Tag Archives: Innovation

Narcosubs: Technological Innovation in the War on Drugs

By Javier Guerrero C.

Last year, the Colombian Navy detected and captured the first electric narco-submarine.1 Demonstrating the innovative capacities of Colombian drug traffickers, narco-submarines, drug subs, narco-semisubmersibles, self-propelled semisubmersibles, or simply narcosubs, are maritime custom-made vessels used principally by Colombian drug traffickers with the purpose of smuggling illicit drugs to consumers or transshipment countries. This year only one of such vessels have been captured, and given their technical characteristics seems a step back in the ‘evolution’ of narcosub technology. Such is the paradox of security and maritime interdiction in the War on Drugs. The very process of thwarting a particular method or route creates the conditions to propel technological innovation on the drug traffickers’ side. The narcosubs are one of many of these innovations.

The term “narcosub” encompasses a diversity of watercraft that includes semisubmersible and fully submersible vessels. Several entries on CIMSEC (here, here, and here) have already delved into the characteristics of the narcosubs and their potential capacities to threaten regional security. In addition, several studies in the security field, such as by Ramirez and Bunker,2 as well as academic articles, have also attempted to provide technical evidence and policy advice. To summarize, narcosubs are characterized by the use of maritime diesel engines, a rudimentary system of refrigeration, no facilities, fiberglass hulls, and a valve which can be activated in case of being captured that allows water to fill the hull and sink the vessel. Narcosubs are not made to last, as smugglers mostly discard such vessels after ending their one-way journey. Smugglers have been using narcosubs from at least as early as 1993, but the majority of captures have been made since 2005. Narcosubs are described by the Navy as vessels that are highly difficult to detect and/or track, due to their lack of emissions, small wake, and low heat signature, preventing visibility all around. 

Despite the centrality of innovation in the War on Drugs, there have been few attempts to understand the process. Given that 90 percent of the cocaine from Andean countries is transported using maritime routes,3 it is necessary to analyze the development of drug trafficker and state agency technologies in the maritime environment. That is to say, the study of the game of cat and mouse between interdiction and evasion.

This binary can be understood as the symbiotic relationship that creates the conditions for innovation, generating a constant arms race between drug traffickers and state agencies. Different versions of the genesis of the narcosubs mill around, from Pablo Escobar’s mastermind idea, boosted by the semi-mythical image of the drug baron with the economic means and savvy to contract specialized naval engineering. According to this
version, Pablo Escobar supposedly conceived the idea of a submarine after watching a James Bond movie. In this story a Russian and an English engineer were hired to design the submarines while Pablo’s brother took took care of the electric circuits.4 A common narrative in describing narcosub building is to assume some form of hierarchical organization, both in terms of decision making and knowledge. That is, the participation of a ‘cartel’ with capabilities to hire ‘expert knowledge’ such as naval engineers who then recruit builders. The diffusion of the technology is also assumed to be the result of transnational organized crime networks. Others suggest that narcosubs are the transfer of military innovation by the guerrilla groups FARC or ELN to their drug trafficking enterprises.5

Innovation in the design and building of these vessels is so commonplace that the adjective ‘first’ is often repeated. The truth about narcosub design and building may be more prosaic. The variety of watercraft labeled under the banner of narcosubs summarizes some of the key features of the innovation and counter-innovation competition in the War on Drugs.

The Evolution of Narcosubs

The narcosubs demonstrate a variable combination of materials, designs, and building. Even narcosubs found in the same shipyard vary in several features. In this sense, each narcosub is a unique way to solve the problem of transporting large amounts of illicit drugs, producing a complex timeline that is problematic to define using traditional innovation concepts, such as incremental or radical innovation, but also to define as the result of pull/push factors. The process of innovation in the War on Drugs can be better described using the concept of dispersed peer innovation,6 in which the design and construction of these vessels, not being bound by standardized procedures, profits from the possibilities of creating their own designs with high degrees of flexibility. In this sense, it is possible to say that what smugglers produced with the narcosubs are different versions of a ‘techno-meme’ that gets combined with the local knowledge of maritime routes and boat building. Those involved in the process of outlaw innovation are able to mix locally available knowledge of traditional boat building with off-the-shelf technologies.

One key issue when studying the evolution of narcosubs and other forms of drug traffickers innovations is how entwined they are with other forms of maritime drug transport. The process of incremental innovation does not necessarily produce a particular method that replaces older strategies. For example, a technical analysis of improvements of the go-fast boats or fishing boats demonstrates that there are few steps between semisubmersible methods and submersible ones. These few steps are provided by the availability of the knowledge to build such vessels within the relatively small areas where narcosubs can operate.

What it Takes to Build a Narcosub

Little is known about the day-to-day decisions on design and modification of such vessels. Official documents say little about the narcosub builders, but a set of documents allows us to take a glimpse at the organization of a narcosub enterprise. These include the Supreme Court of Justice ruling on the extradition of Colombian nationals to the United States in order to be judged by courts in the U.S. for criminal offenses, including narcotics violation, and reports from the law enforcement agencies and military.

Several facts can be derived from the analysis of such documents. Narcosub builders are often independent of the owners of the cocaine. Several opportunistic relationships are undertaken, with drug traffickers either contacting the builders or the builders contacting the drug traffickers. As part of a plea bargain, a narco-submarine builder narrates how as a part of his organization he carried out and presented blueprints of ‘his’ narcosubs, and descriptions of the areas where the vessels could be built and launched. As part of his negotiation with prospective buyers, he shared his past experience of success in the building and operation of these boats.

Figure 1: Narcosub Building Team

Figure 1 reconstructs the main links in a narcosub builder organization and shows the multiple forms of knowledge and relationships that can be found in such an organization. While some aspects of the design are carried out by specialists such as electrical and mechanical engineers, others are left to people with local knowledge, such as knowledge about fiberglass handling and coating. In this organization, another individual, the provider of the fiberglass, also plays the role of quality assurance guaranteeing that, in fact, the vessel is correctly waterproofed. Other individuals are in charge of the logistics, such as the purchase and transport of materials and personnel to shipyards. Finally, some individuals are hired as crewmen. They test the vessel and provided feedback to builders.

The organization described in the legal files is interesting because it has two different construction sites; one in Colombia’s South Pacific and one on the Ecuadorian coast. The organization boss was not actually involved in the construction of the narcosubs, but he was the main source of finance. The main builder of the narcosubs is considered a “chief” within the organization. Besides providers of drugs, every shipyard has an administrator accompanied by a chief of security. The description provided does not delve into the process of designing and building narcosubs specifically, but shows the participation of people with formalized knowledge and others in possession of craftwork knowledge, such as the people involved in the woodworking and the fiberglass construction, some of whom worked in both shipyards. The fiberglass work was supervised by another specialist, who provided expert knowledge and supervision at both sites. This person was not part of the organization, but was the provider of the fiberglass. In the same organization, a mechanical engineer was identified, who was in charge of the design and building of the hatches, steering mechanisms, and galvanization of the narcosubs.

The innovation in narcosub technologies is then carried out by a multitude of different groups with little incentive to collaborate among themselves. This gives rise to a wide variation of submersible and semisubmersible designs. Such technical decisions are taken by builders and drug traffickers in a context in which the actions of other groups and their enemy (law enforcement and military) are not always known.7 Narcosub builders are able to configure a complex design using a mix and match approach. Blending off-the-shelf solutions, local traditional knowledge, and technical-formal knowledge produces hybrids such as low-profile narcosubs using truck diesel engines.

Drug smugglers do not just compete with the state, they also compete with other drug rings and other narcosub builders. This complex pattern of competition plays a role that promotes further local innovations. Through trial and error they master the building principles of the narcosub and introduce minor variations into their models. The variation and innovation in narcosub technologies, as well as the interpretation that actors, smugglers, and enforcement agencies make of such innovations, creates changes in a co-evolutionary fashion. In this way, the choices of the illicit actors, competing among themselves and against the state, continuously destabilizes and changes the landscape in which they act, triggering a situation in which multiple players attempt alterations, which create new adaptations.

Conclusion

It has been argued that smugglers often have the capacity to change their strategies and designs after they been detected by law enforcement and the military. Nevertheless, a more complex understanding of the pattern of innovation in the War on Drugs, in which explanations are not given in terms of push/pull between state agencies and drug smugglers, but take into account multiple layers of competition and sources of knowledge, will provide better tools to control the illegal flows. One main consequence of this would be to escape the fallacy of flexibility, in which the explanations of the process innovation in the War on Drugs is given solely based on drug traffickers’ actions.

Javier Guerrero C. is a Lecturer at the Instituto Tecnológico Metropolitano (Medellín, Colombia). In addition, he is a Post-Doctoral researcher at Centro de Estudios de Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá, D.C, Colombia). Javier is currently researching the intersections between technology, security and the War on Drugs and the history of technology in the War on Drugs. He may be reached at the following addresses: javierguerrero@itm.edu.co; je.guerreroc@uniandes.edu.co

Endnotes

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4739460/Colombian-army-seizes-electrical-drug-narco-submarine.html 

[2] http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1029&context=cgu_facbooks

[3] http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1016658.pdf

[4]  Escobar, R., & Fisher, D. (2009). The Accountant’s Story Inside the Violent World of Medellin Cartel. New York: Hachette Book Group.

[5] Jacome Jaramillo, Michelle. “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Development of Narco-Submarines.” Journal of Strategic Security 9, no. 1 (2016): : 49-69.
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5038/1944-0472.9.1.1509
Available at: http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/jss/vol9/iss1/6

[6] Hyysalo, S., & Usenyuk, S. (2015). The user dominated technology era: Dynamics of dispersed peer-innovation. Research Policy, 44(3), 560–576. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2015.01.002 

[7] http://revistas.flacsoandes.edu.ec/urvio/article/view/2943

Featured Image: A makeshift submarine is lifted out of the water at Bahía Malaga on the Pacific coast, in 2007. (Colombian Navy/Reuters)

Finding New Ways to Fight, Pt. 2

How the Mad Foxes of Patrol Squadron FIVE are harnessing their most powerful resource – their people – in an effort to cut inefficiencies and improve productivity.

By Kenneth Flannery and Jared Wilhelm

The U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute recently published a thorough primer by ML Cavanaugh on what it means to drive innovation in the military.1  The most important take away was the difference between the buzzword, “innovation,” and the people who actually do the dirty work of driving positive change within the force called, “defense entrepreneurs.” This series focuses on an operational U.S. Navy maritime patrol squadron full of defense entrepreneurs, and how their unit is taking the “innovation imperative” from on high and translating it to the deckplate level. Part 1 focused on the “Why? Who? And How?”; Part 2 reveals observed institutional barriers and challenges.

Deckplate Challenges

It often seems that the tasks most worth doing are the most difficult to achieve. Since beginning our innovation experiment, the squadron has been met with a variety of challenges to the implementation of our vision. Some of these obstacles are specific to the unique nature of the military, while others are more specific to the nature of large bureaucracies. Many challenges come from external sources that are largely outside of our control, while other challenges are self-inflicted.

One of our biggest hurdles has been thawing the “frozen middle.” This concept refers to the middle management contingent within the squadron that may be less eager to adopt new ways of doing things. Perhaps the most frustrating part about the “frozen middle” is that the very people who would benefit from embracing these changes are often the ones standing in the way. It is understandable and expected when organizations are resistant to an innovation developed outside of their ranks. All organizations have budgets to balance and bosses to answer to such that outside entities may be only a blip on their radar. For example, attempting to highlight the importance of one squadron in one community in one service of the Department of Defense can be understandably futile. More vexing are the people inside of one’s organization who seem to actively resist change at every opportunity. Frustrating as it may be, recruiting the members of the “frozen middle” is paramount for success. Buy-in from all organizational levels is required for original ideas to reach critical mass and become self-sustaining. Without support from the most resistant group, a new process will inevitably wither and die, even if it enjoys support from the top and bottom of an organization.

When VP-5 implemented the Innovation Department, the “frozen middle” quickly became apparent. The chief’s mess and the O-4 department heads, always looking out for undue risk to the Commanding Officer, were particularly averse to change. These groups bring a wealth of experience to the squadron and are absolutely crucial to the success or failure of our unit. However, that same hard-fought experience can sometimes saddle people with preconceived notions about “the way things are done” and other such attitudes which can stifle a creative environment.

Stopping new innovations from being implemented is often the path of least resistance for the frozen middle. VP-5 discovered that those who are averse to change will attempt to use their position of power as a roadblock. Often, it seems the frozen middle’s apprehension is rooted in a reluctance to put forth the effort necessary to change. Many of our innovations are designed to reduce the time and energy required to complete a task. However, at the onset, hard work is required to overcome the existing institutional inertia. Many times someone will cite comfortable catch-all words, such as “OPSEC,” or some unnamed instruction in an attempt to avoid putting up the innovation capital required for real change. However, it was the defense entrepreneur’s job to push past that initial roadblock. If a genuine concern exists, we may have to alter tack and reevaluate, but concerns raised about innovation must be the result of concrete analysis as opposed to institutional inertia.

Hitting the Wall

We were not always successful in overcoming these barriers. On more than one occasion the squadron had projects come to a full stop due to an inability to get through to the frozen middle. One project in particular was a fairly lofty goal of adding the maintenance program OOMA (Optimized Organizational Maintenance Activity) on to our PEMA (Portable Electronic Maintenance Aid) laptops.

Under the current system, writing a MAF (Maintenance Action Form) requires access to the OOMA program which is hosted on the Naval Aviation Logistics Command Management Information System (NALCOMIS). In turn, maintainers and aircrew alike are limited to writing MAFs at computers or laptops with hardwired connections to NMCI. This means writing MAFs during preflight or post-flight requires a trip to the hangar, eating up valuable time. This is a burdensome and antiquated system, which results in poorly written MAFs and decreased MAF participation at large.

Requiring NMCI access for writing MAFs also presents a problem when departing on or returning from deployment. There is often a period of several days before NMCI connectivity is established which means MAFs must be handwritten. Once NMCI connection is established these MAFs are retroactively input into OOMA, requiring a significant number of man hours.

Implementing OOMA on our PEMA laptops would be a simple way to streamline the maintenance action documentation process. PEMA laptops would be present on the aircraft, decreasing travel time and putting the feedback solution at the source of the problem. Optimizing this process would increase discrepancy documentation and create more detailed MAFs, facilitating faster resolutions to problems. Ultimately, OOMA on our PEMA laptops could eliminate some of the administrative and physical challenges that lead to wasted man hours and late takeoffs.

This project was led by a 2nd and 3rd Class Petty Officer with assistance from the Innovation Department. These intrepid innovators worked diligently in conjunction with the offices of Program Management Acquisition-290, SPAWAR, and the PEMA Fleet Support Team, but were ultimately told this project was not currently feasible. Part of the reason given had to do with the speed at which NAVAIR moves, which was colorfully described as a “turtle in a sea of peanut butter.” This is a common refrain we have heard time and again, and one that begs the question, “are these extended timelines actually necessary, or have we become so accustomed to them that they are now an accepted norm?”

Another instance where we ran into trouble was with a much smaller project. This time we were seeking permission to insert a Bluetooth USB device into an NMCI computer in order to display a rotating informational PowerPoint on a TV in the maintenance spaces. One of these TVs already existed in the squadron’s duty office, and we wanted to place one downstairs to address a maintenance concern about sometimes being left out of the loop.

We already knew Bluetooth devices were prohibited in NMCI computers so we reached out to the Information Assurance office for guidance about how to request a waiver, or if a waiver process even existed. In return, we received a curt e-mail informing us that USB devices were not allowed in NMCI computers, which was stated in the NMCI USB policy and also on the IA form everyone signs to gain access to NMCI computers. We responded to clarify, that indeed we already knew about the prohibition, but were asking if it possible to change the instruction. Ten months later we have yet to hear a response.

Innovation Breakthroughs

These experiences taught us that we needed a new way of approaching things that relied less on external forces and instead emphasized our own ability to create. One way VP-5 chose to thaw the “frozen middle” has been to outpace their skepticism. That is to say, rather than waiting for approval to pursue a particular initiative, we would simply go ahead and continue to work on a project until directed otherwise. The squadron would always inform the appropriate authorities and members of the chain of command, but we didn’t seek their explicit approval. When asking permission to do something, the answer was often “no,” even though there was rarely any substantiating reason for that “no.” Instead of asking, we started informing the Chain of Command of our projects and ideas. By doing this it seemed that we flipped the easy answer from “no” to “yes.” Employing this “Full Speed Ahead” tactic yielded many successes, including the creation of a new qualification program and incentivizing sailors to become innovators.

One hard won success for VP-5 was the development of the “P-8A Enlisted Engine Turns Program.” This program, long established in the P-3 community, allows a select number of enlisted maintenance personnel the opportunity to earn their “Enlisted Turn Operator” qualification. This qualification allows each operator to perform a variety of low-power engine operations for maintenance evolutions. Prior to the development of this program, these low-power turns required at least one pilot. This placed an unnecessary burden on the pilot cadre, which became particularly apparent when operating on detachment where extra pilots are few and far between.

To establish this program, VP-5 adopted a draft version of an Enlisted Turn Operator instruction from VP-30, the P-8A Fleet Replacement Squadron, and made it an official squadron instruction. The program now boasts an official curriculum consisting of written personnel qualification standards, simulator events, and aircraft events. To date, VP-5 has created four Enlisted Turn Operators, two of which had the distinction of being the first two P-8A Enlisted Turn Operators in the fleet. Throughout the process of establishing this program, the defense entrepreneurs clearly communicated their intentions up through the chain of command, and illustrated how they were mitigating the risk in this endeavor. The innovators gave the VP-5 chain of command the opportunity, but never a reason, to say “no.”

Another success for the VP-5 Innovation Department was incentivizing innovation. The Innovation Department first began to coalesce when the squadron was forward deployed to the 5th and 7th Fleet areas of responsibility. Throughout the six-month deployment the innovation movement seemed to be gaining steady momentum, and it was during this very early time that some of our most successful endeavors were developed. At the close of deployment in the spring of 2017, VP-5 shifted back stateside and continued to build this foundation. The Innovation Department was formally enshrined in a new instruction, detailing organizational roles and responsibilities, and we had regular innovation meetings with respectable showings. Unfortunately, interest and participation in the Innovation Department from the junior enlisted and junior officer ranks began to wane. At one meeting, attendance was limited to the box of doughnuts that had been brought for the no-show participants. This was a low point for the defense entrepreneurs. The lull in participation could have been due to a variety of factors, such as the return of family responsibilities, outside hobbies, and perhaps even an element of boredom. As time went on the new innovation initiative began to lose its luster.

Some of this can be expected in any organization trying to introduce a new culture, but some may be due to the career timing structure of the military. Sailors in VP-5 spend between two and five years in the squadron. Officers find themselves on the left side of that spectrum, while enlisted personnel are normally toward the right. To a newly minted lieutenant junior-grade or petty officer, a three to five year tour may seem daunting, but it can be a relatively short stay when all of the various qualifications and certifications that sailors must achieve during their time in the squadron are considered. Therefore, there may be little incentive for a sailor to invest their time and energy on an innovation that may not come to fruition before their tour is over. The temptation to accept the status quo to appease an immediate superior is too attractive for many. Although there will be those who naturally appear to think outside the box and resist the status quo,  it is the responsibility of leadership to properly incentivize innovation.

VP-5 incentivized innovation by rewarding sailors who have contributed to innovation projects with awards and 96-hour liberty passes. While these may seem like superficial benefits, giving a sailor free time and recognition are the most immediate impact that a commanding officer can have on their subordinate’s life. It is necessary that more significant items, like promotions and advancements, are influenced at least in part by what a sailor has done to push the U.S. Navy into the 21st century.

Continuing the Fight

The concept of innovation is obviously not unique to the military. It is preached in boardrooms throughout the country as a way to cut costs, increase productivity, and generally rise above the competition. The companies that fail to adapt to changing environments often find themselves out of business. This same principle applies to the profession of arms. However, if we ever find ourselves “out of business” the opportunity to start over may not exist. Rarely are we afforded second chances to get it right. The time to find better ways to adapt and overcome is now.

Lieutenant Ken Flannery is a P-8A Poseidon Instructor Tactical Coordinator at Patrol Squadron FIVE (VP-5). He may be contacted at kenneth.flannery@navy.mil.

Lieutenant Commander Jared Wilhelm is the Operations Officer at Unmanned Patrol Squadron One Nine (VUP-19), a P-3C Orion Instructor Pilot, and a 2014 Department of Defense Olmsted Scholar. He may be contacted at jaredwilhelm@gmail.com

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References

[1] https://mwi.usma.edu/wear-pink-underwear-like-churchill-nine-principles-defense-entrepreneurship/

Featured Image: OAK HARBOR, Wash. (Oct. 21, 2016) Lt. Cmdr. Matt Olson, Patrol Squadron 30, right, talks Michael Watkins, a reporter with Whidbey News-Times and retired Navy Chief, through flight procedures in a P-8 simulator during a media availability on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Ault Field. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John Hetherington/Released)

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)

The Battle of Locust Point: An Oral History of the First Autonomous Combat Engagement

Fiction Topic Week

By David R. Strachan

TOP SECRET/NOFORN

The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare. This is the first of an eight-part series with Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret), considered by many to be the father of autonomous undersea warfare, where we discuss the development of the Atom-class microsubmarine, and its role in the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

November 17, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

Interviewer: Lt. Cmdr. Hailey J. Dowd, USN


The last twenty-five years have witnessed extraordinary developments in naval warfare. Ever smaller, smarter, more lethal vehicles have revolutionized the way navies fight, and the way nations project power beyond their borders. Historians agree that the genesis of this “micronaval revolution” can be traced to the year 2016, when a disabled Russian Istina-class microsubmarine was recovered off the coast of Cape Charles, Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay Incident, as it became known, was a harbinger of things to come, for just ten weeks later, as crowds descended on Baltimore Harbor for Fleet Week and the commissioning of the U.S. Navy’s newest destroyer, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), Russian and U.S. microsubmarines would square off just beneath the surface in what would be the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

Historians also agree that the micronaval revolution can be traced to a single individual, an individual whose name, like Hyman Rickover, is virtually synonymous with the bold thinking that has come to define the modern U.S. Navy.

Admiral Jeremy Baynes Lacy, USN (ret.) graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1989, earning a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. He served at sea aboard the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN 735), USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730), USS Springfield (SSN 761), and the USS Pogy (SSN 647), deploying to the North Atlantic, Arctic, and Western Pacific, as well as conducting numerous strategic patrols. Ashore, Lacy earned a Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Naval/Mechanical Engineering, and served as Major Program Manager for Undersea Project 7, the Atom-class microsubmarine program. Following his work on the Atom-class, he established and commanded Strikepod Group (COMPODGRU) 1, eventually serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT). His personal decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (three awards), the Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (five awards), and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (two awards), in addition to numerous unit and campaign awards.

Admiral Lacy is currently enjoying his “retirement” as the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the United States Naval Academy. He was interviewed at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Would you tell us a little of your background? How did you end up in the Navy?

I was born and raised in the rural New Jersey hamlet of Port Murray, nestled among cornfields and cow pastures many people can’t believe exist the Garden State. My mother was a secretary at the local elementary school, and my father managed a printing plant just outside New York City. He grew up dirt poor on a farm in New Hampshire without a whole lot of options, so he enlisted in the Navy the day after he graduated from high school. After basic, he ended up in crypto school in California, then a Naval Security Group detachment in Turkey where he eavesdropped on Soviet communications. When I was little he used to make these veiled references here and there to his time in the service, but he never elaborated on anything. He took his secrecy oath very seriously, and it wasn’t until the mid 80s, when I was a curious teenager, that he felt comfortable opening up about what he did. I was totally captivated by the stories he would tell, and the meaning that the work gave him. As luck would have it, I was a pretty good student, and managed to get accepted to the Academy. Fast forward four years and I’ve got a degree in mechanical engineering, and five years of submarine service waiting for me.

Why did you choose submarines?

Never in a million years did I expect to end up choosing submarines. It was the time of Top Gun, and boy I was gonna fly jets! But during my summer service orientation I went for a cruise on the Nebraska, and that was it. I was hooked, and fifteen months later I’m on the Pennsylvania for my junior tour.

Would you say it was the submarine service that spurred your interest in unmanned vehicles?

Oh, definitely. When I was on the Pogy we worked with some very early prototypes sent up from [Naval Undersea Warfare Center] Newport for arctic testing. Nothing too sexy – ocean survey, bathymetry. But I guess at that time I was intrigued with the idea, and started imagining the possibilities, the implications. What if these things could think for themselves? What if they were weaponized?  And what if the bad guys had them? After my tour on Pogy, I ended up at the Naval Postgraduate School working on my masters, and actually wrote my thesis on UUVs – a survey of current architecture, an examination of future technologies and how these could be leveraged for unmanned systems, and how UUVs could be integrated into fleet operations.

Legend has it DOD wanted to classify it.

[Laughs] Well, not really. It was nothing more than a skillful integration of open sources, some analysis, and extrapolation. It did manage to attract some interest, though.

From ONR? DARPA?

Well, actually it was the folks at Newport who reached out to me initially. My advisor at NPS was friendly with the CO there, and at the time – around early 1999 – they were working with APL, SPAWAR, and some other folks on crafting the Navy’s UUV master plan. So they called me up, asked if I’d like to come aboard, and next thing I know I’m on a plane to Rhode Island.

What was your contribution to the 2000 UUV Master Plan?

Well, by the time I entered on duty, the bulk of the heavy lifting was pretty much complete. But I did manage to contribute some perspective on the vision, CONOPS (especially in ASW), as well as technology and engineering issues. But where I think I added the most value was regarding the feasibility of the SWARM [Shallow Water Autonomous Reconnaissance Modules] concept – the idea of utilizing large numbers of small AUVs to create a dynamic, autonomous sensor grid for wide area mine countermeasures.

Was the SWARM concept a precursor to the Strikepod?

Conceptually, yes. It was an early articulation of an undersea battle group, the idea of numerous autonomous vehicles cooperating together to complete a mission. But while the idea was entirely feasible, I felt that SWARM was rather narrow in its scope. As an MCM platform, I suppose it made sense, with scores of small, relatively inexpensive nodes spread across hundreds of square miles, air dropped from B-2s or Hornets. But what we needed was an entirely new class of vehicle that was flexible, adaptive, and capable of carrying out multiple missions, whether in networks of two or two thousand. So, then, I guess you could say that SWARM inspired both Strikepods and the Atom-class submarine, but for different reasons.

Can you talk about how the Atom-class program originated, and how the Strikepod concept evolved?

I’d been having discussions with some of the Newport and MIT folks while working on the Master Plan, and we were all pretty much in agreement on the core elements of a UUV pod structure – connectivity, redundancy and expendability. We were also in agreement that small is beautiful, if you will, but all of the work on miniaturization was being done in the universities. Long story short, not only did ONR find the funding, but agreed to bring the university people on board, and next thing we have a lovely, windowless compartment in the basement of the Navy Lab. And we had a nice, nondescript name: Undersea Project 7.

It was an exciting time, and it was a genuine privilege working with some of the brightest minds around, people who could have easily been making five times their salaries at Google, or JP Morgan. 

The technology was complex, and the work could be pretty tedious. Lots of highs and lows – two steps forward one step back. For some of the top brass it was hard to justify the expense, pouring all that money into a system that seemed unnecessarily complicated, and, for them, pure science fiction. Do we really need roaming schools of killer fish? Don’t forget, these were guys who came from the era of SOSUS. But that’s what we were offering – and more. A smart SOSUS that could be deployed anywhere, at any time.

We envisioned three variants – one for command & control, or what we called the Rogue, one for navigation and communications, which we called the Relay, and a third that could physically attach itself to vessels, mines, infrastructure. This we called the Remora. Together they could be organized in networks of any size, undersea strike groups capable of communicating with each other and, via the Relay, surface assets and ashore bases.

The Atom-class was under development for nearly fifteen years. Were you at all aware of what was happening with adversary developments, and did that play a role in the design?

Absolutely, and somewhat.  Over time, I became increasingly involved with the intelligence side of things – collection guidance, and analysis. There came a point where I was ping-ponging pretty regularly between Carderock and Suitland, especially by the late 2000s when we were really stepping up our efforts. We were well aware of Chinese interest in unmanned systems, and around 2010 we started receiving reports about the Shāyú program. We were also keeping close tabs on some tech transfer between North Korea and Iran, something reminiscent of their Yono and Ghadir cooperation. There was a real sense of urgency, that we needed to be out-innovating and out-classing our adversaries if we were going to stay ahead of the curve. But we believed strongly in the Atom and Strikepods, and while it was important to know what the other guys were up to, we didn’t let it distract us from our own vision.

The most intriguing stuff was the HUMINT coming out of Rubin [Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering] – concerning a Project S3, or “Istina” – references to unmanned systems, miniaturization, and a breakthrough in energy production. And then there were reports of Russian vessels showing up unexpectedly during our boomer patrols. They seemed to just know where we were. The counterintelligence guys were in overdrive – this was eerily familiar to the red flag that plagued Richard Haver before the Walker ring was exposed. So we couldn’t just stand there and scratch our heads. But everything checked out internally. So, if there was no security breach, then, how could they know?

So, I started compiling data, and mapped it all out. CIA and DIA both believed it could be evidence of a non-acoustic sensor of some kind, and while this was certainly plausible, the evidence was mostly hearsay. We had imagery of SOKS sensors, and journal articles, and public statements by high ranking officials, but no hard data to substantiate the existence of a viable, working platform. We were, however, receiving quality product on the Istina program that suggested the Russians had developed some kind of miniaturized naval platform capable of lurking silently off Groton or King’s Bay, then trailing our boats to expose their positions to the Russian Fleet.

But you couldn’t sell it?

[Laughs] Well, no, which, admittedly, was pretty frustrating. But something that gets lost in all the scandals and the slanted reporting is the commitment to analytic rigor that permeates the intelligence community. These folks understand that their work has a direct impact not only on U.S. policy, but ultimately on human lives. The difference between right and wrong can mean the difference between life and death, and they carry that burden every day. So, no, I couldn’t sell it. And it was back to the drawing board.

And then Cape Charles happened.

And then Cape Charles happened.

Can you tell us about that day?

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning, one of those heavy, dewy August mornings in D.C. I was out getting in my run before the heat of the day, when I get a call from Chandra [Reddy, the ONI liaison for Undersea Project 7]. He tells me I need to come in to the office. We were working weekends pretty regularly, but I’d blocked out that day for a round of golf with my dad. I kindly remind him of this, and all he says is, “Jay – we’ve got something.” An hour later I’m on an SH-60 out of Andrews with Chandra and four engineers from S&T, tracking the Potomac out to the Bay. 

They briefed me enroute. Apparently the Coast Guard in Cape Charles, Virginia got a call around 7:30 that morning from a fisherman about a mile off the coast who said he came across something that “looked military.” They send out an RB-M, and bring back what they believe is a U.S. Navy prototype submersible. They phone it in, and ninety minutes later we’re putting down on a grassy airfield in the middle of nowhere, where we’re greeted by an earnest seaman recruit who proceeds to leadfoot it all the way to the station.

It was being kept in a back room, sitting on a table under a blue tarp. When I first saw it, I thought it was just a radio-controlled sub, like someone’s weekend garage project had gone astray. It was basically a miniaturized Oscar II, maybe six or seven feet long, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, since the Oscar was built for capacity, and why go to the trouble of designing and developing a whole new hull form when you can just miniaturize one that’s already in the inventory? 

We didn’t know how long it had been disabled, or if the Russians were even aware. We did know that the [Vishnya-class intelligence ship] Leonov had been lurking offshore, and there were a couple of fishing boats we were keeping an eye on near Norfolk, but for all we knew the handlers were right nearby, somewhere on shore. We had to assume they would come looking, so we had to act quickly.

We cracked it open and took a look right there on the table. The guys from S&T were like pathologists, very careful and thorough. One of them had a video camera, which I eventually realized was patched in to the White House Situation Room. 

I don’t think I need to tell you that the intelligence value was immeasurable, a holy grail. It confirmed, of course, what I’d been speculating all along, but it also showed us just how far along the Russians were. The propulsion system alone was a quantum leap for them, and was very similar to what we had been developing for the Atom.

Too similar?

I’d say strikingly similar. Maybe alarmingly so. But there was so much information floating around in the public domain – academia, scientific journals – so much private sector R&D going on, the design could have originated anywhere. For sure there was plenty for the counterintelligence guys to lose sleep over, but at that moment we had bigger fish to fry.

Did you bring it back to Washington for further analysis?

Well, actually, no.

You see, during the autopsy, one of the tech guys notices something – a small explosive charge right against the hull, wired to the CPU. The damn thing had an autodestruct! It was right out of Mission Impossible, but it obviously had failed to activate. We’d been toying with just such an idea for the Atom-class – a small blast to punch a hole in the hull and allow it to disappear into the depths, then ping like a black box for eventual retrieval.

Chandra’s on the secure phone, presumably with the Situation Room, when he turns to me, pointing at the Istina. “They want us to blow it,” he says. “They want us to put it back.” Immediately I think – are they crazy? This is the biggest intelligence haul since K-129, and they want to just dump it?  But then I realize – of course!  The Bay is shallow enough that if the Russians come calling, they will expect to find it, and if they can’t, they’ll have to assume we did. We needed them to believe we were clueless, so we had to let them find it. That way they’d never know what we knew.

So we closed it up, drove it back out into the Bay, and scuttled it.

Was it then that the President authorized Operation Robust Probe?

The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: Is this an isolated penetration, or is it part of a larger operation? Prudence required that we take action to sanitize the Bay, so yes, Robust Probe was ordered, and the Navy immediately mobilized.

But as urgent as the situation was, there was also a need for discretion. We couldn’t exactly fill the Chesapeake Bay with destroyers. Even an increased presence of Coast Guard or small patrol craft would likely not go unnoticed, at least by the Russians. So, within hours the Navy had cobbled together a flotilla of private watercraft manned by cleared contractors and sailors in civies. They fanned out across the Bay, banging away with dipping sonar, fish finders, and whatever they could use.

Fortunately, we’d been putting Alpha, the first operational Strikepod, through its paces, and had been having a lot of success. So we fast-tracked sea trials, put a crew together, rigged up a mobile command post – the very first Strikepod Command – in what looks like a plain T.V. news van, and we’re in business. 

Within twenty-four hours Alpha had detected another Istina lurking just off Thomas Point Light. It was an odd mixture jubilation – knowing that the Atom-class was a success – and dread, the weight of knowing of what was at hand, that the Russians had not only designed, developed and deployed a sophisticated micro AUV, but they were using it to brazenly violate our territorial waters.

Was there any other reaction from the White House?

The President immediately convened the National Security Council, and, yes, yours truly was ordered to attend and provide the briefing. He was not happy. How did we not see this coming? I explained how we were aware of Russian efforts, but that our coverage had been spotty. And there were no indications that the Russians were on the brink of deploying a new vehicle to the fleet, much less inserting it into U.S. territorial waters. 

I remember how surreal it felt, sitting there in the Situation Room, the looks on the faces around me. 

Fear?

Not fear. More like a mixture of deep concern and disbelief as if no one could wrap his head around the fact that this was actually happening. And I think everyone in that room knew that things were about to change, that all of our theorizing, prognosticating, and preparing for the future of naval warfare was coming to a head. The future had arrived, right in our back yard. 

The prevailing opinion in the room was that we should move immediately to destroy it and contact the Russian government. The guys from CIA made a compelling argument for restraint – one with which I concurred – that this was more an opportunity than a threat. There was no reason to believe this was Russia’s opening move against the United States, and that if anything it was the latest example of resurgent Russian bravado and Putin’s longing for the Cold War days. This was an opportunity to gather as much intelligence as possible on a new foreign weapons platform. But there was also concern that, if weaponized, the Istinas could be used to stage a terror attack and sow further insecurity and political unrest in the United States. In the end, though, we managed to convince the President to hold off, but if at any point it was determined that there existed a threat to life or property, we would have to destroy it.

Did you personally have any theories as to its intentions?

Not many. There was Aberdeen [Proving Ground]. Theoretically an Istina could get in close enough to extract some SIGINT or MASINT, depending on the vehicle’s sensor capabilities. But who really knew? Maybe the Russians were just interested in ship spotting, or counting crabs.

And then it just kind of hit me. It was September – the following month was Fleet Week in Baltimore. The Navy would be showcasing its wares –warships, the Blues – which normally wouldn’t be such a big deal, except there was something else that year.

Zumwalt? 

Exactly. Zumwalt was on the agenda that year for commissioning. She’d be sailing up the Bay, and then docked for several days at Locust Point. We weren’t concerned with an Istina attacking Zumwalt, per se, but we knew that there was much to be had intelligence-wise. And while we had no desire to enable a Russian intelligence operation, we also wanted to collect as much as possible of our own.

When we examined the Istina in Cape Charles, we didn’t discover a warhead of any kind, so we assumed any others wouldn’t be weaponized either. And even if they were, it was unlikely that a single Istina could inflict any meaningful damage on an armored warship, unless the Russians had managed to develop a super compact, high yielding explosive, but there was no intelligence indicating such. Perhaps a group of Istinas detonating simultaneously could cause a problem, enough to raise some eyebrows or even provoke a crisis, but it would take dozens to equal the yield of even a single torpedo.

It was a delicate, rapidly unfolding situation that was unlike anything we’d ever experienced in the modern era. Of course, we’d ventured into Soviet waters in manned submarines during the Cold War, at great risk to both human life and the delicate balance that defined the Cold War. But had Parche or Halibut been detected or attacked and sunk during Ivy Bells, it would have provoked a political crisis that may well have triggered World War III. Were the stakes just as high now? It was anyone’s guess.

Were you able to deploy additional Strikepods?

Yes. Alpha had been working like a charm, but then abruptly it loses contact with the Istina as it moves under a passing tanker, which was of course disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. In the meantime, we’d deployed two more six-ship Strikepods – Beta to cover the central Bay, and Gamma the southern region. It was a lot of territory to cover, but that constituted the sum total of our Atom-class fleet at the time. There were eight currently in various stages of production, but it would be at least a day or two before we could deploy them.

Pretty soon we get word that Gamma has detected something down near Bloodworth Island.  At first we figured we’d reacquired the original, but an analysis of the acoustic data revealed that it was actually a new vehicle. It was alarming, for sure, knowing that there were now at least two Russian microsubmarines lurking in the Chesapeake Bay.

We tracked it for about two days, and then Beta manages to reacquire Istina number one. About twelve hours later, Alpha detects not one, but two more right at the mouth of the Patapsco River. That’s when everyone’s hackles went up. This was no longer a counterintelligence operation. 

Operation Robust Probe becomes Robust Purge?

Correct. Once we realized that we were dealing with at least four Istinas in the Bay, and they were lingering in Zumwalt’s path, the time for just being sneaky was over. We needed to at the very least disrupt, if not outright destroy them. 

By now the eight new Atoms have come off the line, so we fit them each with a makeshift warhead of C4, designate them Remoras, and deploy them immediately – four for Alpha, which was now tracking two separate targets, and two each for Beta and Gamma. They would only be employed if we felt that there was an immediate threat to life or property.

In the meantime, Zumwalt, Leyte Gulf, and Jason Dunham, and the other ships arrive, and as they transit the Bay, the Istinas take up position about 500 meters astern. Once the ships turn into the Patapsco, though, they back off and assume a position just outside the mouth of the river. They linger there for about twelve hours, until we get a burst from Alpha: One of the Istinas is headed up river.

So now we have a decision to make. Alpha is tracking two separate vehicles. Do we order Alpha to pursue, and break off contact with one of them? Turns out Sea Rays and Boston Whalers aren’t particularly effective ASW platforms, and Strikepods Beta and Gamma were both busy with their own tracks, well to the south, too far away to assist Alpha in time.

Then one of our brilliant engineers suggests splitting Alpha pod. We could repurpose one of the Remoras as a Rogue, and assign it an armed Remora and a Relay for coms. The engineers get on it, and in about fifteen minutes a small splinter pod breaks off and starts trailing the Istina up the Patapsco.  Things get increasingly tense as it nears the Key Bridge, and we decide that if the Istina begins moving toward the bridge supports, we would have no choice but to destroy it.

After a few anxious moments it passes under the bridge without incident, and continues on a path toward Locust Point, where the warships are docked. Word comes down from the Sit Room: The Istinas now present a clear and present danger, so immediately we order the splinter pod to attack. A minute later a Remora detonates about five meters below the surface, and we watch as it and the Istina disappear from the tactical display. Beta and Gamma attack as well, sending their respective contacts, as well as two Remoras, to the bottom of the Bay.

And just like that it was over?

It was over.

The Strikepods and surface vessels continued to prosecute Robust Purge until Zumwalt and the other ships made it safely to the Atlantic. By all accounts, Baltimore Fleet Week, including the commissioning of the Navy’s newest destroyer, came off without a hitch. No one had any idea that the first decisive battle of a new era in naval warfare had just occurred within throwing distance of Fort McHenry.

What were the takeaways?

Well, we had terabytes of data to analyze, of course, but perhaps even more importantly, there were myriad political, security, and even philosophical questions to consider. What exactly were AUVs? Were they vessels? Weapons? In a way they were like spies, but rather than round them up and expel them, or put them in jail, we’d have to disrupt them, or even kill them.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway, though, was the realization that a new form of conflict was dawning. Submarines had of course always been characterized by stealth and secrecy, and had engaged in high risk cat-and-mouse games in order to stay ahead of the adversary. But now that submarines were unmanned, and, like their stealthy manned cousins, operated far from the prying eyes of the public, a kind of limited war was now possible, a war with little or no risk of escalation, or political fallout, and most importantly, no loss of human life. A war characterized by secrecy, anonymity, and non-attribution.

In other words, as we sit here today in my living room, in the year 2033, with the benefit of hindsight, our vision of AUVs as merely an extension of the Fleet’s eyes and ears was really rather primitive.

And only the beginning of the story.

[End Part I]

David R. Strachan is a writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems, explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. Contact him at strikepod.systems@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Arctic Sub Base by Jon Gibbons (via Deviant Art)