Tag Archives: ISR

Leading the Blind: Teaching UCAV to See

In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Sherlock Holmes laments, “You [Watson] see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” Such is the current lament of America’s fleet of UCAVs, UGV’s, and other assorted U_V’s: they have neither concept nor recognition of the world around them. To pass from remote drones living on the edges of combat to automated systems at the front, drones must cross the Rubicon of recognition.

To See

Still can't see a thing.

The UCAV is the best place to start, as the skies are the cleanest canvas upon which drones could cast their prying eyes. As with any surveillance system, the best ones are multi-faceted. Humans use their five senses and a good portion of deduction.  Touch is a bit too close for UCAV, smell and hearing would be both useless and uncomfortable at high speed, and taste would be awkward. Without that creative deductive spark, drones will need a bit more than a Mk 1 Eyeball. Along with radar, good examples for how a drone might literally “see” besides a basic radar picture are the likes of the layered optics of the ENVG (Enhanced Night Vision) or the RLS (Artillery Rocket Launch Spotter).

Operators for typical optical systems switch between different modes to understand a picture. A USN Mk38 Mod-2 24MM Bushmaster has a camera system with an Electro-Optical System (EOS), Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), and a laser range-finder. While a Mod-2 operator switches between the EOS and FLIR, in the ENVG, both modes are combined to create an NVG difficult to blind. For a drone, digital combination isn’t necessary, all inputs can be perceived by a computer at one time. Optical systems can also be put on multiple locations on the UCAV to aid in creating a 3D composite of the contact being viewed. Using an array of both EOS and FLIR systems simultaneously could allow drones to “see” targets in more varied and specific aspect than the human eye.

For the deployment of these sensors, the RLS is a good example of how sensors can “pass” targets to one another. In RLS, after target data is collected amongst audio and IR sensors, flagged threats are passed to the higher-grade FLIR for further designation and potential fire control solution. A UCAV outfitted with multiple camera systems could, in coordination with radar, pass detected targets within a certain parameter “up” to better sensors. Targets viewed in wide-angle scans (such as stealth aircraft only seen) can be passed “down” to radar with further scrutiny based on bearing. UCAV must be given a suite of sensors that would not merely serve a remote human operator, but for the specific utility of the UCAV itself that could take advantage of the broad-access of computer capabilities.

And Observe

In-game models for real-life comparison.
In-game models for real-life comparison.

However, this vast suite of ISR equipment still leaves a UCAV high-and-dry when it comes to target identification. Another officer suggested to me that, “for a computer to identify an air target, it has to have an infinite number of pictures of every angle and possibility.” With 3-D rendered models of desired aircraft, UCAV could have that infinite supply of pictures with varying sets of weapons and angles of light. If a UCAV can identify an aircraft’s course and speed, it would decrease that “range” of comparison to other aircraft or a missiles by orienting that contact’s shape and all comparative models along that true motion axis. Whereas programs like facial recognition software build models from front-on pictures, we have the specifications on most if not all global aircraft. Just as searching the internet for this article, typing “Leading” into the search bar eliminates all returns without the word. In the same way, a UCAV could eliminate all fighter aircraft when looking at a Boeing 747. 3-D modeled comparisons sharpened by target-angle perspective comparisons could identify an airborne contact from any angle.

A UCAV also need not positively identify every single airborne target. A UCAV could be loaded with a set of parameters as well as a database limited to those aircraft of concern in the operating area. AEGIS flags threats by speed, trajectory, and other factors; so too could a UCAV gauge its interest level in a contact based on target angle and speed in relation to the Carrier Strike Group (CSG). Further, loading every conceivable aircraft into an onboard database is as sensible as training a pilot to recognize the make and model of every commercial aircraft on the planet. A scope of parameters for “non-military” could be loaded into a UCAV along with the specific models of regional aircraft-of-interest. The end-around of strapping external weapons to commercial aircraft or using those aircraft as weapons could be defeated by the previously noted course/speed parameters, as well as a database of weapons models.

Breaking Open the Black Box

The musings of an intrigued amateur will not solve these problems; our purpose here is to break open the black box of drone operations and start thinking about our next step. We take for granted the remote connections that allow our unmanned operations abroad, but leave a hideously soft underbelly for our drones to be compromised, destroyed, or surveilled at the slightest resistance. Success isn’t as simple as building the airframe and programming it to fly. For a truly successful UCAV, autonomy must be a central goal. A whole bevy of internal processes must be mastered, in particular the ability of the UCAV to conceive and understand the world around it. The more we parse out the problem, the more ideas we may provide to those who can execute them. I’m often told that, “if they could do this, they would have done it”… but there’s always the first time.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

The View from the Cheap Seats: Alternatives to DDG-51 Flight III

As a civilian observer of naval affairs, I’m forever fascinated by the churn that surrounds every major platform design or acquisition.  The nice thing about viewing all this from the cheap seats is a wider perspective – you get to look around just because you’re that much removed from the action on the floor.  The downside is a lack of resolving power when it comes to details.

Man, we're gonna have to double the number of grills for Steel Beach day!
Yes, but where does the hot tub module go?

From the view up here in the nose-bleed section, I see some tantalizing glimpses.  One that caught my eye recently was Huntington Ingall’s proposed LPD Flight II, which had among it’s variants, a very large Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) platform.  Does such a configuration make sense?  Based on displacement alone, such an LPD doesn’t appear to be as constrained by hull space or power plant as the proposed Flight III, squeezing everything in.  While the LPD Flight II wasn’t pitched as a arsenal ship, that’s a lot of deck space that could be filled with VLS packs or laser arrays.  I can only imagine what additional strike capability might be gained should the Long-range Anti-ship Missile (LRASM) come to fruition.

Speaking of arsenal ships, the Navy should consider building a ship that can deliver naval gunfire and heavy strike missions.  While the Zumwalt is a very expensive technology demonstrator, it will deliver base capabilities that should make it’s way into the next large combatant.  It’s Total Ship Computing Environment (TSCE), tumblehome waveform, and the Advanced Gun System (AGS) all bring us one step closer to reaching those strike-mission goals.  Whether or not we are facing the same threats for which the DDG-1000 was originally envisioned is another question – nonetheless, the Burke doesn’t have the capacity to fulfill those missions, period.

As for missions, Flight III is supposed to do two things well: BMD and Anti-Air Warfare (AAW).  This brings us to the other half of the operational dilemma – it can’t do all the other missions the Navy must execute – certainly not well enough to justify putting it into a theater for the purpose of executing those other missions, where smaller or better equipped ships would suffice.  The elephant in the room: there HAVE to be alternatives for operational commanders to the DDG-51 because it can’t do everything.  It’s a specialist, and in the Navy’s “office”, the “all other duties” falls upon another class.  For the forseeable future – that’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).

Bad, bad USV!
           Bad, bad USV!

But this doesn’t mean Flight III is stuck in a rut.  As unmanned aircraft and vessels make greater strides in autonomous performance, DDG-51 in a pinch could conceivably deploy in a limited operational zone, standing off safely while allowing it’s robotic minions to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and other critical functions. And while it doesn’t meet the “payloads not platforms” call to a ‘T’, it does allow the venerable Burke design to remain versatile for the near future.

Other considerations: shipbuilding and the secondary/tertiary supply tiers that support the technology behind a modern military vessel are very perishable bases.  It is vital to preserve this knowledge and the structure behind it in order to deliver sophisticated ships in the future.  The only way to do so is to keep building complex weapons platforms; certainly a self-fulfilling prophecy (or a vicious cycle), but that is the operational reality.  In the end, it really doesn’t matter if it’s Flight III or some other combatant, it just has to be built in frequent enough batches to sustain the industrial base.

You should see my other gun at home...
My other gun is a railgun.

Finally, all talk of the cruiser-destroyer gap aside, there’s an emotional response to the idea that the U.S. Navy is shrinking.  Coupled with the perception that a spanking new surface combatant is unable to adequately show the flag and you a have a situation that’s hard to stomach.  And let’s face it – reputation risk is just as important as other operational risks.  Carriers may overwhelm by their presence, but cruisers and destroyers deliver the diplomacy of gunboats – elegant and graceful when visiting solo but menacing enough to remind everyone watching about realpolitik.

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

Future Airwing Composition: Unmanned ISR

According to Defense News, the U.S. Navy’s inventory of manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms – land-based P-3 Orion and EP-3 Aries – will be cut by more than a quarter over the next few years. The current consolidations are not the first time in recent history the Navy has trimmed ISR capability. As late as the 1990s, a typical carrier air wing deployed with a number of organic platforms capable of collecting intelligence, including tactical aircraft such as the F-14 with the Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) and ES-3A Shadows for electronic signals intercept (ELINT). These aircraft were supplemented by a robust ground-based P-3 fleet along with numerous forward-looking infrared (FLIR)- and radar-capable helicopters on smaller cruisers and destroyers. Today’s remaining manned aircraft, such as the venerable, but still effective, P-3s are often found flying over-land missions in support of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations. 


While the manned P-3 will eventually be replaced by Boeing’s manned P-8A Poseidon, the future of maritime ISR is unmanned.  In the near-term, tactical UAVs such as ScanEagle and Firescout will increase in numbers across the surface fleet.  Although their video can be transmitted over the horizon via satellite links from their launching ships, the shorter range of tactical UAVs generally makes them more appropriate for local reconnaissance operations. The MQ-4C Triton Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) will soon be available to cover theater ISR missions, and eventually, as long-endurance, carrier-based drones are added to the fleet, the equation will tip even more in favor of unmanned ISR assets.

Carrier-based unmanned ISR aircraft will bring unprecedented capabilities to the U.S. Navy after over nine decades of naval aviation.  First, the aircraft will realize high sortie generation rates due to reduced maintenance and pilot proficiency requirements.  Because these aircraft will have much longer endurance than any manned aircraft, fewer planes will be needed to provide on-station ISR, which will be for a longer duration and can cover a larger area of land and sea. RQ-4 Global Hawks (BAMS’ brothers) are already demonstrating these ultra long-range patrols in the Middle East and Western Pacific.

Secondly, wear and tear on airframes will be greatly reduced compared to manned aircraft. Today when a carrier deploys, pilots must fly to remain proficient during the ship’s transit to and from an operating area. These transits can take over a month each way and the hours put on those aircraft during proficiency flights do not directly contribute to operations. The airframes of UAVs will only be flown operationally and not for training, extending their overall lifecycles. Additionally, because drones will not need to be tied to pilots in a squadron for training during transit, at least some of them could be cross-decked from a departing carrier to a new ship rotating into the operational theater (usually Central Command). Cross-decking will produce more operational sorties per aircraft than an equivalent number of manned planes, resulting in a smaller overall required UAV inventory.

Finally, unmanned aviation will eventually result in higher rates of fully mission capable aircraft than their manned counterparts on deployment. When a drone on a deployed aircraft carrier breaks down to the extent it requires depot-level repairs, it can be boxed up in the hangar and another drone can self-deploy within 24 hours from the United States or Europe to the carrier’s forward location to take its place. Drawing from a pool of “just-in-time” spares without worrying about ferry pilots, refueling, and other issues associated with short-range tactical aircraft will make CVNs that much more valuable. 

The Navy has arrived at a critical juncture towards deciding the future of unmanned aviation. The solicitation for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program was delayed from last fall until sometime this spring.   Amy Butler at Aviation Week has discussed the Navy’s internal debates between aspects of survivability, endurance, payload capacity, and stealth. Yet, possibly the most important factor that should be considered in this program is affordability. The price points of the potential UCLASS competitors’ vehicles are publicly unknown, but the assumption might be made that generally a reduced-signature aircraft such as Northrop’s X-47B will drive higher program cost than a less stealthy platform like General Atomics’ Sea Avenger. Of course, as with any aircraft, total cost of ownership for UAVs includes training, maintenance, upgrades, and all ground-based infrastructure. In this area, the Sea Avenger also would likely save the Navy money because of the commonality of its ground control systems, communications networks, and other systems with the now-ubiquitous MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircraft flown by the Air Force and other agencies. If the Navy misfires on this program, at some point unmanned carrier aviation – or possibly carrier aviation writ large – could become unaffordable for the U.S. Navy. Wise choices up front in the UCLASS solicitation could pay big dividends decades from now.

This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.