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.
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)
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.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.”7 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.
 Dmitry Filipoff, Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War, CIMSEC, January 4, 2016, http://cimsec.org/distributed-lethality-and-concepts-of-future-war/20831
 Naval Doctrine Publication 6: Naval Command and Control, 1995, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a304321.pdf, p. 9
 Connell, Royal W. and William P. Mack, Naval Customs, Ceremonies, and Traditions, 1980, p. 355.
 Schwartzkopf, Norman, It Doesn’t Take a Hero: The Autobiography of General Norman Schwartzkopf, 1992, p.523
 Ibid 2, p. 4
 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
 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)
In 2018 the United States remains engaged worldwide. The 2017 National Security Strategy addresses the wide-range of threats to the security and prosperity of United States.1 These threats range from high-end peer competitors such as China and Russia, to rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, to the ongoing threat of terrorism represented by such groups as ISIL. In a preview of the National Security Strategy at the December 2017 Reagan National Defense Forum, National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster highlighted these threats and reconfirmed the previous administration’s “4+1” strategy, naming the four countries – Russia, China, Iran and North Korea—and the “+1” — terrorists, particularly ISIL — as urgent threats that the United States must deal with today.2
The U.S. military is dealing with this threat landscape by deploying forces worldwide at an unprecedented rate. And in most cases, it is naval strike forces, represented by carrier strike groups centered on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and expeditionary strike groups built around large-deck amphibious ships, that are the forces of choice for dealing with crises worldwide.
For decades, when a crisis emerged anywhere on the globe, the first question a U.S. president asked was, “Where are the carriers?” Today, that question is still asked, but increasingly, the question has morphed into, “Where are the expeditionary strike groups?” The reasons for this focus on expeditionary strike groups are clear. These naval expeditionary formations have been the ones used extensively for a wide-array of missions short of war, from anti-piracy patrols, to personnel evacuation, to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. And where tensions lead to hostilities, these forces are the only ones that give the U.S. military a forcible entry option.
During the past decade-and-a-half of wars in the Middle East and South Asia, the U.S. Marine Corps was used extensively as a land force and did not frequently deploy aboard U.S. Navy amphibious ships. Now the Marine Corps is largely disengaged from those conflicts and is, in the words of a former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, “Returning to its amphibious roots.”3 As this occurs, the Navy-Marine Corps team is looking to new technology to complement and enhance the capabilities its amphibious ships bring to the fight.
Because of their “Swiss Army Knife” utility, U.S. naval expeditionary forces have remained relatively robust even as the size of the U.S. Navy has shrunk from 594 ships in 1987 to 272 ships in early 2018. Naval expeditionary strike groups comprise a substantial percentage of the U.S. Navy’s current fleet. And the blueprint for the future fleet the U.S. Navy is building maintains, and even increases, that percentage of amphibious ships.4
However, ships are increasingly expensive and U.S. Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary forces have been proactive in looking to new technology to add capability to their ships. One of the technologies that offer the most promise in this regard is that of unmanned systems. The reasons for embracing unmanned systems stem from their ability to reduce the risk to human life in high-threat areas, to deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest, and to provide options to warfighters that derive from the inherent advantages of unmanned technologies—especially their ability to operate autonomously.
The importance of unmanned systems to the U.S. Navy’s future has been highlighted in a series of documents, ranging from the 2015 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, to the 2016 A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, to the 2017 Chief of Naval Operations’ The Future Navy white paper. The Future Navy paper presents a compelling case for the rapid integration of unmanned systems into the Navy Fleet, noting, in part:
“There is no question that unmanned systems must also be an integral part of the future fleet. The advantages such systems offer are even greater when they incorporate autonomy and machine learning….Shifting more heavily to unmanned surface, undersea, and aircraft will help us to further drive down unit costs.”5
The U.S. Navy’s commitment to and growing dependence on unmanned systems is also seen in the Navy’s official Force Structure Assessment of December 2016, as well as in a series of “Future Fleet Architecture Studies.” In each of these studies—one by the Chief of Naval Operations staff, one by the MITRE Corporation, and one by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments—the proposed Navy future fleet architecture had large numbers of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems as part of the Navy force structure. Indeed, these reports highlight the fact that the attributes unmanned systems can bring to the U.S. Navy Fleet circa 2030 have the potential to be truly transformational.6
The Navy Project Team, Report to Congress: Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study is an example of the Navy’s vision for the increasing use of unmanned systems. This study notes that under a distributed fleet architecture, ships would deploy with many more unmanned surface (USV) and air (UAV) vehicles, and submarines would employ more unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). The distributed Fleet would also include large, self-deployable independent USVs and UUVs, increasing unmanned deployed presence to approximately 50 platforms.
This distributed Fleet study calls out specific numbers of unmanned systems that would complement the manned platforms projected to be part of the U.S. Navy inventory by 2030:
255 Conventional take-off UAVs
157 Vertical take-off UAVs
88 Unmanned surface vehicles
183 Medium unmanned underwater vehicles
48 Large unmanned underwater vehicles
By any measure the number of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned vehicles envisioned in the Navy alternative architecture studies represents not only a step-increase in the number of unmanned systems in the Fleet today, but also vastly more unmanned systems than current Navy plans call for. But it is one thing to state the aspiration for more unmanned systems in the Fleet, and quite another to develop and deploy them. There are compelling reasons why naval expeditionary forces have been proactive in experimenting with emerging unmanned systems.
Testing and Evaluating Unmanned Systems
While the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have embraced unmanned systems of all types into their force structures, and a wide-range of studies looking at the makeup of the Sea Services in the future have endorsed this shift, it is the Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary forces that have been the most active in evaluating a wide variety of unmanned systems in various exercises, experiments, and demonstrations. Part of the reason for this accelerated evaluation of emerging unmanned systems is the fact that, unlike carrier strike groups that have access to unmanned platforms such as MQ-4C Triton and MQ-8 Fire Scout, expeditionary strike groups are not similarly equipped.
While several such exercises, experiments, and demonstrations occurred in 2017, two of the most prominent, based on the scope of the events, as well as the number of new technologies introduced, were the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation (S2ME2) Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX), and Bold Alligator 2017. These events highlighted the potential of unmanned naval systems to be force-multipliers for expeditionary strike groups.
S2ME2 ANTX provided an opportunity to demonstrate emerging, innovative technology that could be used to address gaps in capabilities for naval expeditionary strike groups. As there are few missions that are more hazardous to the Navy-Marine Corps team than putting troops ashore in the face of a prepared enemy force, the experiment focused specifically on exploring the operational impact of advanced unmanned maritime systems on the amphibious ship-to-shore mission.
For the amphibious assault mission, UAVs are useful—but are extremely vulnerable to enemy air defenses. UUVs are useful as well, but the underwater medium makes control of these assets at distance problematic. For these reasons, S2ME2 ANTX focused heavily on unmanned surface vehicles to conduct real-time ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and IPB (intelligence preparation of the battlespace) missions. These are critical missions that have traditionally been done by our warfighters, but ones that put them at extreme risk.
In an October 2017 interview with U.S. Naval Institute News, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, test and evaluation, William Bray, stressed the importance of using unmanned systems in the ISR and IPB roles:
“Responding to a threat today means using unmanned systems to collect data and then delivering that information to surface ships, submarines, and aircraft. The challenge is delivering this data quickly and in formats allowing for quick action.”7
During the assault phase of S2ME2 ANTX, the expeditionary commander used a USV to thwart enemy defenses. For this event, he used an eight-foot man-portable MANTAS USV (one of a family of stealthy, low profile, USVs) that swam undetected into the “enemy harbor” (the Del Mar Boat Basin on the Southern California coast), and relayed information to the amphibious force command center using its TASKER C2 system. Once this ISR mission was complete, the MANTAS USV was driven to the surf zone to provide IPB on obstacle location, beach gradient, water conditions and other information crucial to planners.
Carly Jackson, SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific’s director of prototyping for Information Warfare and one of the organizers of S2ME2, explained the key element of the exercise was to demonstrate new technology developed in rapid response to real-world problems facing the Fleet:
“This is a relatively new construct where we use the Navy’s organic labs and warfare centers to bring together emerging technologies and innovation to solve a very specific fleet force fighting problem. It’s focused on ‘first wave’ and mainly focused on unmanned systems with a big emphasis on intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance.”8
The CHIPS interview article discussed the technologies on display and in demonstration at the S2ME2 ANTX event, especially networked autonomous air and maritime vehicles and ISR technologies. Tracy Conroy, SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific’s experimentation director, noted, “The innovative technology of unmanned vehicles offers a way to gather information that ultimately may help save lives. We take less of a risk of losing a Marine or Navy SEAL.”
S2ME2 ANTX was a precursor to Bold Alligator 2017, the annual Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary exercise. Bold Alligator 2017 was a live, scenario-driven exercise designed to demonstrate maritime and amphibious force capabilities, and was focused on planning and conducting amphibious operations, as well as evaluating new technologies that support the expeditionary force.9
Bold Alligator 2017 encompassed a substantial geographic area in the Virginia and North Carolina OPAREAS. The mission command center was located at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. The amphibious force and other units operated eastward of North and South Onslow Beaches, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. For the littoral mission, some expeditionary units operated in the Intracoastal Waterway near Camp Lejeune.
The Bold Alligator 2017 scope was modified in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as many of the assets scheduled to participate were used for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The exercise featured a smaller number of amphibious forces but did include a carrier strike group.10 The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) orchestrated events and was embarked aboard USS Arlington (LPD-24), USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43), and USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44).
The 2nd MEB used a large (12-foot) MANTAS USV, equipped with a Gyro Stabilized SeaFLIR230 EO/IR Camera and a BlueView M900 Forward Looking Imaging Sonar to provide ISR and IPB for the amphibious assault. The sonar was employed to provide bottom imaging of the surf zone, looking for objects and obstacles—especially mine-like objects—that could pose a hazard to the landing craft–LCACs and LCUs–as they moved through the surf zone and onto the beach.
The early phases of Bold Alligator 2017 were dedicated to long-range reconnaissance. Operators at exercise command center at Naval Station Norfolk drove the six-foot and 12-foot MANTAS USVs off North and South Onslow Beaches, as well as up and into the Intracoastal Waterway. Both MANTAS USVs streamed live, high-resolution video and sonar images to the command center. The video images showed vehicles, personnel, and other objects on the beaches and in the Intracoastal Waterway, and the sonar images provided surf-zone bottom analysis and located objects and obstacles that could provide a hazard during the assault phase.
Bold Alligator 2017 underscored the importance of surface unmanned systems to provide real-time ISR and IPB early in the operation. This allowed planners to orchestrate the amphibious assault to ensure that the LCACs or LCUs passing through the surf zone and onto the beach did not encounter mines or other objects that could disable—or even destroy—these assault craft. Providing decision makers not on-scene with the confidence to order the assault was a critical capability and one that will likely be evaluated again in future amphibious exercises such as RIMPAC 2018, Valiant Shield 2018, Talisman Saber 2018, Bold Alligator 2018 and Cobra Gold, among others.
Navy Commitment to Unmanned Maritime Systems
One of the major challenges to the Navy making a substantial commitment to unmanned maritime systems is the fact that they are relatively new and their development has been “under the radar” for all but a few professionals in the science and technology (S&T), research and development (R&D), requirements, and acquisition communities. This lack of familiarity creates a high bar for unmanned naval systems in particular. A DoD Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap provided a window into the magnitude of this challenge:
“Creation of substantive autonomous systems/platforms within each domain will create resourcing and leadership challenges for all the services, while challenging their respective warfighter culture as well…Trust of unmanned systems is still in its infancy in ground and maritime systems….Unmanned systems are still a relatively new concept….As a result; there is a fear of new and unproven technology.”11
In spite of these concerns—or maybe because of them—the Naval Sea Systems Command and Navy laboratories have been accelerating the development of USVs and UUVs. The Navy has partnered with industry to develop, field, and test a family of USVs and UUVs such as the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (“Sea Hunter”), MANTAS next-generation unmanned surface vessels, the Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV), and others.
Indeed, this initial prototype testing has been so successful that the Department of the Navy has begun to provide increased support for USVs and UUVs and has established program guidance for many of these systems important to the Navy and Marine Corps. This programmatic commitment is reflected in the 2017 Navy Program Guide as well as in the 2017 Marine Corps Concepts and Programs publications. Both show a commitment to unmanned systems programs.12
In September 2017, Captain Jon Rucker, the program manager of the Navy program office (PMS-406) with stewardship over unmanned maritime systems (unmanned surface vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles), discussed his programs with USNI News. The title of the article, “Navy Racing to Test, Field, Unmanned Maritime Vehicles for Future Ships,” captured the essence of where unmanned maritime systems will fit in tomorrow’s Navy, as well as the Navy-after-next. Captain Rucker shared:
“In addition to these programs of record, the Navy and Marine Corps have been testing as many unmanned vehicle prototypes as they can, hoping to see the art of the possible for unmanned systems taking on new mission sets. Many of these systems being tested are small surface and underwater vehicles that can be tested by the dozens at tech demonstrations or by operating units.”13
While the Navy is committed to several programs of record for large unmanned maritime systems such as the Knifefish UUV, the Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV), the Large Displacement UUV (LDUUV) and Extra Large UUV (XLUUV), and the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) vehicle (since renamed the Medium Displacement USV [MDUSV] and also called Sea Hunter), the Navy also sees great potential in expanding the scope of unmanned maritime systems testing:
“Rucker said a lot of the small unmanned vehicles are used to extend the reach of a mission through aiding in communications or reconnaissance. None have become programs of record yet, but PMS 406 is monitoring their development and their participation in events like the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise, which featured several small UUVs and USVs.”14
The ship-to-shore movement of an expeditionary assault force remains the most hazardous mission for any navy. Real-time ISR and IPB will spell the difference between victory and defeat. For this reason, the types of unmanned systems the Navy and Marine Corps should acquire are those systems that directly support our expeditionary forces. This suggests a need for unmanned surface systems to complement expeditionary naval formations. Indeed, USVs might well be the bridge to the Navy-after-next.
Captain George Galdorisi (USN – retired) is a career naval aviator whose thirty years of active duty service included four command tours and five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff. He began his writing career in 1978 with an article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. He is the Director of Strategic Assessments and Technical Futures at the Navy’s Command and Control Center of Excellence in San Diego, California.
The views presented are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.
Correction: Two pictures and a paragraph were removed by request.
 National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, D.C.: The White House, December 2017) accessed at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905-2.pdf.
 There are many summaries of this important national security event. For one of the most comprehensive, see Jerry Hendrix, “Little Peace, and Our Strength is Ebbing: A Report from the Reagan National Defense Forum,” National Review, December 4, 2017, accessed at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/454308/us-national-security-reagan-national-defense-forum-offered-little-hope.
 Otto Kreisher, “U.S. Marine Corps Is Getting Back to Its Amphibious Roots,” Defense Media Network, November 8, 2012, accessed at: https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/return-to-the-sea/.
 For a most comprehensive summary of U.S. Navy shipbuilding plans, see Ron O’Rourke Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, November 22, 2017).
 The Future Navy (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, May 2017) accessed at: http://www.navy.mil/navydata/people/cno/Richardson/Resource/TheFutureNavy.pdf. See also, 2018 U.S. Marine Corps S&T Strategic Plan (Quantico, VA: U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, 2018) for the U.S. Marine Corps emphasis on unmanned systems, especially man-unmanned teaming.
 See, for example, Navy Project Team, Report to Congress: Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, October 27, 2016, MITRE, Navy Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, July 1, 2016, and CSBA, Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy, January 23, 2017.
 Ben Werner, “Sea Combat in High-End Environments Necessitates Open Architecture Technologies,” USNI News, October 19, 2017, accessed at: https://news.usni.org/2017/10/19/open-architecture-systems-design-is-key-to-navy-evolution?utm_source=USNI+News&utm_campaign=b535e84233-USNI_NEWS_DAILY&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0dd4a1450b-b535e84233-230420609&mc_cid=b535e84233&mc_eid=157ead4942
 Patric Petrie, “Navy Lab Demonstrates High-Tech Solutions in Response to Real-World Challenges at ANTX17,” CHIPS Magazine Online, May 5, 2017, accessed at http://www.doncio.navy.mil/CHIPS/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=8989.
 Information on Bold Alligator 2017 is available on the U.S. Navy website at: http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=102852.
 Phone interview with Lieutenant Commander Wisbeck, Commander, Fleet Forces Command, Public Affairs Office, November 28, 2017.
 FY 2009-2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, pp. 39-41.
 See, 2017 Navy Program Guide, accessed at: http://www.navy.mil/strategic/npg17.pdf, and 2017 Marine Corps Concepts and Programs accessed at: https://marinecorpsconceptsandprograms.com/.
 Megan Eckstein, “Navy Racing to Test, Field, Unmanned Maritime Vehicles for Future Ships,” USNI News, September 21, 2017, accessed at: https://news.usni.org/2017/09/21/navy-racing-test-field-unmanned-maritime-vehicles-future-ships?utm_source=USNI+News&utm_campaign=fb4495a428-USNI_NEWS_DAILY&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0dd4a1450b-fb4495a428-230420609&mc_cid=fb4495a428&mc_eid=157ead4942
 “Navy Racing to Test, Field, Unmanned Maritime Vehicles for Future Ships.”
Featured Image: Marines with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment prepare a Weaponized Multi-Utility Tactical Transport vehicle for a patrol at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., July 13, 2016. (USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Julien Rodarte)