Tag Archives: ISR

U.S. Coast Guard at Sea: Aging Today With Visions Of Tomorrow

By Michael A. Milburn

As the U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Boarding Team prepares to board a commercial tanker suspected of trafficking narcotics, the Combat Information Center operator monitors the situation intently. Sitting just behind the operator is the Commanding Officer, who is watching the full tactical situation as it develops and waiting for the opportune time to direct a Right of Visit boarding to determine the vessel’s nationality. Three thousand miles away, the Coast Guard Eleventh District Commander anxiously watches the live video feed to determine in real-time if his team pinpointed the correct vessel of interest. The Boarding Officer signals to his team that embarkation is approved. Immediately, six Coastguardsmen enter the ship and sweep the inside hull and topside. For the first time in history, a boarding team is relaying what they see, without saying a word. Two members discover an undocumented shipping container on the manifest and head in the direction marked. One team member discovers packages wrapped in similar fashion of known traffickers. All eyes watching the video cheer in triumph.

Keeping Current with Technology and the Community

The proliferation of advanced technology in the last decade, coupled with a renaissance  in electronic sensors, has amplified the situational awareness and effectiveness of command ships, command posts and combatant commanders tenfold. Despite these sophisticated tools, however, decision makers continue to wait in silence for minutes that feel like decades, all in hopes of receiving confirmation that the target is indeed of interest, carrying illicit narcotics, or smuggling illegal immigrants. What if they were able to see in real-time, though? What if the operation could unfold right before their very eyes? Hollywood exemplifies this notion in every secret agent movie and clandestine operation film. From society’s perspective, we have come to believe that this is the standard for all military operations. Although this may be a reality for some specialized subdivisions, it is not entirely true for the vast majority of operational units.  The filming of Osama Bin Laden’s death demonstrated to the world that U.S. Special Forces have the ability to relay live video feeds during their operations back to command posts, providing Situational Awareness (SA) for optimal information gathering and sharing for analysis, as well as real-time decision making to the commander[i]. More importantly, it provides the commander additional sets of eyes (staff) to help inform his or her decision. While the team is trained to enter, sweep, and detain the threat, a set of analysts can provide insight back to the team in real time. Notably, this is where the blended concept of communications and video feeds come into playA concept that is nothing new for the Department of Defense (DoD)[ii], but an innovative concept to integrate into high-risk law enforcement evolutions for the U.S. Coast Guard. Relevantly, the Posse Comitatus Act [iii] and military policy strictly prohibit DoD personnel from directly engaging in law enforcement activities. In turn, the Coast Guard was designated the lead agency for the interdiction and apprehension of illegal drug traffickers on the high seas.

A Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team investigates a self-propelled semi-submersible interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central America, July 19, 2015. The Stratton’s crew recovered more than 6 tons of cocaine from the 40-foot vessel. (Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone)
A Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team investigates a self-propelled semi-submersible interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central America, July 19, 2015. The Stratton’s crew recovered more than 6 tons of cocaine from the 40-foot vessel. (Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone)

On an average day, the U.S. Coast Guard screens about 360 merchant vessels for potential security threats prior to arrival in U.S. ports, seizes 874 pounds of cocaine and 214 pounds of marijuana, interdicts 17 illegal migrants, conducts 24 security boardings in and around U.S. ports, executes 14 fisheries conservation boardings, and lastly, completes 26 safety examinations on foreign vessels[iv]. For as long as the Coast Guard has been conducting law enforcement missions, it has relied upon two primary principles : Communication and Accountability. In terms of communication, boarding teams are able to portray on-scene conditions to the operational commander via words. The commander must then visualize the mission by painting a portrait of it in his or her head. Secondly, accountability provides a detailed account of what happened and normally documented in the form of After Action Reports or Situation Reports. There are two significant and inherent risks present in every boarding situation – people and vessels. In any given situation, there are myriad factors the boarding team must take into account; however, what if the team missed a critical element because it simply was focused on the threat and not familiar with the associated information? Filling that gap, the law enforcement exploitation team onboard the unit, also known as the “snoopie team,” documents as much vital information as possible as it receives photography and video from the boarding team on-scene. In turn, this enables the boarding team to collectively build a complete case file on the apprehended suspects, which is critical during the prosecution phase.

Moving Ahead Without Borders

Imagine if snoopie teams could watch live video feed and relay information back to the intelligence community for real-time assessment. This would allow boarding teams to shift their focus from being an information relay to actually executing the boarding. In addition to saving time and energy, the intelligence community could now assist with building the case package from a remote location, which inarguably would result in better overall case packages. Prosecution and approval for boardings or seizures becomes nearly instantaneous as well, without any latency stemming from sluggish relays through the various layers of the law enforcement hierarchy. Case packages have fewer chances of missing critical information, and from a legal standpoint, cases have fewer chances of being dismissed in court due to evidence. Further, case packages are now synced between the district, joint commander, and the unit itself.   A Commanding Officer’s worst fear is a member of his or her team being ambushed or injured. While this situation is rare, there is  potential it could occur, which normally causes a change in tactics, procedures, or policy. Live video feeds have proven themselves useful and convenient for the military, and it is time for the Coast Guard to embrace it. They say a picture is worth a thousand words – if that is the case, what then is a video worth?

Members of a visit, board, search and seizure team assigned to USS Gettysburg (CG 64) and U.S. Coast Guard Tactical Law Enforcement Team South Detachment 409 detain suspected pirates after responding to a merchant vessel distress signal while operating in the Combined Maritime Forces area of responsibility in the Gulf of Aden May 13, 2009. The service members are conducting the operation in support of Combined Task Force 151, a multinational task force established to counter piracy operations and to actively deter, disrupt and suppress piracy in order to protect global maritime security and secure freedom of navigation for all nations. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric L. Beauregard, U.S. Navy/Released)
Members of a visit, board, search and seizure team assigned to USS Gettysburg (CG 64) and U.S. Coast Guard Tactical Law Enforcement Team South Detachment 409 detain suspected pirates after responding to a merchant vessel distress signal while operating in the Combined Maritime Forces area of responsibility in the Gulf of Aden May 13, 2009. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric L. Beauregard, U.S. Navy/Released)

As the Coast Guard continues to follow the ever-evolving “cat and mouse game” between the U.S Government and transnational narcotics traffickers, they will have an endless need to position themselves ahead of the curve. While the Coast Guard remains intently focused on the war on drugs and its essential “Western Hemisphere Strategy,” there are needs not outlined in the strategy that would follow them world-wide[v]. Such a system could pave the way for adaptation of live-video feeds onto current airborne platforms and future UAV and cutter programs, presenting a worldwide capability where any District or Area Commander has the  full view and a complete operational picture when desired.

One of the many benefits of live video feed is improved training.  All professional sports teams “watch the tape” to better prepare for the next game. Similarly, boarding videos would provide the boarding team and trainees the ability to evaluate and critique their own performance in order to improve future evolutions. The days of “standard boardings” or training would be a thing of the past. Boarding teams on the frontline would now have the upper-hand and the opportunity to train and develop new techniques and tactics to better counter transnational narcotics trafficking and potential terrorist attacks. MSST and MSRT units training can relay the scenario back “live” to a control room where both trainers and decision makers can play through any scenario. Imagine taking a video feed from a high risk boarding today and streaming it to every boarding team tomorrow – the training benefit would be immeasurable.

A New World of Opportunity Awaits

Not only are members streamlining the safety and security process, but they are devising new reasons to challenge existing policy and improve it with lessons learned observed firsthand.  The motto, “Time Is of the Essence,” comes to mind time and again. Current tactics have teams using GoPros for boardings, which creates a review delay back onboard and throughout the chain of command. In this case, latency is a major concern. Imagine your team is granted five minutes to conduct a quick search.

SAN PEDRO, Calif. Ð A Border Enforcement Security Task Force boarding team conducts a boarding on a tanker vessel April 29 off the coast of Long Beach, Calif. The Los Angeles BEST is the nationÕs first seaport task force of its kind, bringing together multiple agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, California Border Patrol, Los Angeles County SheriffÕs Department, and Los Angeles and Long Beach Port Police. The BEST was created to enforce maritime laws and combat smuggling in the ports. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall)
SAN PEDRO, Calif.) A Border Enforcement Security Task Force boarding team conducts a boarding on a tanker vessel April 29 off the coast of Long Beach, Calif.  (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall)

Admittedly, this may sound like fiction from a Hollywood movie, but it could be reality as early as tomorrow. Challenges will always present themselves (i.e., system integration, funding, legalities etc.), however, when the idea of live tactical video was presented to actual boarding team members, they were enthused and optimistic. Their reasons for wanting live tactical video were for enhanced situational awareness, improved focus on the actual boarding itself, and an improved flow of information up the chain of command.  As mentioned, there are always limitations and risks vs. gains ranging from use in operations and policy, up to the program level. Fortunately, proven systems exist today i.e. the Harris “Tactical Video System,”[vi] and require minimal testing and integration from the Coast Guard. These systems are the stepping stones needed for a 21st century Coast Guard operating in a multifaceted environment.  As the Coast Guard confronts counterintelligence and aggressive, evolving enemies, it must be optimally prepared to respond to any situation. By implementing an enhanced reconnaissance tool, the Coast Guard will be better suited to perform its missions and better protect the citizens of the United States.

Petty Officer Michael A. Milburn is a career cuttermen, with nearly 7 years of  experience aboard four different cutters, including commissioning two National Security Cutters. Petty Officer Milburn’s awards include the CG Achievement Medal, CG Commandant Letter of Commendation, two Coast Guard Unit Commendations, three Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendations and three Coast Guard Meritorious Team Commendations. He is currently enrolled in American Military University to pursue his Bachelor of Arts in Cyber Security.

[i] http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/web/05/02/bin.laden.video/


[ii] http://www.streamingmedia.com/Articles/Editorial/Featured-Articles/Video-in-the-War-Zone-The-Current-State-of-Military-Streaming-101310.aspx

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posse_Comitatus_Act#Exclusion_applicable_to_U.S._Coast_Guard

[iv] https://www.uscg.mil/budget/average_day.asp

[v] http://www.uscg.mil/seniorleadership/docs/uscg_whem_2014.pdf

[vi] http://rf.harris.com/media/CSVehicle108B_tcm26-18150.pdf

Implementing Distributed Lethality within the Joint Operational Access Concept

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By LCDR Collin Fox

If you look for “distributed lethality” in doctrine, you won’t find it.  It’s a concept that exists in articles, speeches and panel discussions, which paint the topic with broad strokes – easy to understand, but leaving plenty of room for forums like this one to flesh out details. Tempting as it is to think about a few Surface Action Groups (SAGs) heroically dominating the contested maritime battlespace with SM-6s hitting everything from FFGs to ASBMs, distributed lethality remains just one part of a larger joint fight. Distributed lethality, so far as it has been articulated, closely follows the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC).

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Potential enemies – principally China and Russia – can hold our forces at risk in certain contested areas, denying freedom of action. JOAC starts at this hard truth of vulnerability and seeks to protect friendly forces operating within those contested areas. Conceptually, it all starts with force protection:

“A joint force will lessen its exposure by a combination of dispersion, multiple lines of operations, speed of movement, agile maneuver that reroutes around threats, deception, masking or other concealment techniques, and disruption of enemy intelligence collection through counterreconnaissance, countersurveillance, and other methods.” (JOAC Protection)

“[D]ispersion [and] multiple lines of operations” sounds a lot like the first part of distributed lethality, and in the naval context, it makes a lot of sense to spread out, hide, and try not to look too important when anticipating DF-21 and ASCM salvos. Dispersion has its own complications, though. Concentrated naval forces may be easier to target, but they generally have a more potent sensor and weapon mix, to say nothing of their C2. Dispersed forces must remain capable of self-defense and power projection, and so the second part of ‘distributed lethality’ follows from the first.  JOAC puts it this way:

“Once arrived in the objective area, joint force elements can no longer use some techniques to avoid detection and will therefore rely on active and passive defensive measures to defeat actual enemy attack.”  (JOAC Protection)

So far, distributed lethality resembles JOAC with naval characteristics, but JOAC keeps on going where the conceptual sketch of distributed lethality trails off. Distributed lethality, as a naval variation on a joint concept, should follow the conceptual path already beaten by JOAC.

Distributed lethality, like JOAC, requires reliable communications between sensor-shooter nodes.  The ranges between distributed units and the bandwidth requirements for responsive C4I and lethal, cooperative targeting will drive communications onto SATCOM nets, networks that remain vulnerable to anti-satellite missiles, directed energy weapons, and cyber-attacks. GPS and intelligence satellites face the same threats. JOAC recognizes this vulnerability, and directs the joint force to “develop systems, technologies, and warfighting techniques to ensure continued freedom of action and access to space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum when and where needed.” Lacking that freedom of access, the implications are clear and dire for distributed lethality: the enemy would attack the distributed fleet sequentially, as it located ship groups, with locally massed fires. The distributed fleet, unable to communicate, could only respond with uncoordinated counterattacks. Sending a divided fleet with nothing but locally organic sensors and weapons deep inside an enemy threat WEZ courts disaster. In order to effectively implement distributed lethality, robust and resilient supporting networks are absolutely essential.

Chinese HQ-9 TEL on parade.
Chinese HQ-9 TEL on parade.

Satellites face the same persistent threat that prompted the concepts of JOAC and distributed lethality to begin with: the presence of friendly critical vulnerabilities inside the threat WEZ. The solution remains conceptually similar: increase the capability, type and number of available platforms such that the enemy never has the capability to decisively target and neutralize friendly critical capabilities. To that end, what naval “systems, technologies, and warfighting techniques” could change the sudden loss of our most important space-based assets from a travesty to a moderate inconvenience?  The remainder of this piece will depart the broad conceptual discussion and dive down to some very tactical level solutions.

Rather than present the killer app, silver bullet or what have you, I’ll briefly introduce a few capabilities that could take the sting out of losing the most important satellites in a region during the opening salvos. 


CosmoGator mitigates the loss of GPS by automating celestial navigation fixes and feeding them into the ship’s inertial navigation system, enabling weapons quality tracks even in a GPS denied or degraded environment – provided the stars remain visible. As anyone who has tracked a submarine with sonobouys can appreciate, imprecision in the sensor location yields imprecision in the target track and targeting solution.

Adding the capability to track non-U.S. commercial SATNAV constellations (Galileo, GLONASS, BeiDou, etc) would add navigational and time/time-interval redundancy to naval platforms.  The targeting of U.S. navigational satellites should be a forgone conclusion, but targeting satellites of non-belligerent states is anything but.

Local Communications

Currently, communicating within a SAG is relatively easy, but at the cost of a very distinctive electronic signature.  Distributed lethality requires low-observable and low-probability of attribution communications within the SAG.

First, low-attribution communications means taking existing commercial waveforms and using them to replace distinctively military signals. A DF scan for 2.4/5 GHz 802.11, CDMA, LTE or GSM signals in most contested areas would be overwhelmed by emitters.  Coastal residents, merchant mariners and local fishermen tend to use these signals rather a lot without much concern for EMCON. Coupling these frequencies and waveforms with stabilized, high gain directional antennas would enable high bandwidth, low-latency line-of-sight communications within the SAG while maintaining the electronic signature of a freighter or coastal village. When sneaking through a forest of transmitters, it’s best to look like a common electronic tree.

In an update on flashing light Morse signals, the ONR project for High-Bandwidth, Free-Space Optical Communications is designed to support Marines at austere FOBs, but could also offer unimpeded communications in a highly attenuated – and therefore difficult to intercept – part of the spectrum. Like celestial navigation, meteorological conditions may occasionally preclude this method, but for the rest of the time, it’s a good way to complicate enemy targeting.

Finally, better integration of automatic level control – adjusting transmit power based on signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and signal-excess – could do much to reduce the probability of detection for existing RF transmitters.  Only transmit the power required to reliably reach the ship 10 miles away, not the ELINT aircraft 400 miles further.

Long-range communications

I’m not the first to think about making elevated nodes like satellites a bit more redundant for communications.  DARPA and ONR have been developing the Towed Airborne Lift of Naval Systems (TALONS), a towed shipboard parafoil system capable of lifting a 150 pound payload to 1,500 feet.  Unlike most aircraft (manned or unmanned), a towed system can remain aloft for days on end. Improving on the system that well-tanned parasailing operators have been using for decades, DARPA has made an automated launch and recovery system. In the context of distributed lethality, ships such as the LCS and EPF (formerly JHSV) could serve as communication nodes for ships with long-range weapons.

The Air Force has been using the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node  (BACN) for years as a communications Swiss army knife to connect disparate platforms, waveforms, and standards. The technology is platform agnostic – the Air Force operates it from modified business jets (E-11A) and UAVs (RQ-4); the Navy could just as easily operate the system from P-8As or MQ-4s.

TALONS and BACN have their appeal, but also their limitations.  A radar horizon of roughly 50 nautical miles limits TALONS, and on-station time limits BACN and systems like it. Counter targeting is a common threat to both. Ideally, a satellite replacement would be close to disposable and not so closely proximate to a manned and/or difficult to replace platform like the LCS, EPF, P-8A or MQ-4. Which brings us to lighter-than-air unmanned vehicles. 

A Google Project Loon internet balloon in flight. Photo credit: Google.
A Google Project Loon internet balloon in flight. Photo credit: Google.

Google has deployed stratospheric balloons to bring internet services to remote locations, getting and keeping them on-station with altitude-picking algorithms.  Similarly, the Navy could rapidly deploy very high altitude, very high endurance vehicles – atmospheric satellites – in the immediate aftermath of an attack on regional communications satellites at a lower cost and greater quantity than the enemy’s inventory of high-altitude missiles capable of taking them down.  Much of the cost and difficulty of satellites is the launching part.  Launching a balloon from a ship consists of setting a course and speed for minimal winds, opening a valve to a helium tank and assisting the inflation with a crane and a crew of deck handlers – hardly rocket science.  Any naval platform with a flight deck could launch balloons on demand to fill in for neutralized satellites or to quickly add more C4ISR capabilities. While the time on station of roughly 100 days can’t match a satellite, it exceeds the state of the art for heavier-than-air vehicles by an order of magnitude.

It’s quite possible, even likely, that none of the particular solutions above have any place in the Navy’s future. I hope that the unifying theme, however, resonates: pragmatic over exotic, commercial off-the-shelf over bespoke military kit, and integration within a larger joint effort rather than a service specific attempt to win the next war singlehandedly.

Collin Fox is a Western Hemisphere Foreign Area Officer (FAO) assigned to U.S. Fleet Forces Command. In his former career as a SH-60F and MH-60S pilot, he flew over 1,400 flight hours and conducted three life-saving rescues. He earned a Master of Science degree in Systems Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School, where his final project won the John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab Award for Excellence in Systems Analysis. The views expressed here are his own.

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Information Management and the Future of Naval Aviation

By Michael Glynn

Aviators and operators hitting the fleet today have reasons to be excited. Naval Aviation is in the process of recapitalizing the fleet with a stable of very capable platforms and sensors: the E-2D carrying the highly advanced APY-9 multifunction radar; the P-8A with a powerful acoustic system and the APS-154 Advanced Airborne Sensor radar; and the EA-18G armed with the very capable ALQ-218 electronic warfare system and Next Generation Jammer.

The advances are not restricted to manned platforms alone. The MQ-4C will enable wide area search and ISR operations, covering hundreds of thousands of square miles during 30 hour flights. The MQ-8C will bring impressive endurance to small deck surface ships. Longer dwell time promises to yield more collection opportunities and push more data to warfighters.

But observers should be cautioned that these new platforms, new sensors, and emerging autonomy won’t necessarily yield higher quality intelligence or more information to commanders. Warfighters today are fighting not to generate enough information, but rather to manage the incredible amounts of data that today’s sensors record and store. The fleet is struggling to keep from being drowned in a sea of data. The battle of the information age is to separate the useful information from the vast amount of meaningless noise.

Our sensors today already develop tremendous amounts of data. How do we store it, access it, make sense of it, and disseminate it? How will we manage this in the future with even more data as unmanned systems become more common? Can autonomy and data fusion be part of the answer? Will our training and intelligence analysis need to change? Let’s examine these challenges in detail.

Large Data Sets, Autonomy, and Data Fusion

The increasing use of unmanned systems will bring longer mission profiles and hence longer windows of time where sensors can collect. This will generate extremely large amounts of information each flight. To put the challenge in perspective, consider a modern maritime patrol aircraft, the P-8A and its partner, the soon to be deployed MQ-4C UAV. On an eight hour mission, a Poseidon will generate up to 900 gigabytes of sensor information. How much more data will the unmanned Triton generate during its thirty hour flights?

Any operator in the fleet will admit that the amount of data gathered by our platforms today far surpasses the bandwidth of our long range communication networks. What happens to data that can’t be transferred off an aircraft during its mission? How best to manage information that may be over a day “time-late” when a UAV lands? What sensor information should be broadcast to operators ashore and what should be saved for post-flight access? These are challenging questions for program mangers, requirements officers, and operators to solve.

In the same vein, the large data set generated by sensors today offers the possibility of using analytics to sift through them and draw conclusions. However, this will only happen if managers design suitable architectures to extract the data post-flight, store it, and make it available to customers. We will discuss this concept later.

A second broad trend worth mentioning is automation and the ability to use technology to parse the data. Algorithms in modern sensors allow these systems to automatically capture, store, and disseminate information. Legacy surface search radars required an operator to manually plot a contact, log its position on paper, and update the position as time went by. Modern surface search radars can automatically identify, assign track numbers, and update tracks of dozens, if not hundreds of contacts, and promote certain tracks to datalinks such as Link 16. The track information is also recorded on-board and available for post-mission download, analysis, and storage.

The benefits of automation and data storage don’t end there. Today’s platforms either already do or will soon employ data fusion engines that merge complimentary information from multiple sensors to produce a higher-fidelity view of the battlespace. These systems will identify a surface contact by radar and overlay an electronic line of bearing signal that arrives from the same direction as the radar contact. The fusion engine will recognize the radar signal is coming from that ship and by analyzing the parameters of the signal might be able to provide a possible identification of the type of vessel. The system will then merge the radar contact and the electronic emission into a single track and promote it automatically to a datalink.

The capability of our sensors and our ability to store the data they produce is improving rapidly. Unless we think about how we collect and process this data, we risk not being able to capitalize on the capability. Let’s examine some actions we can take to prevent the technological advances from outpacing our ability to control them.

Recognizing the Challenge

Our warfighters and intelligence professionals need to examine the process by which they collect, store, process, and disseminate information. We need to match technology with roles a computer can accomplish and utilize our manpower where the skills of a human are most needed. Too often, our warfighters are employed in roles to which they are poorly suited.

In parts of the fleet, an observer can find operators plotting the locations of ships in paper logs when mission systems are recording the same information and storing it with far greater fidelity and fewer errors. These mission systems scale easily, plotting not one track history, but thousands. The same observer could find aviators submitting message traffic to meteorological commands listing environmental measurements at one location when the aircraft they just flew recorded similar measurements at dozens of locations spread over hundreds of miles. The observer could also find an intelligence officer spending their time preparing a PowerPoint brief for a commander instead of analyzing the information brought home by crew.

Humans are excellent at recognizing patterns and drawing conclusions from data. When it comes to tasks like plotting and updating radar contacts or transcribing information in a log, a machine wins every time. Yet we can find numerous cases in which we ask humans to “beat the machine” and conduct a rote task when the technology exits to automate the process. We need to train our operators to adopt a “sensor supervisor” approach and use technology to automate post-mission product creation.

Action Ahead

Are we making wise use of the billions of dollars spent on collection platforms if we don’t examine our own information processing requirements? When we bring new sensors to the fleet, are we process mapping to determine how best to analyze and disseminate the data they collect? Do we even know what types of information our systems are collecting? In all of these cases, Naval Aviation as an organization can get better.

Leaders in Naval Aviation and the Information Dominance Corps have several solutions that can be implemented. The first is to examine and implement a “pull” based system of information portals where collection platforms can post data and customers of all types can access it. Currently, the fleet relies on a “push” model where a unit is assigned to accomplish a collection task, and then information is reported back to stakeholders. Under a “pull” system, information would be posted to IP accessible portals where any authorized user can discover the information and utilize it for their analysis purpose. This is a far more efficient system, prevents stovepipes, and will enable next generation “big data” analytics efforts including applications in the Naval Tactical Cloud.

Next, information analysis and dissemination need to be viewed as a key part of the kill chain and performed so as to optimize mission effectiveness. Is a trained intelligence analyst better suited to sifting through ambiguous data and drawing conclusions about adversary behavior or best used building PowerPoint slides? Software today can be easily adopted to automatically generate post mission message traffic, briefing slides, and other products. This allows human capital to be reallocated into value-added efforts.

In a similar manner, Naval Aviation should examine how we can train our aviators and operators to best employ their sensors. We should expose our young aviators and sensor operators to concepts of information management early in their training. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses both of the human sitting in the seat and the sensor system will go far to optimize our collection platforms. This will allow operators to let machines do what they do best, and apply human minds to the analytical tasks they are best suited for.


The platforms and sensors being introduced to the fleet are very capable and will grow more so with intelligent management of the data they produce. Let us write and think about how best to manage the information our warfighters gather as they prepare to deter and win the conflicts of tomorrow.

Lieutenant Glynn is a naval aviator and member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.

This article featured as a part of CIMSEC’s September 2015 topic week, The Future of Naval Aviation. You can access the topic week’s articles here

Trusting Autonomous Systems: It’s More Than Technology

By CDR Greg Smith

How will naval aviation employ unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the future? The answer is, of course, “it depends.” It depends on technology, on the economy and budgets, on whether we are at war or peace, and on leadership. It also depends on less interesting things like how squadrons and air wings are organized. Given the rapid advances in unmanned systems technology and the success of unmanned platforms like Predator and BAMS-D,[1] UAVs will certainly proliferate and significantly impact the future of naval aviation. If properly integrated, future manned-unmanned teams could deliver exponential increases in combat power, but integration of unmanned aircraft requires a level of trust in autonomous systems that does not yet exist in naval aviation. Building trust will require technical improvements that increase the “trustworthiness” of UAVs, but it will also require naval aviation to establish organizations that enhance trust in UAVs with the goal of fully integrating them into the fight. Indeed, organization will likely be the limiting factor with regard to the pace of integrating trusted UAVs. Therefore, naval aviation should consider the impact organization will have on the ability of aviators to trust UAVs and balance this among the competing requirements for introducing new unmanned platforms.

The Issue is Trust

Although naval aviators are perceived as natural risk-takers, they are trained to take no unnecessary risk and to mitigate risk throughout every evolution. Therefore, UAV integration will occur only when aviators trust UAVs to the same extent that they trust another aviator flying in close proximity as part of a strike package or during coordinated antisubmarine warfare sorties today. 

The proliferation and success of UAVs in the past decade belies the fact that aviators still do not trust them. The vast majority of unmanned aircraft continue to fly only scheduled sorties in pre-established air space in order to ensure separation from manned aircraft. In addition, naval aviators operate with an abundance of caution around UAVs. Aircrews are briefed on planned UAV routes and orbits prior to a mission and routinely deviate from airspace assignments or coordinate new air space in flight to ensure safe separation from UAVs. Being notified that an operator has lost communications with a nearby UAV (i.e. it is autonomously executing a pre-programmed reacquisition profile) assists manned aircraft, but it also raises the hair on the back of an aviator’s neck. In the terminal area it becomes necessary to fly closer to UAVs, which is accomplished safely with the assistance of ground air traffic controllers. Still, as with any congestion, the threat to manned aircraft increases, especially in expeditionary locations. After several, near mid-air collisions with UAVs in 2010, one task force commander grounded his manned aircraft at a remote operating location until he was assured that the local control tower and UAV operators, who were physically located half-way around the world, would improve procedural compliance. Anecdotes like these abound, demonstrating both the adaptability and skepticism of aviators flying near UAVs. After nearly a decade of sharing the sky with UAVs, most naval aviators no longer believe that UAVs are trying to kill them, but one should not confuse this sentiment with trusting the platform, technology, or operators. 

Building trust in autonomous systems should be a goal of those who will design the UAVs of the future as well as those who will employ them in the Fleet, because establishing trust in autonomous systems may be the tipping point that will unleash the revolutionary combat potential of UAVs. Naval aviation could fully integrate trusted UAVs into every mission area of every community. Unmanned tankers, wingmen (wingbots?), jammers, decoys, missile trucks, minesweepers, and communications relays could be launched from the decks of aircraft carriers, destroyers, support ships, from bases ashore, or from aircraft cargo bays, wing pylons and bomb bay stations in the coming decades, truly revolutionizing naval aviation. However, lack of trust is a critical obstacle which must be overcome before such a proliferation of UAVs can occur.

There are several technological improvements that can contribute to trust by enhancing situational awareness and the safety of both manned and unmanned platforms.  Improvements in see-and-avoid technology are needed to assist UAV operators when the UAV is flying in proximity of manned platforms. UAV command and control architectures and traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS), as well as radars and data links, require improved reliability, security, and flexibility to ensure survivability in an anti-access environment or in the face of cyber or space attacks. Systems that provide manned platforms with increased situational awareness regarding the location of UAVs and the intended flight profile would also enhance trustworthiness. Today, the vast majority of naval aviation is not comfortable sharing an altitude block with a UAV in day, visual meteorological conditions (VMC), much less during war at sea in an anti-access environment. Technological improvements that make UAVs more trustworthy are necessary but not sufficient for establishing trust between an aviator and a machine. Sufficient trust will also require training, mission experience, and technical understanding of the system. 

Organization Matters

Given the technological enhancements described above, it is not a stretch to imagine a manned F-35 establishing a CAP station with a UAV wingman, or a P-8 crew employing UAVs or unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) to search for a submarine, or an E-2D using a UAV to extend the range of its radar or data link, or an EA-18G commanding a UAV to jam air defenses or deliver an electromagnetic pulse. There remain challenges to fielding these capabilities, but the technology will soon exist to safely integrate UAVs into these naval aviation missions and many more.  This level of integration raises numerous questions about UAV organizations and their personnel. 

Who would be responsible for the success, failure, and safety of the missions? Would each community operate UAVs that support its mission or would a UAV community operate all UAVs performing the full spectrum of naval aviation missions? How would a UAV operator develop the expertise to execute complex tactical tasks in close coordination with manned platforms? What tactical and technical training will be required to integrate UAVs in this manner? How are the skills of pilots and UAV operators similar? How are they different? What portions of the unmanned sorties are accomplished autonomously and which require a link with a UAV operator? From where will UAVs launch and recover? From where will they be controlled and who will control them?

The answers to these questions depend on how squadrons of the future will be organized to command, operate and maintain the UAVs. In turn, each organizational model significantly influences the amount of additional training, coordination, and experience required to achieve the trust necessary to fully integrate UAVs. Consider the issue of who controls the UAVs.  Some options include: control by the pilot of a manned aircraft themself; control by another aviator in the same aircraft or section; control by an aviator from the same naval aviation community outside the section; control by a UAV operator from a UAV community — aboard ship, ashore, or airborne; and fully autonomous operation.  The amount of trust required to execute complex missions in close proximity to UAVs is the same regardless of how the UAV is controlled, but the amount of trust inherent in each scenario varies greatly.   Decisions about these elements will significantly influence how quickly aviators will be able to trust, and therefore integrate, UAVs. As technology overcomes the challenges posed by the various capabilities implied above, organizational structures will determine how quickly UAVs can be integrated into the fight.

Beyond U-CLASS

Naval aviation’s plans for its next UAV, the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance System (U-CLASS), will prudently focus on ensuring the safe introduction of a novel platform in a budget constrained environment. Yet, looking beyond U-CLASS, there is the potential for naval aviation to exponentially increase its combat effectiveness by integrating UAVs in every mission area. Technological innovation is necessary to make UAVs more trustworthy, but naval aviation should also understand how organization will facilitate or impede the integration of trusted UAVs. The optimal structure of future UAV units will maximize trust between manned and unmanned platforms and allow for innovation and growth in integration. 

Commander Smith is a Naval Flight Officer and the former Commanding Officer of VP-26.  These are his views and do not reflect the views of the United States Navy.

This article featured as a part of CIMSEC’s September 2015 topic week, The Future of Naval Aviation. You can access the topic week’s articles here