, cellular, sensory), future neural research is gaining interest beyond traditional scientific communities and the implications for military development should be explored.

The continued research into genetic and environmental aspects of neural systems and decision-making explore the processes of the human nervous system and interaction with cognitive executive function.  Through future neuroscience development, naval forces may be able to apply new technology and biological understanding to effectively screen young military leaders to categorize individual cognitive strengths and weaknesses.  The ability to place these leaders in appropriate career positions may improve naval warfare communities that continually operate in high-risk environments.  Furthermore, the ability to track cognitive weaknesses provides the opportunity for the naval training organization to produce brain fitness programs to improve these areas.

With the future development of cognitive screening, naval forces could develop programs (such as DARPA’s Enabling Stress Resistance program) to mitigate stress through behavioral and pharmacological interventions.  The increase in this screening, combined with advances in neuropharmacology, will allow naval forces to complement battlefield simulators with individual-oriented stimulants, to increase the stressors on combat decision-makers while in a safe environment and approach a real-time fog of war. 

Neurotechnology may also provide enhanced human intelligence analysis, through the development of brain-signal processing linked to visual intelligence as it occurs.  This capability may increase the speed and accuracy of image analysis and improve operational assessments.           

Preserving the most expensive naval weapon

In addition to cognitive development, the field of neuroscience may provide enhanced manpower recovery options to deployed expeditionary forces.  Advances in clinical and evolutionary neuroscience are improving current naval medical corps’ ability to identify, diagnose, and treat PTSD.  Continued research could produce an expeditionary force capable of preparing forces not only upcoming combat stressors, but follow-on operations that require increased time on station.   The ability to prevent PTSD and keep military personnel on the battlefield will provide an advantage in future protracted conflicts.  Future developments in prosthetic limbs, linked with effective neural links, will advance an operational force commander’s ability to limit his reserve force, assuming his naval ships have the capacity to treat injured personnel afloat.

Lastly, the possibility of employing non-kinetic neuro-weapons, developed in the field of cellular neuroscience, to make the enemy to believe that operations have occurred (pseudo-feint) may provide naval forces an advantage when planning major operations.  The enemy’s belief that the war is lost may be enough for the friendly forces to declare victory – or further tactical/operational goals in the interim.  The capacity to develop and employ such a weapon is worthy of further research and discussion.  

A.J. “Squared-Away” is a husband, father, and U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer.  He has deployed on patrol boats, destroyers, and aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and aboard Iraqi oil terminals.  He is currently a student at an advanced military warfighting school.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Insights into Unmanned ASW

Last week the U.S. government’s defense technology innovator, DARPA, awarded Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) a $58M contract to develop the next phases of its Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vehicle (ACTUV) technology demonstrator. Besides a fine example of the DoD’s love of nested acronyms, the ACTUV program provides a peek into the promises and challenges of the future of unmanned ASW.

It’s important to note that note that the award is for a technology demonstration, not a program of record. The ACTUV will help the Navy mature technologies useful for future capabilities but is not expected to enter active fleet service itself. According to DARPA’s ACTUV website, the first, completed phase:

“refined and validated the system concept and associated performance metrics, completing risk reduction testing to inform program risks associated with submarine tracking sensors and maritime autonomy.”

SAIC is tasked with phases 2-4, specifically to “design a vessel (phase 2); build a vessel (phase 3) and test the vessel (phase 4). Operational prototype at-sea testing is expected in mid-2015.

As stated in DARPA’s press release, the goal of the program is an “unmanned vessel that tracks quiet diesel electric submarines for months at a time spanning thousands of kilometers of ocean with minimal human input.” The website adds that an objective of generating a vessel design that “exceeds state-of-the art platform performance to provide complete propulsive overmatch against diesel electric submarines at a fraction of their size and cost.” In other words the vessel must be small and cheap (target cost goal of $20M apiece), yet robust enough to operate for 80 days and 6,200km without human maintainers or refueling.

The approach the program takes for propulsion will be interesting to see develop, as most long-range drone concepts have relied on solar panels or wave propulsion at the sacrifice of top speeds. Part of ACTUV’s endurance and speed will come from the drone’s design. According to navaldrones.com, the SAIC-built concept’s use a trimaran hull seen (see the video) offers better speeds over long ranges than traditional monohull designs. Additionally, going sans-crew frees up space normally devoted to crew-support systems to fill with more fuel tanks.

No one can escape my cones of many colors!

Hunting its prey, the ACTUV will have an edge during lower sea-state levels and due to the necessity of diesel electric subs to snorkel with regularity. High sea-states and advanced air-independent propulsion (AIP) diesel subs pose a greater challenge, although the former is mitigated by the lack of crew-safety requirements (no need to worry about the wardroom’s pitchers of kool-aid flying into SUPPO’s lap).  As discussed in previous posts on our site, increasing a drone’s level of autonomy as DARPA intends with
the ACTUV – through “a sparse remote supervisory control model” –
will decrease its susceptibility to hacking. However the need for two-way contact through communication and command protocols will still create vulnerabilities to guard against. The more the ACTUV communicates, especially in transmission, the more it increases the chance of being detected. In fact, although as a smaller vessel it might have a radar cross section akin to a pleasure craft or fishing vessel, its speed, sensor suite, and the simple fact that it’s a surface vessel will probably make it rather easy to detect – especially by the sub it is following. As a whole, this vessel will probably not be that stealthy, more often used in “we don’t care you know we know” type situations. 

Automated responses also create the possibility of a dependable error that an enemy can exploit (think of a video game that freezes every time one particular action is performed). This is a more remote worry as the error would have to unknown or uncorrected by the U.S., be discovered by a foe, and be of practical tactical use (it doesn’t matter much if the ACTUV shuts down when trying to avoid whales if you can’t drive the ACTUV into a whale).

Another interesting requirement is the need for ACTUV to abide by maritime traffic conventions and legal restrictions. In practice this means preventing it from, say, running over a civilian on a jet ski or straying into protected marine habitats. But the day will come when some unmanned surface or subsurface vehicle does cause damage, and the legal and operational fallout will be quite interesting to watch.

Lastly, as noted in Aviation week, the ACTUV will not perform organic ASW search functions, but will instead rely on other ASW assets and intel to cue its tracking opportunities. Once acquired, the vessel will use “onboard acoustic, electro-optical, radar and lidar sensors to acquire and follow its submarine target.”

If it proves successful, the ultimate benefit of an ACTUV follow-on is therefore that it will free up more expensive assets to do other things. As configured, an engagement would require integration with a weapon-delivery platform, most practically an aircraft. However, like the predator, which made its debut as a strictly ISR platform, a future iterations could quite conceivably carry their own weapons. The ACTUV is a program to keep an eye on.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.