Tag Archives: drones

Drones in Africa: A Leap Ahead for Maritime Security

By CAPT Chris Rawley and LCDR Cedric Patmon

Technology adoption moves in fits and starts. The developing world cannot be forced into accepting new technology, but it can be enabled, and often in a surprising manner. A recent example is the leap in communications technology. During the 20th Century most of the world developed a robust network of terrestrial-based telecommunications based primarily on the ubiquitous land-line telephone system. Without this infrastructure in place Sub-Saharan African countries were largely left behind at the start of the information revolution. But at the turn of the new century something interesting happened. Rather than retroactively building an archaic phone system Africans embraced mobile phone technology. From 1999 through 2004 the number of mobile subscribers in Africa eclipsed those of other continents, increasing at a rate of 58 percent annually. Asia, the second fastest area of saturation, grew at only 34 percent during that time. The explosive growth of mobile phones and more recently smart phones across practically every African city and village has liberated economies and facilitated the free flow of information. This technology also enabled Africans to lead the world in mobile money payment solutions, bypassing increasingly obsolete banking systems.

Today, Africans have another opportunity to leap ahead in technology to protect one of their most important areas of commerce – their coastal seas. Africa’s maritime economy is absolutely critical to the continent’s growth and prosperity during the next few decades. On the edge of the Eastern Atlantic the Gulf of Guinea is bordered by eight West African nations, and is an extremely important economic driver. More than 450 million Africans derive commercial benefit from this body of water. The region contains 50.4 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves and has produced up to 5.5 million barrels of oil per day. Additionally, over 90 percent of foreign imports and exports cross the Gulf of Guinea making it the region’s key connector to the global economy.

Favorable demographics and industrious populations put coastal Africans in a position to prosper, but an increase in illegal fishing activities and piracy since the early 2000s has severely impeded this potential. The growth in acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea from 2000 onward points to the challenges faced by West African states.

According to Quartz Africa, illegal fishing activities in the region have a negative economic impact of $2-3 billion annually. “Fish stocks are not restricted to national boundaries, and that is why the solutions to end the overfishing of West Africa’s waters can only come from joint efforts between the countries of the region,” Ahmed Diame, Greenpeace’s Africa Oceans campaigner, said in a statement. Marine pollution, human, and narcotics trafficking are also major issues facing the region.

Due to the economic impact of illicit activities in and around West Africa a Summit of the Gulf of Guinea heads of state and government was held in 2013 in Yaoundé, Cameroon. This resulted in the adoption of the Yaoundé Declaration on Gulf of Guinea Security. Two key resolutions contained in the Declaration were the creation of an inter-regional Coordination Centre on Maritime Safety and Security for Central and West Africa, headquartered in Yaoundé, and the implementation of a new Code of Conduct Concerning the Prevention and Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery Against Ships, and Illegal Maritime Activities in West and Central Africa. Adoption of this agreement has laid the foundation for critical information sharing and resource cooperation that can be used to combat piracy, illegal fishing, and other illicit activities in the Gulf of Guinea.

Though the Code of Conduct established an architecture for maritime security in the region, without enforcement on the water, diplomatic efforts are largely impotent. Key to enforcement is the ability to identify, track, and prosecute nefarious actors on the high seas and in coastal areas. So-called maritime domain awareness is gradually improving in the area, but current options for maritime surveillance are limited. The largest local navies have offshore patrol vessels capable of multi-day over-the-horizon operations, but even these vessels have limited enforcement capacity. Patrol vessels face maintenance issues and fuel scarcity. Shore-based radar systems at best reach out 30 or 40 nautical miles, but are plagued by power and maintenance issues. Moreover, a shore-based radar, even with signals correlated from vessels transmitting on the Automatic Identification System, only provides knowledge that a contact is afloat, not necessarily any evidence to illicit actions.

Latin American navies face similar maritime challenges to those in Africa and have learned that airborne surveillance is simply the best way to locate, track, identify, and classify surface maritime targets involved in illicit or illegal activity. A retired senior naval officer from the region related a study in the Caribbean narcotics transit zone to one of the authors that compared different surveillance mechanisms for the 11,000 square nautical mile area. The probability of detecting a surface target within six hours rose from only five percent with a surface asset to 95 percent when maritime patrol aircraft were included. Only a handful of coastal African countries have fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters, but these aircraft face similar issues to surface assets with fuel costs and mechanical readiness resulting in limited flight time on station.

Drone Solutions to African Maritime Insecurity

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, as they are known colloquially, provide a way for African navies and coast guards to greatly enhance maritime security in a relatively inexpensive manner, similar to the ways mobile telephony revolutionized communications on the continent. Similar to the evolution of computing power outlined by Moore’s law tactical UAS are rapidly growing in capabilities while decreasing in cost. Improvements in sensors, endurance, and payload are advancing quickly. For any solution, acquisition cost, maintainability, and infrastructure required are key factors to be considered. The cost per flying hour of most UAS is negligible compared to their manned counterparts. Today’s fixed and rotary-wing systems, whether specifically designed for military use or for commercial applications, can be adapted for surveillance in a maritime environment without much additional cost.

A Falcon UAV unpiloted aircraft is bungee launched in a midday demonstration flight. (© Helge Denker/WWF-Namibia)

Because each country has unique requirements and budgets no single UAS solution is appropriate. Maritime drones can be based ashore or on coastal patrol vessels. One viable option for countries with limited resources involves services contracted by Western Partners, a model which has already been proven in the region for other applications. Alternatively, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct provides a framework for a possible shared model. This agreement can provide the timely sharing of critical information ascertained by maritime surveillance and reconnaissance systems to aid in the enforcement of the maritime laws and agreements in the region. Contractor-operated drones could be allocated across countries by leadership in the five Zones delineated by the Code. Multinational cooperation on maritime security has already been tested in the annual Obangame Express exercise and during real-world counterpiracy operations. Understanding that not all countries have the investment capability to purchase their own stand-alone systems, consideration could be given to sharing the initial investment costs between countries. The logistics of system placement and asset availability would have to be determined by the participating countries themselves but the benefit of such a program would positively impact the entire region economically, enhance interoperability, and assist in regional stability.

Drones are already being operated across Africa by Africans. Zambia recently purchased Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles for counter-poaching operations. There are also African unmanned systems flying surveillance missions over areas plagued by violent extremists groups. UAS are even being used to transport blood and medical supplies across the continent’s vast rural landscapes. Shifting these assets over water is a natural progression. One concern about using UAS is airspace deconfliction. However, this problem is minimized because there is little to no civil aviation in most parts of Africa. Additionally, most maritime UAS would be flying primarily at low altitudes over water from coastal bases.

Conclusion

The leap-ahead capabilities that unmanned surveillance aircraft could provide to coastal security around Africa are clearly evident. African navies with adequate resources should make acquisition of unmanned air systems a priority. Likewise, western foreign military assistance programs should focus on providing contracted or organic unmanned aircraft capabilities.

Captain Rawley, a surface warfare officer, and Lieutenant Commander Patmon, a naval aviator, are assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet’s Maritime Partnership Program detachment responsible for helping West African countries enhance their maritime security. The opinions in this article are those of the authors alone and do not officially represent the U.S. Navy or any other organization

Featured Image: GULF OF GUINEA (March 26, 2018) A visit board search and seizure team member from the Ghanaian special boat service communicates with his team during a search aboard a target vessel during exercise Obangame Express 2018, March 26. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Released)

Establish a Seabed Command

Seabed Warfare Week

By Joseph LaFave

The U.S. Navy got a lot of press in 2017, and a lot of it was negative. In the Pacific, there were two incidents where U.S. Navy ships collided with civilian vessels, and as a result 17 American Sailors lost their lives. In the wake of these incidents, report after report has come out detailing how the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is overworked and overwhelmed.

After the collisions, several U.S. Navy commanders lost their jobs, and charges were filed against five Navy officers for offenses ranging up to negligent homicide. This is an almost unprecedented move, and the Navy is attempting to both satisfy the public outcry and remedy the training and readiness shortfalls that have plagued the surface warfare community for some time.

The point isn’t to shame Navy leadership, but rather to point out that the Navy’s surface fleet is terribly overworked. As a nation we are asking them to do too much. Reports show that while underway, Sailors typically work 18-hour days, and fatigue has been cited as a major factor in the collisions. While there may be a desire to generate more overall mine warfare capacity, it is unrealistic to expect the rest of the surface fleet to assume any additional burden for this mission area.

The surface fleet needs to refocus its training and resources on warfighting and lethality. Of all of its currently assigned missions, mine warfare in particular could be transferred to a seabed-specific command.

A Seabed Command would focus entirely on seabed warfare. It could unite many of the currently disparate functions found within the surface, EOD, aviation, and oceanographic communities. Its purview would include underwater surveying and bathymetric mapping, search and recovery, placing and finding mines, testing and operating unmanned submersibles, and developing future technologies that will place the U.S. on the forefront of future seabed battlegrounds.

Why It Is Important

The seabed is the final frontier of the battlespace. Even low earth and geosynchronous orbits have plenty of military satellites, whether they are for communication or surveillance, but the seabed, except for mines and a few small expeditionary vessels, remains largely unexplored.

There are several reasons for this. For one, it’s hard to access. While the U.S. Navy has a few vehicles and systems that allow for deployment to deep depths, the majority of the seabed remains inaccessible, at least not quickly. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this hasn’t been a huge problem. Except for in rare cases of submarine rescue, there has been little need for the Navy to deploy forces to extreme depths.

That is changing. Secretary of Defense Mattis has made it clear that in the coming years, threats from nations such as Russia and China will make conventional forces more relevant than they have been in the past 20 years. It is imperative that the U.S. Navy has a solution to rapidly deploy both offensive and defensive forces to the seabed, because right now it can’t.

While mine-hunting robots have been deployed to Arleigh Burke destroyers, it seems unlikely that in a full-scale war the Navy will be able to direct these assets to work full-time at seabed warfare. After all, they’re too valuable. The Arleigh Burke destroyer proved its mettle in Iraq; being able to place cruise missiles through the window of a building certainly has a deterrent effect. But this also means that any attempts to add mine warfare to the destroyers’ responsibilities will be put on the back burner, and that will allow enemies to gain an advantage on the U.S. Navy.

There is simply a finite amount of time, and the Sailors underway cannot possibly add yet more tasks to their already overflowing plate. It would take a great deal of time for Sailors onboard the destroyers to train and drill on seabed warfare, and that’s time they just don’t have. No matter how many ways you look at it, the surface fleet is already working at capacity.

What is needed is a new naval command, equipped with its own fleet of both littoral and deep-water ships and submarines, which focuses entirely on seabed warfare.

In this new command, littoral ships, like the new Freedom Class LCS, will be responsible for near shore seabed activities. This includes clearing friendly harbors of mines, placing mines in enemy harbors, searching for enemy submarines near the coast, and denying the enemy the ability to reach friendly seabeds.

The deep-water component will be equipped with powerful new technology that can seek out, map, and cut or otherwise exploit the enemy’s undersea communications cables on the ocean floor, while at the same time monitor, defend, maintain, and repair our own. It will also deploy stand-off style torpedo pods near enemy shipping lanes; they will be tasked with dominating the seabeds past the 12 nautical mile limit.

We have to be prepared to think of the next war between the U.S. and its enemies as total war. Supplies and the transfer of supplies between enemy countries will be a prime target for the U.S. Navy. We have to assume that in a full nation vs. nation engagement, the submarines, surface ships, aircraft carriers, and land-based aircraft will be needed elsewhere. Even if they are assigned to engage enemy shipping, there are just not enough platforms to hold every area at risk and still service the required targets.

For example, the U.S. will need the fast attacks to insert Special Forces troops, especially since the appetite to employ the Special Forces community has grown in the last 20 years. They will also be needed to do reconnaissance and surveillance. Likewise, the aircraft carriers will have their hands full executing strike missions, providing close air support to ground troops, working to achieve air superiority, and supporting Special Forces missions. Just like the surface fleet is today, the submarine fleet and the aircraft carriers will be taxed to their limit during an all-out war.

That’s why a seabed-specific command is needed to make the most of the opportunities in this domain while being ready to confront an adversary ready to exploit the seabed. Suppose that during a total war, the Seabed Command could place underwater torpedo turrets on the seabed floor, and control them remotely. A dedicated command could place, operate, and service these new weapons, freeing up both the surface and the submarine fleets to pursue other operations. Under control of Seabed Command, these cheap, unmanned torpedo launchers could wait at the bottom until an enemy sonar contact was identified and then engage. Just like pilots flying the MQ-9 Reaper control the aircraft from thousands of miles away, Sailors based in CONUS could operate these turrets remotely. Even the threat of these underwater torpedo pods would be enough to at least change the way an adversary ships crucial supplies across the ocean. If the pods were deployed in remote areas, it would force the enemy to attempt to shift shipping closer to the coast, where U.S. airpower could swiftly interdict.

The final component of Seabed Command would be a small fleet of submarines, equipped for missions like undersea rescue, repair, and reconnaissance. The submarines would also host saturation diving capabilities, enabling the delivery of personnel and equipment to the seafloor. Because these assets are only tasked with seabed operations, the Sailors would receive unique training that would make them specialists in operating in this unforgiving environment.

Conclusion

A brand new Seabed Command and fleet is order. It will be made up of both littoral and deep water surface ships, unmanned torpedo turrets that can be deployed to the ocean floor and operated from a remote base, and a small fleet of submarines specially equipped for seabed operations.

The U.S. Navy cannot rely on the surface warfare community to complete this mission; they are simply too busy as it is. While the submarine force might also seem like a logical choice, in a full-on nation vs. nation war, their top priorities will not be seabed operations. Only a standalone command and fleet will ensure America’s dominance at crush depth.

Joseph LaFave is a journalist covering the defense contracting industry, defense trends, and the Global War on Terror. He is a graduate of Florida State University and was an engineer at Lockheed Martin.

Featured Image: ROV Deep Discoverer investigates the geomorphology of Block Canyon (NOAA)

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.

Conclusion

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.

Endnotes

[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)

Unmanned Mission Command, Pt. 2

By Tim McGeehan

The following two-part series discusses the command and control of future autonomous systems. Part 1 describes how we have arrived at the current tendency towards detailed control. Part 2 proposes how to refocus on mission command.

Adjusting Course

Today’s commanders are accustomed to operating in permissive environments and have grown addicted to the connectivity that makes detailed control possible. This is emerging as a major vulnerability. For example, while the surface Navy’s concept of “distributed lethality” will increase the complexity of the detection and targeting problems presented to adversaries, it will also increase the complexity of its own command and control. Even in a relatively uncontested environment, tightly coordinating widely dispersed forces will not be a trivial undertaking. This will tend toward lengthening decision cycles, at a time when the emphasis is on shortening them.1 How will the Navy execute operations in a future Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) scenario, where every domain is contested (including the EM spectrum and cyberspace) and every fraction of a second counts? 

The Navy must “rediscover” and fully embrace mission command now, to both address current vulnerabilities as well as unleash the future potential of autonomous systems. These systems offer increased precision, faster reaction times, longer endurance, and greater range, but these advantages may not be realized if the approach to command and control remains unchanged. For starters, to prepare for future environments where data links cannot be taken for granted, commanders must be prepared to give all subordinates, human and machine, wide latitude to operate, which is only afforded by mission command. Many systems will progress from a man “in” the loop (with the person integral to the functioning), to a man “on” the loop (where the person oversees the system and executes command by negation), and then to complete autonomy. In the future, fully autonomous systems may collaborate with one another across a given echelon and solve problems based on the parameters communicated to them as commander’s intent (swarms would fall into this category). However, it may go even further. Mission command calls for adaptable leaders at every level; what if at some level the leaders are no longer people but machines? It is not hard to imagine a forward deployed autonomous system tasking its own subordinates (fellow machines), particularly in scenarios where there is no available bandwidth to allow backhaul communications or enable detailed control from afar. In these cases, mission command will not just be the preferred option, it will be the only option. This reliance on mission command may be seen as a cultural shift, but in reality, it is a return to the Navy’s cultural roots.

Back to Basics

Culturally, the Navy should be well-suited to embrace the mission command model to employ autonomous systems. Traditionally once a ship passed over the horizon there was little if any communication for extended periods of time due to technological limitations. This led to a culture of mission command: captains were given basic orders and an overall intent; the rest was up to them. Indeed, captains might act as ambassadors and conduct diplomacy and other business on behalf of the government in remote areas with little direct guidance.2 John Paul Jones himself stated that “it often happens that sudden emergencies in foreign waters make him [the Naval Officer] the diplomatic as well as the military representative of his country, and in such cases he may have to act without opportunity of consulting his civic or ministerial superiors at home, and such action may easily involve the portentous issue of peace or war between great powers.”3  This is not to advocate that autonomous systems will participate in diplomatic functions, but it does illustrate the longstanding Navy precedent for autonomy of subordinate units.

Another factor in support of the Navy favoring mission command is that the physics of the operating environment may demand it. For example, the physical properties of the undersea domain prohibit direct, routine, high-bandwidth communication with submerged platforms. This is the case with submarines and is being applied to UUVs by extension. This has led to extensive development of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) vice remotely operated ones; AUVs clearly favor mission command.

Finally, the Navy’s culture of decentralized command is the backbone of the Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) construct. CWC is essentially an expression of mission command. Just as technology (the telegraph cable, wireless, and global satellite communication) has afforded the means of detailed control and micromanagement, it has also increased the speed of warfighting, necessitating decentralized execution. Command by negation is the foundation of CWC, and has been ingrained in the Navy’s officer corps for decades. Extending this mindset to autonomous systems will be key to realizing their full capabilities.

Training Commanders

This begs the question: how does one train senior commanders who rose through the ranks during the age of continuous connectivity to thrive in a world of autonomous systems where detailed control is not an option? For a start, they could adopt the mindset of General Norman Schwarzkopf, who described how hard it was to resist interfering with his subordinates:

“I desperately wanted to do something, anything, other than wait, yet the best thing I could do was stay out of the way. If I pestered my generals I’d distract them:  I knew as well as anyone that commanders on the battlefield have more important things to worry about than keeping higher headquarters informed…”4

That said, even while restraining himself, at the height of OPERATION DESERT STORM, his U.S. Central Command used more than 700,000 telephone calls and 152,000 radio messages per day to coordinate the actions of their subordinate forces. In contrast, during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Nelson used only three general tactical flag-hoist signals to maneuver the entire British fleet.5

Commanders must learn to be satisfied with the ambiguity inherent in mission command. They must become comfortable clearly communicating their intent and mission requirements, whether tasking people or autonomous systems. Again, there isn’t a choice; the Navy’s adversaries are investing in A2/AD capabilities that explicitly target the means that make detailed control possible. Furthermore, the ambiguity and complexity of today’s operating environments prohibit “a priori” composition of complete and perfect instructions.

Placing commanders into increasingly complex and ambiguous situations during training will push them toward mission command, where they will have to trust subordinates closer to the edge who will be able to execute based on commander’s intent and their own initiative. General Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed training that presented commanders with fleeting opportunities and rewarding those who seized them in order to encourage commanders to act in the face of uncertainty.

Familiarization training with autonomous systems could take place in large part via simulation, where commanders interact with the actual algorithms and rehearse at a fraction of the cost of executing a real-world exercise. In this setting, commanders could practice giving mission type orders and translating them for machine understanding. They could employ their systems to failure, analyze where they went wrong, and learn to adjust their level of supervision via multiple iterations. This training wouldn’t be just a one-way evolution; the algorithms would also learn about their commander’s preferences and thought process by finding patterns in their actions and thresholds for their decisions. Through this process, the autonomous system would understand even more about commander’s intent should it need to act alone in the future. If the autonomous system will be in a position to task its own robotic subordinates, that algorithm would be demonstrated so the commander understands how the system may act (which will have incorporated what it has learned about how its commander commands).

With this in mind, while it may seem trivial, consideration must be made for the fact that future autonomous systems may have a detailed algorithmic model of their commander’s thought process, “understand” his intent, and “know” at least a piece of “the big picture.” As such, in the future these systems cannot simply be considered disposable assets performing the dumb, dirty, dangerous work that exempt a human from having to go in harm’s way. They will require significant anti-tamper capabilities to prevent an adversary from extracting or downloading this valuable information if they are somehow taken or recovered by the enemy. Perhaps they could even be armed with algorithms to “resist” exploitation or give misleading information. 

The Way Ahead

Above all, commanders will need to establish the same trust and confidence in autonomous systems that they have in manned systems and human operators.6 Commanders trust manned systems, even though they are far from infallible. This came to international attention with the airstrike on the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital operating in Kunduz, Afghanistan. As this event illustrated, commanders must acknowledge the potential for human error, put mitigation measures in place where they can, and then accept a certain amount of risk. In the future, advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence will yield algorithms that far exceed human processing capabilities. Autonomous systems will be able to sense, process, coordinate, and act faster than their human counterparts. However, trust in these systems will only come from time and experience, and the way to secure that is to mainstream autonomous systems into exercises. Initially these opportunities should be carefully planned and executed, not just added in as an afterthought. For example, including autonomous systems in a particular Fleet Battle Experiment solely to check a box that they were used raises the potential for negative training, where the observers see the technology fail due to ill-conceived employment. As there may be limited opportunities to “win over” the officer corps, this must be avoided. Successfully demonstrating the capabilities (and the legitimate limitations) of autonomous systems is critical. Increased use over time will ensure maximum exposure to future commanders, and will be key to widespread adoption and full utilization.  

The Navy must return to its roots and rediscover mission command in order to fully leverage the potential of autonomous systems. While it may make commanders uncomfortable, it has deep roots in historic practice and is a logical extension of existing doctrine. Former General Dempsey wrote that mission command “must pervade the force and drive leader development, organizational design and inform material acquisitions.”Taking this to heart and applying it across the board will have profound and lasting impacts as the Navy sails into the era of autonomous systems.

Tim McGeehan is a U.S. Navy Officer currently serving in Washington. 

The ideas presented are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.

References

[1] Dmitry Filipoff, Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War, CIMSEC, January 4, 2016, http://cimsec.org/distributed-lethality-and-concepts-of-future-war/20831

[2] Naval Doctrine Publication 6: Naval Command and Control, 1995, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a304321.pdf, p. 9      

[3] Connell, Royal W. and William P. Mack, Naval Customs, Ceremonies, and Traditions, 1980, p. 355.

[4] Schwartzkopf, Norman, It Doesn’t Take a Hero:  The Autobiography of General Norman Schwartzkopf, 1992, p.523

[5] Ibid 2, p. 4

[6] Greg Smith, Trusting Autonomous Systems: It’s More Than Technology, CIMSEC, September 18, 2015, http://cimsec.org/trusting-autonomous-systems-its-more-than-technology/18908     

[7] Martin Dempsey, Mission Command White Paper, April 3, 2012, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/concepts/white_papers/cjcs_wp_missioncommand.pdf

Featured Image: SOUTH CHINA SEA (April 30, 2017) Sailors assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 23 run tests on the the MQ-8B Firescout, an unmanned aerial vehicle, aboard littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Leigh Ellis/Released)