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Game-Changing Unmanned Systems for Naval Expeditionary Forces

By George Galdorisi

Perspective

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. 

Naval Expeditionary Forces: Embracing Unmanned Vehicles

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.

Close up of USV operating during S2ME2; note the low-profile and stealthy characteristics (Photo courtesy of Mr. Jack Rowley).

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. 

Unmanned surface vehicle (MANTAS) operating in the surf zone during the S2ME2 exercise (Photo courtesy of Mr. Jack Rowley).

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. 

References

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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/.

[4] 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).

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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

[8] 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.

[9] Information on Bold Alligator 2017 is available on the U.S. Navy website at: http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=102852.

[10] Phone interview with Lieutenant Commander Wisbeck, Commander, Fleet Forces Command, Public Affairs Office, November 28, 2017.

[11] FY 2009-2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, pp. 39-41.

[12] 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/.

[13] 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

[14] “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)

Swarming Sea Mines: Capital Capability?

Future Capital Ship Topic Week

By Zachary Kallenborn

A ‘capital ship,’ rightly understood, is a ship type that can defeat any other ship type. In the days of sail and dreadnoughts, it was the type of ship having the most and biggest guns. It is the ship type around which fleet doctrine and fleet architecture are established. The question is what kind of killing weapon the capital ship supports.
—Robert Rubel1

Introduction

The Navy’s Strategic Studies Group 35 concluded the “Navy’s next capital ship will not be a ship. It will be the Network of Humans and Machines, the Navy’s new center of gravity, embodying a superior source of combat power.”2

Such a network could consist of networks of sea mine swarms and their support ships. Networked sea mine swarms could converge on masses of adversary ships, bringing to bear overwhelming force. The visibility of surface support ships would enable the network to generate conventional deterrence by signaling the swarm’s presence, while helping maintain the swarm itself.3 The history of mine warfare suggests swarming sea mines could deliver a decisive force.

Sea mines can already inflict significant damage on all other types of ship, including capital ships.4 On April 14, 1988, a single contact mine nearly sank the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58), causing over $96 million in damage.5 Since World War II, mines have seriously damaged or sunk 15 U.S. ships, nearly four times more than all other threats combined.6 However, unlike aircraft carriers and other capital ships, traditional sea mines offer little ability to project power and, once identified, can be avoided.

But what if sea mines could move themselves intelligently and coordinate their actions? They could rove the seas in advance of friendly fleet movements and position themselves into an adversary’s path. Multiple mines could strike a single target. Naval mines could become a critical aspect of seapower. Networks of naval mine swarms could become the future capital ship. 

Swarming sea mines can do exactly that.

Swarming Sea Mines: The Concept

Swarming sea mines consist of interconnected, undersea drones dispersed over an area. Drones within the swarm communicate with one another to coordinate their actions. Sensor drones7 within the swarm disperse, broadly searching for incoming targets. Sensor drones relay information to attack drones to engage an adversary vessel, or stand down to allow a friendly vessel to pass.

Attack drones may be either undersea turrets or free-roaming munitions. As undersea turrets, attack drones serve as platforms for launching torpedoes or other munitions. Input from sensor drones informs the trajectory for launch. As a free-roaming munition, an attack drone functions like a traditional sea mine. Using on-board propulsion systems, the attack drone maneuvers to the adversary vessel and detonates in proximity.

Interconnectivity enables swarming attacks. Multiple attack drones may launch attacks from different directions. This increases the likelihood of successfully sinking an adversary ship because (1) strikes hit different parts of the adversary hull and (2) it enables multiple strikes on the same target, putting at risk larger ships that may survive a single detonation. Interconnectivity could also enable networks of sea mine swarms to coordinate strikes, significantly increasing the number of attack drones. Such a capability would be useful in attacking an adversary fleet, with multiple swarms coordinating target selection. 

EMB Mine being laid from an S-Boote. (Photo from Suddentscher Verlag)

As the size of the swarm grows, so too does its combat power. Larger swarms mean more sensors in the network and more munitions to overwhelm targets. The Department of Defense (DoD) recently fielded a swarm of 103 aerial drones.8 China also reportedly fielded a swarm of 1,000 aerial drones.7 In theory, a sea mine swarm could consist of tens of thousands of interconnected mines, able to overwhelm any target. The primary limitation on swarm growth is the capacity to manage the rapidly increasing complexity of drone information exchange.

Strategically, swarming sea mines could play the same roles as traditional sea mines. Sea mines may be used to control critical chokepoints. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran seeded the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz with Soviet contact mines.9 Alternatively, they could be used to inhibit amphibious forces attempting to come ashore. During the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq deployed sea mines to limit coalition forces’ ability to launch an amphibious assault.10 Similarly, during the Korean War, North Korean mining of Wonsan Harbor “prevented over 50,000 U.S. Marines from coming ashore and allowed the North Koreans to withdraw their forces.”11 However, swarming sea mines can play additional roles, such as protecting friendly vessels.

Advantages over Traditional Mines

Swarming sea mines have qualitatively better capabilities. Compared to traditional mines, swarming sea mines have drastically increased the threat through autonomous movement, broad area coverage, and information integration.

Autonomous Movement

Advances in robotics enable unmanned systems to maneuver and act without human decision-making.13 DoD’s Perdix drone swarm shares a “distributed brain” to make decisions and react to the environment.14 The swarm fully controls its own behavior without human direction, other than setting broad mission goals. Other autonomous systems such as the South Korean SGR-A1 gun turret can reportedly identify and engage targets.15 Although DoD policy does not allow autonomous weapons systems to select humans as targets, traditional sea mines already autonomously engage targets.16

Maneuverability enhances the psychological effects of minefields. Fear over encountering a minefield can affect behavior without inflicting damage. Once a vessel passes through a traditional minefield, it is often safe. However, a swarming minefield may move to a new area, adding new uncertainties.

Greater maneuverability enables drone-based naval mines to incorporate automated retreat rules. For example, after a specified time, drones may disarm and leave the area. Friendly vessels may then retrieve and redeploy them in another location. For traditional naval mines, retrieval is a highly fraught task because a retrieving vessel may inadvertently detonate the mine. Emplaced mines cannot be reused; swarming sea mines can.

Autonomous decision-making would enable swarming sea mines to identify and respond to changes in environmental conditions that could mitigate their effects. With traditional bottom mines on the seafloor, strong tides and currents can shift the mines.17 Swarming mines could recognize this shift and adjust.

Types of Naval mine.A-underwater,B-bottom,SS-Submarine. 1-Drifting mine,2-Drifting mine,3-Moored Mine,4-Moored Mine(short wire),5-Bottom Mines,6-Torpedo mine/CAPTOR mine,7-Rising mine (Wikimedia Commons)

Autonomous movement is a significant departure from the capabilities of traditional naval mines. While some advanced mobile mines such as the MK 67 Submarine-Laid Mobile Mine can be placed from afar, the MK 67 remains in place.18 Other naval mines are able to move with the current. None of these mines can position themselves intelligently.

Information Integration

The inter-connectivity of a drone swarm enables naval mines to integrate information from many different sensors. Sensor drones could incorporate traditional influence sensors, including magnetic, acoustic, and seismic sensors.19 Data from multiple sensors may be shared to minimize false positives. Sensor drones may roam freely, studying an area for potential targets, creating greater situational awareness. Alternatively, buried sensor drones could enable live battle-damage assessment. If an adversary vessel survives an initial strike, additional attackers may be called to follow and engage.

Swarming naval mines may be connected into broader intelligence and surveillance networks. Information from these networks could enable the swarm minefield to reposition based on adversary behavior. For example, naval intelligence may identify an adversary vessel about to enter a given area and relay that information to the drone swarm to maneuver into the vessel’s path.

While traditional naval mines are already capable of incorporating multiple sensors to prevent false positives, they are unable to share information with one another.20

Broad Area Coverage

Maneuverability and information integration would enable swarming sea mines to greatly increase the threatened area. Sensor drones can disperse broadly to provide maximum situational awareness. Information may then be relayed to other drones to engage an incoming target.

Like attack drones, sensor drones may be free roaming or stationary, though there are trade-offs. Free-roaming sensor drones may actively search an area looking for targets. This enables much broader coverage; however, communication ranges may limit the distance they can travel. Stationary sensing drones may float near the surface or bury themselves in the seafloor. Sensor drones that bury themselves minimize the profile presented to adversaries, lowering detectability. However, stationary drones lose the benefits of mobility, providing less area coverage.

The increased area coverage is efficient because fewer munitions would be required to control a given area. Mines will take up less space on friendly vessels while having the same impact. This is especially important for submarine-launched mines, because submarines have very limited storage capacity. Currently, to equip submarines with mines requires removing torpedoes at the rate of one torpedo for every two mines.21

Challenges

Despite these significant advantages, however, operationalizing the concept entails some significant challenges. None of these challenges appears insurmountable, and work is already being done to address them, but they must be considered for concept viability and to realize the benefits of swarming.

Undersea Communication

The ability of the swarm to function as a unit depends on drone communication. Underwater, this is a major challenge. Traditional communication methods are often based on electromagnetic transmissions that are ineffective underwater.22 Underwater communications must rely on acoustic communication, which is slower, has small bandwidth, and has high error rates.23 The lack of electromagnetic communication also prevents drones from using GPS guidance for coordination and localization.

Initial research points to the inclusion of relays and surface-based control drones as a solution (see footnote 5 for a brief typology of drone archetypes). To address the lack of underwater GPS penetration, Jules Jaffe and his research team incorporated GPS-localized surface buoys that emit acoustic signals.24 Their underwater drones passively receive the buoy’s signals and, based on the known location of the surface floats, determine their own location.25 Similarly, Thomas Schmickl and his research team use a “surface base station” emitting an acoustic signal for localization and establishing boundaries to ensure no drone gets lost in the ocean’s expanse.26 The station also receives status updates from the swarm, such as task completion.

From a military perspective, a surface control drone may be undesirable because it could be identified and targeted, neutralizing the minefield. To prevent this, control drones could be underwater with a GPS periscope extending above the surface to receive and transmit signals. Alternatively, swarms could incorporate redundant control drones. If one is eliminated, the minefield stays live.

More broadly, the underwater environment creates difficulties in countering adversary attempts to disrupt communications. An adversary is likely to target inter-swarm communication because if communications are disrupted, so too is the swarm.27 Unfortunately, the properties of underwater communication mean terrestrial jamming detection technologies do not operate effectively.28

Tethering and Reseeding

Reseeding a minefield is often a significant challenge. If most mines have detonated, the minefield offers little utility. Adding mines in hostile terrain while incur risk such as on January 18, 1991 when Iraqi forces shot down a mine-dropping A-6 aircraft.29 The mobility of drone swarms diminishes some of this challenge because the drones may be deployed from afar to move into position.

Reseeded mines must also tether to the swarm’s network. An added attack drone needs to integrate with the other attackers and with the broader sensor network. Reseeded drones need to recognize that they are a part of the minefield’s network and vice versa. It also requires the distributed brain of the swarm to incorporate the new drones into task assignment and overall control.30

Coordinated re-positioning removes some difficulty. If few attack drones have been destroyed, the other drones can fill any gaps. However, as the losses grow larger, or if the swarm had few attackers to begin with, adding attackers becomes a greater challenge.

Power

The availability of power limits swarm operations. On-board power is required to maintain communications, use propulsion systems, and operate and interpret the results of sensing systems. These requirements limit the amount of time the swarm can pose a threat.

One possible solution is sea-based charging facilities. Support ships could be created whose primary role is to recharge undersea drones, including swarming sea mines. They could also be used for swarm maintenance, reseeding the swarm, or long-range transportation. Alternatively, the Navy’s work on unmanned undersea pods could allow for undersea recharging.31 This would likely be most useful for mining friendly territory because the pods would need to be pre-positioned and adversaries could target them. As swarm size increases, so too will this challenge. Large swarms may also encounter queuing problems if only a few drones can charge simultaneously. Regardless of the solution, time spent traveling to and from recharging facilities also limits time in a mission area.

Conclusion

A 2001 National Research Council study painted a bleak picture of U.S. naval mine warfare: “The current U.S. naval mining capability is in woefully bad shape with small inventories, old and discontinued mines, insufficient funding for maintenance of existing mines, few funded plans for future mine development (and none for acquisition), declining delivery assets, and a limited minefield planning capability in deployed battle groups.”32 This holds true today: the Navy’s FY17 to FY21 budget anticipates spending only $29.4 million on acquiring offensive mines.33 Similarly, the FY17 to FY21 budget for the Navy’s only research and development program for mine systems is $56.9 million.34 All new mine development is relegated to converting Submarine-Laid Mobile Mine warheads for underwater drone delivery.

If networked swarms of sea mines represent the Navy’s future capital ship, that picture must be repainted. Drastically.

Zachary Kallenborn is a Senior Associate Analyst at ANSER pursuing broad research into the military implications of drone swarms.

The author would also like to thank Jerry Driscoll, Steve Dunham, and Keith Sauls for providing useful comments and edits on a draft of the article. Needless to say, any issues or mistakes are the author’s own.

The views herein are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the institutional position of ANSER or its clients.

References


1. Robert C. Rubel, “The Future of Aircraft Carriers,” US Naval War College Review 64, Autumn 2011, https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/87bcd2ff-c7b6-4715-b2ed-05df6e416b3b/The-Future-of-Aircraft-Carriers.

2. Bill Glenney, “Institute for Future Warfare Studies Wants Your Writing on the Capital Ship of the Future,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), http://cimsec.org/institute-for-future-warfare-studies-wants-your-writing-on-the-capital-ship-of-the-future/33307

3. John Fleming notes the importance of visibility in conventional deterrence in John Fleming, “Capital Ships: a Historical Perspective,” Naval War College, July 12, 1993, 17, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a266915.pdf

4. John J. Rios, “Naval Mines in the 21st Century: Can NATO Navies Meet the Challenge?” thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, June 2005, 1, www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a435603.pdf; “Mine Warfare,” Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, NWP 3-15 and MCWP 3-3.1.2, https://archive.org/stream/milmanual-mcwp-3-3.1.2-mine-warfare/mcwp_3-3.1.2_mine_warfare_djvu.txt.

5. Scott C. Truver, “Taking Mines Seriously: Mine Warfare in China’s Near Seas,” Naval War College Review 65, Spring 2012, https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/19669a3b-6795-406c-8924-106d7a5adb93/Taking-Mines-Seriously–Mine-Warfare-in-China-s-Ne; Bradley Peniston, “The Day Frigate Samuel B. Roberts Was Mined,” USNI [U.S. Naval Institute] News, May 22, 2015, https://news.usni.org/2015/05/22/the-day-frigate-samuel-b-roberts-was-mined.

6. Scott C. Truver, 2012.

7. In general, there are four drone archetypes: Attacker, Sensor, Controller, and Decoy (the ASCDs). Attack drones carry munitions or are themselves munitions. Sensor drones provide information about the surrounding environment. Control drones manage the swarm’s behavior to ensure the swarm can operate together, providing direct leadership or ensuring the operation of communication channels. Decoy drones serve no role other than to increase the apparent size of the swarm, creating psychological effects, or drawing fire for functional drones. This framework is the author’s own; however, it is consistent with others such as Jeffrey Kline’s Shooter, Scout, and Commander. Jeffrey E. Kline, “Impacts of the Robotics Age on Naval Force Design, Effectiveness, and Acquisition,” Naval War College Review 70, Summer 2017, https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/db52797a-a972-44cd-951b-f2b847b193b3/Impacts-of-the-Robotics-Age-on-Naval-Force-Design,.aspx.

8. “Department of Defense Announces Successful Micro-Drone Demonstration,” DoD news release, January 9, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Releases/News-Release-View/Article/1044811/department-of-defense-announces-successful-micro-drone-demonstration/.

9. Gary Mortimer, “Chinese One Thousand Drone Swarm Smashes Intel Record,” sUAS News: The Business of Drones, February 13, 2017, https://www.suasnews.com/2017/02/chinese-one-thousand-drone-swarm-smashes-intel-record/.

10. Captain Gregory J. Cornish, U.S. Navy, “U.S. Naval Mine Warfare Strategy: Analysis of the Way Ahead,” U.S. Army War College, April 2003.

11. Gregory J. Cornish, 2003.

12. John J. Rios, citing Gregory K. Hartmann and Scott C. Truver. Weapons That Wait: Mine Warfare in the U.S. Navy. Updated Edition. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 231.

13. Determining appropriate rules of engagement is also a critical, related challenge; however, that is not within the scope of this article.

14. “Perdix Fact Sheet,” DoD Strategic Capabilities Office, June 1, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/Perdix%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf.

15. Alexander Velez-Green, “The Foreign Policy Essay: The South Korean Sentry—A ‘Killer Robot’ to Prevent War,” Lawfare, March 1, 2015, https://www.lawfareblog.com/foreign-policy-essay-south-korean-sentry%E2%80%94-killer-robot-prevent-war.

16. DoD Directive 3000.09: “Autonomy in Weapon Systems,” November 21, 2012, https://cryptome.org/dodi/dodd-3000-09.pdf.

17. Scott C. Truver, 2012.

18. National Research Council, Committee for Mine Warfare Assessment, “Naval Mine Warfare: Operational and Technical Challenges for Naval Warfare,” Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001, 58.

19. For additional details on mine actuation mechanisms, see “Mine Warfare,” section 2.2.3.2, “Influence Actuation Logic.”

20. “Mine Warfare.”

21. “Mine Warfare.”

22. John Heidemann, Milica Stojanovic, and Michele Zorzi, “Underwater Sensor Networks: Applications, Advances, and Challenges,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 370, January 2012, http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/370/1958/158.

23. Luiz Filipe M. Vieira, “Underwater Sensor Networks,” in Jonathan Loo, Jaime Lloret Mauri, and Jesus Hamilton Ortiz, Eds., Mobile Ad Hoc Networks: Current Status and Future Trends (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2012).

24. Jules S. Jaffe, et al., “A Swarm of Autonomous Miniature Underwater Robot Drifters for Exploring Submesoscale Ocean Dynamics,” Nature Communications 8, 2017, https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms14189; for a more accessible version of their research, see Jesse Emspak, “Scientists Used Underwater Drone Swarms to Solve the Mystery of Plankton Mating,” Quartz, January 24, 2017, https://qz.com/893590/scientists-used-underwater-drone-swarms-to-solve-the-mystery-of-plankton-mating/.

25. Jules Jaffe, et al., 2017.

26. Thomas Schmickl, et al., “CoCoRo—The Self-Aware Underwater Swarm,” 2011 Fifth IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] International Conference on Self-Adaptive and Self-Organizing Systems, 2011, http://zool33.uni-graz.at/artlife/sites/default/files/cocoro_SASO_paper_revision_as_finally_submitted.pdf.

27. Paul Scharre, “Counter-Swarm: A Guide to Defeating Robotic Swarms,” War on the Rocks, March 31, 2015, https://warontherocks.com/2015/03/counter-swarm-a-guide-to-defeating-robotic-swarms/.

28. S. Misra, et al, “Jamming in Underwater Sensor Networks: Detection and Mitigation,” IEE [Institution of Engineering and Technology] Communications 6, November 6, 2012, http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/6353315/.

29. National Research Council, Committee for Mine Warfare Assessment, 2001, 18.

30. Some initial work has been done on scalable drone swarm control algorithms. See Payam Zahadat and Thomas Schmickl, “Division of Labor in a Swarm of Autonomous Underwater Robots by Improved Partitioning Social Inhibition,” Adaptive Behavior 24, 2016, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1059712316633028.

31. Michael Hoffman, “Undersea Pods to Hold US War Supplies,” Defense Tech, January 16, 2013, https://www.defensetech.org/2013/01/16/undersea-pods-to-hold-us-war-supplies/.

32. National Research Council, Committee for Mine Warfare Assessment, 2001, 57.

33. “Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission: Navy, Justification Book Volume 1 of 1, Weapons Procurement, Navy,” Secretary of the Navy, February 2016, 307, http://www.secnav.navy.mil/fmc/fmb/Documents/17pres/WPN_Book.pdf

34. “Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission: Navy, Justification Book Volume 3 of 5, Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation, Navy, Budget Activity 5,” Secretary of the Navy, February 2016, 947, http://www.secnav.navy.mil/fmc/fmb/Documents/17pres/RDTEN_BA5_Book.pdf.

Featured Image: EMC Contact Mines aboard a Leberecht Maas class destroyer in Autumn 1940 (via Navweaps.com)

Chinese UAV Development and Implications for Joint Operations

By Brandon Hughes

Drone Diplomacy

On December 15, 2016, a United States Navy (USN) unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) was seized by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) about 80 miles from Subic Bay, Philippines (Global Times, December 17, 2016). This was met with quick negotiations and the agreed return of the $150,000 research drone following complaints to Beijing. The then President-elect, Donald Trump, condemned the action from his twitter feed and responded, “Keep it!”, further escalating the situation and casting an unknown shadow on the future of the U.S.-China relationship (Reuters, December 18, 2016). Almost immediately, the seemingly mundane deployment of UUVs and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the South China Sea became a potential flashpoint in the ever-contentious territorial disputes.

Countering President Trump’s South China Sea endeavors is a legislative move by Beijing to require all foreign submersibles transiting in China’s claimed territorial waters to travel on the surface and or be subject to confiscation (China News Service, February 15, 2017). The proposed change to the 1984 China Maritime Traffic Safety Law compares to China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), set up in 2013. Codifying domestic maritime law further adds a layer of validity in the event a UAV or UUV is captured while patrolling in a disputed area. Assuming a more severe response is unlikely from the U.S., Beijing may use the law as an excuse to reduce unmanned foreign Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets in its periphery, regardless of international opinion.

While demonizing foreign ISR activities, China continues to bolster its own ISR efforts for deployment in maritime disputes, foreign surveillance, and warfighting capacity. Advances in armed/unarmed and stealth UAVs will further integrate UAVs into the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) joint forces array. Advances such as satellite data-link systems not only extend the range of these assets, but also allow for a more seamless integration of command and control (C2). This further enhances relatively low cost and low risk surveillance mechanisms.

UAVs are already an emerging capability within the PLA, law enforcement, and civil agencies and are playing a more prominent role in operations. Real-world testing will refine the PLA doctrinal use of these systems. Control, direction of development, and interoperability in joint operations are all questions yet to be answered. Developing an understanding of how these systems are incorporated into the PLA force structure may give insight into developing doctrine and political considerations. A clear understanding of both may support a potential framework for de-escalating unmanned vehicle incidents between nations where China has interests.

Deployment

On January 20th, 2017, the Chinese North Sea Fleet (NSF) received a request for help with a distress call initiated from the rescue center in Jiangsu Province to aid in the search and rescue of 13 crew members aboard a Chinese fishing boat that sank around 6 am that morning. The PLAN NSF dispatched two navy frigates, the ‘Suzhou’ and ‘Ji’an’ to the East China Sea to search for the crew of the lost fishing vessel, named the Liaoda Zhongyu 15126. What made this search-and-rescue effort unique was the announcement that a surveillance UAV (make unknown) aided in the search.

The deployment of a UAV with two naval frigates, in coordination with a maritime rescue center, demonstrates the multi-functionality and capability of China’s UAVs. Additionally, it is likely the UAV was deployed from a non-naval platform due to the size of the helicopter deck and lack of hangar on a ‘Suzhou’ and ‘Ji’an’, both Type 056/056A corvettes (Janes, November 3, 2016; Navy Recognition, March 18, 2013). This proof of concept highlights the interoperability of air, land, and sea assets coordinating for a common purpose. What is unknown, specifically, is where the UAV was launched, who controlled it, and whether it was using a line-of-sight (LOS) or extended control system.

China’s 40th Jiangdao-class (Type 056/056A) corvette shortly before being launched on 28 October at the Huangpu shipyard in Guangzhou. (fyjs.cn)

Capitalizing on peacetime operations validates control and communication hand-offs and will integrate intelligence platforms, such as the PLAN’s newest electronic surveillance ship, the Kay Yangxin (开阳星 ), vastly expanding the reach of Chinese ISR. Additionally, integration of satellite-linked communication packages, utilizing the domestic constellation of GPS satellites known as the Beidou, or Compass, will continue to improve UAV navigation and targeting systems. These improved navigation and satellite aids will be integrated into existing UAV datalink systems and developed with future ISR systems in mind.

Command Guidance

The use of UAVs for military and ISR purposes can have unintended political and military consequences. The PLA command structure has always focused around centralization to retain political power over the military. It is fair to assume that the guidelines for deployment of UAVs used for strategic intelligence missions are developed at a high level. On November 26, 2015, President Xi Jinping rolled out one of the many updates to the Soviet-style military system that was part of a recent effort to make the PLA more efficient. According to Yue Gang, a retired Colonel in the PLA’s General Staff Department, placing all branches of the military under a “Joint Military Command” was the “biggest military overhaul since the 1950s.” On February 1, 2016, a few months after Yue Gang’s comments, China’s Defense Ministry Spokesman Yang Yujun stated that the PLA was consolidating seven military regions into five theater commands, a move likely to streamline C2 (China Military Online, February 2, 2016). The theater commands will be presided over by the Central Military Commission for overall military administration (See China Brief, February 4, 2016 and February 23, 2016).

Centralizing and reducing the number of commands will allow for each individual military component to focus on their own training objectives (China Military Online, February 2, 2016). This concept promotes component independence to enhance capability, but doesn’t talk to efforts to enhance integration of forces in joint military exercises. The logistical and financial burden of large-scale exercises naturally limit the frequency of exercises each region can conduct per year. What is not clear, yet important to understand for a high-end conflict, is how joint operations between military regions will be executed. Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesman Yang Yuju added that the new structure allows for the commands to have more decision-making power in responding to threats and requesting CMC support. (China Military Online, February 2, 2016).

Utilizing UAVs in regional operations to patrol disputed regions indicates that tactical control would be conducted at the highest level by a chief staff at a joint command center, but more likely relegated to a lower echelon headquarters element closer to the front lines. These lower-tiered units are likely bound by the strict left and right limits on where they patrol. Advances in simultaneous satellite data-link systems will allow for a more seamless handoff of ISR/strike assets between commands in a robust communications environment. The fielding of enhanced and interoperable satellite communications is likely to bolster the deployment of UAVs and further integrate them into PLA doctrine by supporting the “offshore waters defense” and “open seas protection” missions, as outlined in the PLA’s 2015 White Paper on Military Strategy (China Military Online, May 26, 2015).

Direct operational control of the PLA’s UAVs is generally given to the commander of the next higher echelon or to a commander on the ground. UAV technicians depicted on Chinese military websites tend to hold the ranks of junior non-commissioned officers E-5/OR-5 (Sergeant) to O- 2/OF-1 (First Lieutenant). This is similar to certain units of the United States Army, where platforms are directly controlled by enlisted and warrant officers. However, just like the U.S., guidance and direction is usually “tasked down” by a higher echelon, and UAVs with a strike package will likely be controlled or employed by officers under orders from above.

UAV units in the PLA are likely to be attached to a reconnaissance or communications company. Likewise, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN) will likely have UAV-specific units. Advancements in communication will enable various command levels (i.e. company, battalion, brigade) to simultaneously pull UAV feeds and give guidance to the operator. Based on the size of various exercises, the training indicates UAV control is given down to the lowest level of command but under extremely strict guidance. Additionally, the authority to deploy or strike is likely to be held at the regional command level or higher. Specific rules of engagement are unknown, but those authorities will be developed through trial and error during a high-intensity conflict.

Interoperability

Communications infrastructure improvements are evident in the development of over-the-horizon satellite datalink programs and communication relays. The CH-5 “Rainbow” (Cai Hong) drone, for example, resembles a U.S. Atomic General MQ-9 “Reaper” and is made to function with data systems capable of integrating with previous CH-4 and CH-3 models (Global Times, November 3, 2016). The newest model is capable of 250 km line-of-sight datalink, with up to 2000 km communications range when linked into a secure satellite (Janes, November 7, 2016).

It is likely that improvements in interoperability will be shared among service branches. Recent developments in Ku-Band UAV data-link systems, highlighted during the 11th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exposition in November 2016, will further synchronize intelligence sharing and over-the-horizon control of armed and unarmed UAVs (Taihainet.com, November 2, 2016).

PLA Signal Units already train on implementing UAV communication relays (China Military Online, April 8, 2016). Exercises like these indicate a desire to increase the interoperability in a joint environment. UAVs with relay packages will improve functionality beyond ISR & strike platforms. Units traversing austere environments or maritime domains could utilize UAV coverage to extend the range of VHF or HF radios to direct artillery or missile strikes from greater distances. If keyed to the same encrypted channels, these transmissions could be tracked at multiple command levels.

Joined with a UAV satellite datalink, ground or air communications could be relayed from thousands of kilometers away. At the same time, a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) could directly receive transmissions before passing UAV control to a ground force commander. In a South China Sea or East China Sea contingency, UAVs could link unofficial maritime militias (dubbed “Little Blue Men”) via VHF to Chinese Coast Guard Vessels or Naval ships. These messages could also be relayed to PLA Rocket Force units in the event of an anti-access area denial (A2AD) campaign.

Capping off China’s already enormous communication infrastructure is the implementation of dedicated fiber-optic cables, most likely linking garrisoned units and alternate sites to leadership nodes. Future use technologies such as “quantum encryption” for both fiber-optic and satellite based communication platforms could lead to uninhibited communication during a military scenario (The Telegraph, November 7, 2014; Xinhua, August 16, 2016).

Functionality 

Based on the use of Chinese UAVs overseas and in recent exercises, UAVs will continue to be utilized on military deployments in the South China Sea for patrol and ISR support. In the event of a contingency operation or the implementation of an A2/AD strategy, UAVs will likely be used for targeting efforts, battle damage assessments, and small scale engagements. Against a low-tech opponent, the UAV offers an asymmetric advantage. However, the use of UAVs for something other than ISR would be greatly contested by more modern powers. UAVs are generally slow, loud, and observable by modern radar. Many larger UAVs can carry EW packages, although there is little information on how the datalink systems handle EW interference. Ventures in stealth technology, such as the “Anjian/ Dark Sword,” (暗剑) and “Lijian/ Sharp sword” (利剑) projects, would increase Beijing’s UAV survivability and first strike capability if deployed in a contingency operation (Mil.Sohu.com, November, 24, 2013). However, a large-scale deployment of stealth UAV assets is not likely in the near future due to cost and material constraints.

To reduce the risk of high-intensity engagements, China may expand its reliance on UAVs to harass U.S., Taiwanese, Japanese, Philippine, and Vietnamese vessels. Additionally, UAVs may be utilized abroad in the prosecution of transnational threats. So far, China has stuck to a no-strike policy against individuals, although it was considered as an option to prosecute a drug kingpin hiding out in Northeast Myanmar (Global Times, February 19, 2016). The “Rainbow/Cai Hong” variant and “Yilong / Pterodactyl,” made by Chengdu Aircraft Design & Research Institute (CADI), represent some of the more well-known commercial ventures used by the PLAAF (PLA Air Force) and sold on the global market. These variants are often used for ISR in counter-insurgency and counterterrorism operations (The Diplomat, October 6, 2016; Airforce-technology.com, no date).

Strike capability, aided by satellite datalink systems, is another growing capability of China’s UAV programs (Popular Science, June 8, 2016). In late 2015, the Iraqi army released images from a UAV strike against an insurgent element utilizing the Chinese-made export variant “Rainbow 4” (彩虹 4) running on a Window’s XP platform (Sohu.com, January 2, 2016; Popular Science, December 15, 2015). PLA UAVs already patrol border regions, conduct maritime patrols, and assist in geological surveys and disaster relief.

The arrival of off-the-shelf UAVs contributes to the growing integration of dual-use platforms. Technology and imagination are the only limits to the growing UAV industry. Additionally, the export of high-end military UAVs will only continue to grow as they are cheaper than U.S. models and growing in capability. The profit from these sales will certainly aid research and development efforts in creating a near-peer equivalent to the U.S. systems. For a struggling African nation held hostage by rebels (e.g. Nigeria) or an established U.S. ally in the Middle East (e.g. Jordan), the purchase of UAVs at a relatively low price will increase good will and allow for an operational environment to refine each platform’s own capability (The Diplomat, October 6, 2016; The Daily Caller, December 2, 2016).

Conclusion

UAVs for military operations are not new, however, improvements in lethal payloads, targeting, and ISR capabilities will change the role in which UAVs are utilized. Considering China’s own drone diplomacy, the deployment of UAVs is as much a political statement as it is a tactical platform. State-run media has highlighted the successes of its drone program but has not been clear on who, or at what command level, operational control of UAVs is granted. Due to Beijing’s standing policy against lethal targeting, release authority is most likely relegated to the Central Military Commission, or even President Xi himself.

The extent that doctrine has been developed in planning for a high or low-intensity conflict is still unclear. The advent of satellite data-links and communication relays means the tactical control of UAVs may be seamlessly transferred between commanders. The rapid development of UAVs will continue to be integrated into the joint forces array but must be done as part of an overall doctrine and C4ISR infrastructure. Failure to exercise their UAVs in a joint environment will affect combined arms operations and reduce the PLA’s ability to synchronize modern technology with centralized command decisions and rigid doctrine.

Brandon Hughes is the founder of FAO Global, a specialized research firm, and the Senior Regional Analyst-Asia for Planet Risk. He has previously worked with the U.S. Army, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, and Asia Society. He is a combat veteran and has conducted research on a wide variety of regional conflicts and foreign affairs. Brandon holds a Masters of Law in International Relations from Tsinghua University, Beijing and has extensive overseas experience focused on international security and U.S.-China relations. He can be reached via email at DC@FAOGLOBAL.com.

Featured Image: CASC’s CH-5 strike-capable UAV made its inaugural public appearance at Airshow China 2016 (IHS/Kelvin Wong)

China Seizes U.S. Navy Underwater Drone

By Armando J. Heredia

Grpahic by CIMSEC Member Louis MV

On December 15th 2016, the Chinese Navy seized an American unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) operating in international waters off the Western coast of the Philippines. The USNS Bowditch, an unarmed T-AGS class hydro-graphic survey ship, was being shadowed by a People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) salvage vessel identified as a Dalang-III class (ASR-510).

The UUV had surfaced as part of a pre-programmed instruction, and sent  a radio signal marking it’s position for pick-up. As the Bowditch was preparing to recover the drone from the water, a small boat crew from the Dalang III raced in and plucked the unmanned vessel. The incident occurred approximately 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic, Luzon.

While the exact type of drone is unknown, there have been several instances of U.S. Navy Slocum Gliders snagged in local fishermens’ nets or washed ashore on beaches in the Philippines. This type of drone is not weaponized, and is used to collect a variety of environmental readings such as water temperature and salinity, to improve forecasting accuracy of extreme weather such as typhoons. The UUV uses wave movement to propel itself without any on-board engines, with an endurance time of months. The Department of Defense estimates the seized drone’s value to be around $150,000.

The crew of the Bowditch immediately contacted the PLAN vessel on bridge-to-bridge radio asking for the return of the drone. The PLAN vessel reportedly acknowledged the message, but then stopped responding and sailed away with the UUV. On Friday the 16th, the U.S. State Department issued a formal protest, or demarche, with the Chinese Department of Foreign Affairs, demanding an immediate return of the drone. At the time of this article’s publication, the Chinese government has not responded.

Purpose

Motivations behind the seizure are unclear, but tensions between the two nations have recently increased over President-Elect Donald Trump’s conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in what Beijing considers a blatant disregard of the standing One-China Policy. It could also have been a quick riposte to undermine Head of Pacific Command U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris’ recent comments that the US is “ready to confront [China] when we must.”

Notably, the Philippines has chosen to remain silent over the incident. While traditionally a U.S. ally, the election of President Rodrigo Duterte has brought a deterioration of relations between Manila and Washington. Thanks in no small part to Duterte’s bloody prosecution of an Anti-Drug war punctuated by high civilian casualties and accusations of extra-judicial killings, a large multi-million dollar U.S aid package was just withdrawn this week – prompting the volatile President to threaten abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement. The Philippine Department of National Defense indicates they had no idea that the incident was ongoing; highlighting the enormous capability gap the Philippines has regarding Maritime Domain Awareness. The Philippine government became aware via communications from the U.S. State Department to their embassy in Washington D.C.

Coupled with Duterte’s increasingly close orbit of China following last month’s visit to Beijing, the United States could potentially find itself without bases that would ease the mission of maintaining a robust presence in the South China Sea. Recent analysis shows China has expanded militarization of their Spratly Island outposts by placing what appear to be defensive anti-aircraft and close-in weapon systems on Hughes and Gaven reefs, while fortifications have sprouted on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs; the latter group are in close proximity to other claimant outposts in the region.

Taken together, China appears to be using it’s famous “Salami-slicing” techniques to slowly ratchet up its presence and capabilities within the region without crossing any significant “bright lines” leading to a military confrontation. The UUV seizure is consistent with opportunistic interference of U. .Navy operations while striking propoganda points with regional states. Notably, the unresponsiveness of Philippines to an international incident within their EEZ tells a tale that the U.S. cannot count upon its traditional ally going forward to assist in the presence mission.

Armando J. Heredia is a civilian observer of naval affairs. He is an IT Risk and Information Security practitioner, with a background in the defense and financial services industries.  The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, any particular nation’s government or related agency.

Featured Image: Slocum Ocean Glider. (University of South Florida)