Tag Archives: Undersea

Operation Eminent Shield: The Advent of Unmanned Distributed Maritime Operations

Read Part One on the Battle of Locust Point. Read Part Two on the Nanxun Jiao Crisis.

By David Strachan


TOP SECRET/NOFORN

The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare.

Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret.)

December 3, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

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

Good morning.

We are joined again today by Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, widely considered the father of autonomous undersea conflict, or what has come to be known as micronaval warfare. Admiral Lacy spearheaded the Atom-class microsubmarine program, eventually going on to establish Strikepod Group 1 (COMPODGRU 1), and serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT), as well as Commander, Strikepod Command (SPODCOM). He is currently the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy.

This is the third installment of a planned eight-part classified oral history focusing on Admiral Lacy’s distinguished naval career, and his profound impact on modern naval warfare. In Part II, we learned of the aftermath of the Battle of Locust Point, and how continued Russian micronaval advances, most notably the nuclear-armed Poseidon UUV, led to the development of AUDEN, the Atlantic Undersea Defense Network. We also learned of CYAN, a “walk-in” CIA agent who revealed Chinese penetration of the AUDEN program, and the resulting emplacement of numerous AUDEN-like Shāyú microsubmarine turrets throughout the South China Sea. One of these turrets, at Gaven Reefs, known to the Chinese as Nanxun Jiao, was directly involved in engaging the USS Decatur, and was subsequently the target of an undersea strike which resulted in the deaths of four Chinese nationals, including CYAN himself.

The Nanxun Jiao Crisis was a wakeup call for the United States. With Chinese militarization of the South China Sea expanding to the seabed, a new sense of urgency now permeated the U.S. national security establishment. Pressure was mounting to counter China’s increasing belligerence and expansionist agenda, but doing so risked igniting a regional conflict, or a confrontation between nuclear-armed adversaries.

We joined Admiral Lacy again at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.


 

Let’s begin with the immediate aftermath of Operation Roundhouse. How impacted was Strikepod Command by the events of that day?

It was devastating. Unimaginable, really. That we’d had a hand, however unwittingly, in the murder of four people, and watched it unfold in real time right before our eyes – you can’t prepare for something like that. They brought in counselors from Langley [Air Force Base] – chaplains, experienced drone pilots who’d been through this kind of thing. But for a lot of talented people it just wasn’t enough, and they had to call it a day.

For those who remained the trauma eventually gave way to anger, and then determination. But the feeling of betrayal, of vulnerability, was difficult to overcome. All we could do was move on as best we could.

The CYAN investigation would eventually yield a single spy – Charles Alan Ordway , a FathomWorks contractor motivated apparently by personal financial gain. But you weren’t convinced that was the end of it.

Ordway worked on AUDEN, but he didn’t have code word clearance, so while it was true that he had passed sensitive information to the Chinese, there was really no way for him to have known of Roundhouse or CYAN. From a counterintelligence perspective, he was low hanging fruit, and I believed – and continue to believe to this day – that there was someone else.

The intelligence provided by CYAN led to the discovery of several operational Shāyú installations in addition to Nanxun Jiao. What was the reaction in policy circles?

Alarm bells were going off throughout Washington, and we were under extraordinary pressure not only to process the raw intelligence, but to understand the broader implications of China’s growing micronaval capability, particularly as it applied to gray zone operations. It was quite clear now that strategic ambiguity was no longer appropriate, and if policymakers were waiting for a reason to act, it seemed Nanxun Jiao was it.

And yet, apparently it still wasn’t.

No. The president felt that while the Shāyú emplacements represented a concerning development in the South China Sea, there was little difference between seabed microsubmarine turrets and onshore ASCM batteries. Keep in mind, it was also an election year, a time when politicians generally avoid starting wars. And there was additional concern that any escalation in the South China Sea would have an adverse impact on the restarted negotiations with North Korea.

So we were in a holding pattern, a period of strategic paralysis, really. No additional strikes were authorized, or even under consideration. We’d sent a message with Roundhouse, and the Chinese answer was continued harassment and militarization. They were dug in and practically daring us to escalate. And with neither side willing or able to consider a diplomatic solution, the tension was left to fester.

Let’s come back to that, if we could, and talk a bit about developments at FathomWorks. The Atom-class was proving to be a phenomenally successful platform, and you were now being called upon to replicate that success in another domain.

Once the dust had settled I got a call from Chandra [Reddy, the ONR Atom-class liaison] who wanted to chat about Falken [the Atom-class artificial intelligence], and specifically whether I thought it could be adapted to an unmanned surface vehicle. We got to talking, and he says you know what, Jay, there’s someone you should meet. Next day, I’m off to Olney [Maryland] with Max [Keller, Director of AI for the Atom-class] to meet with Talia Nassi.

Was that name familiar to you?

She was three years behind me at the Academy, and our paths had crossed a couple times over the years at conferences and training sessions. She was pretty outspoken and wasn’t afraid of ruffling a few feathers, especially when it came to unmanned systems and what was then being called DMO, or distributed maritime operations. Like everyone else, though, I knew her as the maverick commander who’d taken early retirement to start Nassi Marine.

But you had no idea she was behind the Esquire-class?

I had no idea that such a program even existed. It was highly compartmentalized, as these things tend to be. Very need to know. But there’d been rumors that something was under development, that [DARPA/ONR] Sea Hunter was really a prototype for a deep black program, something highly advanced and combat-oriented.

And so you arrive at Nassi Marine…

And Talia greets us in the lobby. Then it’s off to the conference room for small talk, sandwiches, and coffee. Then onto Falken and its potential for USVs. And then after about fifteen minutes Talia politely asks Max if he wouldn’t mind waiting outside. He leaves, and she reaches down, plucks a folder from her briefcase and slides it across the table. I open it up, and I’m looking down at a something straight out of Star Trek.

The Esquire-class?

It was honestly more spaceship than warship, at least on paper. Trimaran hull, nacelle-like outriggers, angular, stealth features. And for the next half hour or so, Talia briefs me on this revolutionary unmanned surface combatant, and I’m thinking, wow, this is some really impressive design work, not really imagining that it’s moved beyond the drawing board.

Did you wonder why you were being brought into the fold?

As far as I knew, I was there to talk about Falken, so it did strike me as odd that I’d be briefed on a deep black surface platform. But it wasn’t long before I understood why. One of the main features of the Esquire was its integrated microsubmarine bay. Talia had originally envisioned something that could accommodate a range of micro UUVs, but ultimately decided to focus on the Atom given its established AI and the seamless integration it offered.

Nassi Marine headquarters is sometimes referred to as “Lake Talia” for its enormous wave pool and micronaval testing facility. Did it live up to its name?

Absolutely!

When Talia finishes her briefing, I follow her down the hall and through a set of doors, and suddenly I’m staring at the largest indoor pool I’ve ever seen. It’s basically her own private Carderock, but nearly four times the size and twice as deep. When she founded Nassi Marine, Talia wanted somewhere she could put classified systems through their paces in a controlled, secure environment that was free from prying eyes. Dahlgren [Maryland] and Bayview [Idaho] were far too visible for her, so she acquired some surplus government land in rural Maryland and nestled a cutting edge R&D facility between a country club and an alpaca farm.

Was there a working prototype of the Esquire?

Talia walks me over to the dry dock, and there it is.

What was your impression?

I was struck by how small it was. At only fifty feet long, it was less than half the length of Sea Hunter. But it looked fierce, and according to Talia, packed a mean punch. Fifty caliber deck gun, VLS for shooting nanomissiles and Foxhawks, a newly developed swarming drone. It also featured a hangar and landing pad for quadrotor drones, as well as two directed energy turrets and countermeasure launchers. And of course, the integrated well deck-like feature for the launch and recovery of microsubmarines. And these were just the kinetics. It also packed a range of advanced sensors and non-kinetic effectors as well.

So, between the engineering and AI integration, you had your work cut out.

Indeed we did. Talia put me on the spot for an ETA, and after giving it some thought, I estimated six to nine months for the full deal. That’s when she hits me with the punch line: “You’ve got three.”

Three months?

Three! I was like look, we might be magicians at FathomWorks, but we’re not miracle workers. And anyway what’s the hurry? Talia looks me right in the eye and says, “Because in about 18 months it’s headed to the South China Sea.”

Did that come as a shock?

The timetable was certainly a shock, but it was also the first I’d heard that any plans for escalation had moved beyond the gaming table. The handwriting had been on the wall for years, of course, so I wasn’t surprised, and honestly it came as a relief knowing that a tangible response was finally in the offing.

So you embark on the Atom integration, and at the same time you’re overseeing Eminent Shadow . . .

Which has now been greatly expanded in the wake of Nanxun Jiao. At its peak I think there were no less than forty Strikepods – about two hundred fifty Atoms – dotting the Spratlys and Paracels, providing FONOP escort and monitoring PLAN and militia activities both on and below the surface.

And the Shāyú was proving itself to be an ideal tool for the gray zone.

Indeed. After Nanxun Jiao, the Chinese were utterly emboldened and were becoming ever more ballsy. Nearly every FONOP was met with Shāyú harassment, and even though we’d stepped up Atom production and significantly increased our operational footprint, it was challenging to keep up. And PLAN engineers were becoming ever more creative.

How so?

They’d been working on a micro towed array for the Shāyú, similar to what we’d been developing for the Block II Atom. From what we could tell, they weren’t having much success, but they did find that it could be effective for gray zone effects. Shāyús would make runs at our DDGs with arrays extended, and once in a while penetrate the Strikepod perimeter and foul the screws pretty good. Even if publically the Chinese didn’t take credit, there was significant propaganda value in disabled U.S. warships.

Were you also monitoring for new indications of seabed construction?

Our main concern was the northeastern Spratlys and southern Paracels near the shipping lanes. With a foothold in either of those locations, the Chinese would have near complete maritime domain awareness over the South China Sea. So our mission was to closely monitor those areas, and report back anything anomalous. It wasn’t long before we found something.

The emplacements at Bombay Reef and Scarborough Shoal?

We’d been monitoring inbound surface traffic when satellites spotted some unusual cargo being loaded onto a couple fishing trawlers up in Sanya. We vectored Strikepods as they departed, and trailed them to Bombay and Scarborough where we snapped some surface imagery of divers and equipment being lowered over the side. We monitored for about five days, keeping our distance, and picking up all manner of construction noise. We’re itching to take a look, but wait patiently for crew changes and quickly order the imagery. The Strikepods are in and out in under five minutes, and two Relay burst transmissions later we’re looking at the beginnings of Shāyú turrets at both locations.

What was your analysis?

It indicated that the Chinese were planning for future confrontations in the region – gray zone or conventional, most likely due to their planned militarization of Bombay and Scarborough.

The implications were grave. Vietnam had a history of taking on great powers and winning, and had pushed back hard on China in the past. And while Duterte had been cozying up to Beijing and drifting away from the U.S., Scarborough Shoal would be a red line. A provocation like this could be just the excuse Hanoi and Manila needed to act.

Did the United States share the intelligence?

Not initially, no. First and foremost we needed to safeguard sources and methods, and sharing anything would reveal our micronaval capabilities which were still highly classified and largely unknown. The Shāyú was also still a mystery, and divulging what we knew to Hanoi or Manila would risk exposure to Beijing. And we couldn’t be sure that they wouldn’t act unilaterally, igniting a conflict that could draw us into a war with China.

You were obviously busy at SPODCOM overseeing Eminent Shadow, but FathomWorks was also working intensively now with Nassi Marine.

Once we discovered Bombay and Scarborough, the sense of urgency was high, and we were working around the clock to get the Esquire combat ready. We ran through countless simulated missions in the Lake, and eventually at sea off North Carolina. Talia handed it off for production on time and under budget, and we joined the operational planning underway at Seventh Fleet.

Eminent Shadow was about to become Eminent Shield?

Yes. Of course planning for a South China Sea incursion had been underway for several years, and it was only after Locust Point that I’d been asked to join, to integrate micronaval elements into the wargaming framework.

But during those games, there was no mention of the Esquire?

Not initially, no. All we were told was that, in addition to being deployed from Virginias and surface ships, Strikepods could also be launched and recovered from a hypothetical USV with fairly abstract capabilities. But once the Esquire moved beyond the design phase, and there was a working prototype, it was folded into the games going forward.

And those games formed the basis for Eminent Shield?

Eventually they did, yes, but initially we were running scenario after scenario of high-end warfighting. There were some smaller skirmishes and limited conflicts where we intervened on behalf of regional states, but in general the primary objective was always either stopping or rolling back Chinese expansion, with the Esquires called upon as a force multiplier to augment ISR and EW, act as decoys, deploy Strikepods for ASW and counter-microsubmarine ops, and take out small aerial threats. Plausible to be sure, but at some point it occurred to me that the Esquire might enable us to project power in a less conventional, but no less effective manner. To essentially meet the Chinese where they were.

So we gamed some scenarios where the U.S. assumed a greater presence in the South China Sea using unmanned systems. Something beyond FONOPS and undersea reconnaissance. Something visible and formidable enough to send a strong signal to Beijing without provoking a shooting war. A kind of gray zone gunboat diplomacy, if you will, pushing things to the edge while gambling that the Chinese wouldn’t resort to a kinetic response.

Turnabout is fair play.

That it is.

How was it received?

Well, people appreciated that it was bold and imaginative, I suppose, but ultimately felt it was fraught with uncertainty, that it would only serve to antagonize the Chinese, and quickly escalate to high-end conflict anyway.

So it went to the back burner?

Yes, but I continued to refine it, along with input from Talia, who eventually came on board as strategic advisor, as well as some folks at the Pentagon and Intelligence. Once the discoveries at Bombay and Scarborough happened, though, the administration was looking for options . . .

And you got the call-up.

Yes, ma’am.

What was the plan?

The overarching objective of Eminent Shield was to signal that the United States would no longer sit idly by as the South China Sea was transformed into a Chinese lake. And we would do this by establishing a permanent distributed maritime presence in the region using a network of unmanned surface combatants.

The plan itself involved four sorties of LSDs out of Sasebo to essentially seed the region with Esquires. At fifty feet long, with a beam of seventeen, we determined that a dozen would fit into the well deck of a Whidbey Island. After some practice with the Carter Hall and Oak Hill down at [Joint Expeditionary Base] Little Creek, we airlifted forty-eight to Sasebo, where they were loaded onto the Ashland, Germantown, Rushmore and Comstock. Separated by about thirty-six hours, they sailed on a benign southwesterly heading between the Spratlys and the Paracels, escorted by an SSN and two or three Strikepods to monitor for PLAN submarines and Shāyús. At a predetermined waypoint, and under cover of darkness, the Esquires would deploy, then sail to their preprogrammed op zone – two squadrons to the Paracels, two to the Spratlys, and one to Scarborough Shoal – and await further orders.

Was there concern that the Chinese would view such a rapid deployment as some kind of invasion? A prelude to war?

 We considered a more incremental approach, something less sudden. But we needed to act quickly, to avoid any kind of coordinated PLAN response – a blockade or other high profile encounter that could escalate. A rapid deployment would also underscore that the United States Navy had acted at a time and place of our choosing, and that we could operate in the South China Sea with impunity. At the end of the day, the Esquires were really nothing more than lightly armed ISR nodes, and were far less ominous than a surge of CVNs or DDGs.

Did it proceed as planned?

For the most part, yes. There were some technical hiccups, with three Esquires ultimately refusing to cooperate, so the final package was forty-five – nine vessels per squadron. The pilots and squadron commanders were based out of SPODCOM in Norfolk, but the Esquires were fully integrated into the regional tactical grid, and, if necessary, could be readily controlled by manned assets operating in theater.

And you were able to avoid PLAN or PAFMM harassment?

By sortie number four we’d gotten their attention – probably alerted by a nearby submarine – and three CCG cutters were vectored onto the egressing LSDs. But the deployment went off without incident, and in a few days all four ships were safely back in Sasebo.

And then we waited.

How long was it before the PLAN became aware?

It was about thirty-six hours before we began to see some activity near Subi Reef. The Esquire is small, and has a very low cross section, so it was unlikely they’d been tagged by radar. More likely they’d been spotted by an alert fishing boat, or passing aircraft, or possibly the heat signatures of the LENRs lit up a satellite.

At around 0300 I wake up to an “urgent” from the watch that about a dozen fishing boats were converging on Subi. So here we go. By the time I get to the office they’ve got the live feed up, and I watch the maritime militia descending in real-time. We order the Equire to deploy a six-ship Strikepod to enhance our visual, and pretty soon we’ve got a wide angle on the whole scene – lots of little blue men with binoculars, clearly perplexed, but no indications of imminent hostilities. This goes on for nearly three hours, until we notice some activity on one of trawlers. They’re prepping a dinghy with some tow rope and a four-man boarding party.

They’re going to grab it?

Certainly looks that way. They lower the dinghy and make their way over, inching to within ten meters or so, and that’s when we hit them with the LRAD [Long Range Acoustic Device], blasting a warning in Chinese – do not approach, this is the sovereign property of the United States operating in international waters. Things along those lines.

They turn tail and beat it back to the ship, but they’re not giving up. Next thing we see guys tossing headphones down to the dinghy. Needless to say, we weren’t about to give them a second chance, so we quickly order the Strikepod recovered and hit the gas.

Did they pursue?

They tried. But the Esquire can do about forty knots, and by the time they knew what was happening, we already had about 500 yards on them, so they gave up fairly quickly.

I imagine it wasn’t much longer before the other Esquires were discovered?

Word spread quickly of that encounter, and no, it wasn’t long before Esquires were being engaged by militia at multiple locations. In some cases they would try to board, in others they would attempt to blockade or ram. But the Esquires were too maneuverable, and between Falken and the pilots, we managed to stay a step or two ahead.

Had you anticipated this?

We’d anticipated the initial confusion and fits of arbitrary aggression. We also anticipated the political backlash, of course.

Which did manifest itself.

Yes, but not entirely how we’d envisioned. We knew that Beijing would be furious that the United States had mounted such an aggressive op in their own backyard. But at the same time, would they really want to draw that much attention to it? Wouldn’t that be underscoring the U.S. Navy’s ability to operate anywhere, anytime?

And the PLAN’s inability to prevent it.

Sure enough, state television reports that a U.S. Navy unmanned surface vehicle – singular – had violated Chinese sovereignty and was engaged by PLAN forces. Video footage flashed from a PLAN destroyer to a rigid hull speeding toward an Esquire, to a couple of hovering [Harbin] Z-9s. The implication was that the Esquire had been captured or otherwise neutralized, yet all forty-five were fully functional and responding. It was a clever propaganda stroke, but by going public, the Chinese had opened a Pandora’s box.

Because now the Western media was all over it?

And with the Esquire out in the open, we’d have a lot of explaining to do. There would be questions about capabilities, deployment numbers …

To which the answer was?

That we don’t comment on ongoing operations, of course. But, through calculated leaks and relentless investigative reporting, the Chinese would quickly realize what they were dealing with, and what it signaled in terms of U.S. intentions and resolve.

And meanwhile Eminent Shield continued. With unmanned FONOPS?

To start with, yes. The Esquires initially had taken up position outside twelve miles, but we soon began moving them intermittently inside territorial limits to deploy and recover a drone. By this point militia boats were always shadowing, and would move quickly to harass the Esquires as best they could.

But then we upped the ante a bit. We’d use onboard EW effectors to spoof their GPS and AIS. We’d lure their destroyers to one location while a DDG ran a FONOP just over the horizon, unmolested. We’d form ASW dragnets using smaller squadrons of three or four Esquires with their towed arrays and Strikepods deployed, sonar banging away.

And, yeah, we also installed dead wire in the towed arrays of some of the Atoms, so we were able to return the favor and foul some screws of our own.

What about the Shāyús?

The Shāyús were the greatest source of trouble for the Esquire, and we’d anticipated this. We couldn’t be certain whether or how the Chinese might engage the Esquires on the surface or in the air, but we were absolutely certain that there would be attacks from below.

But with the Esquire’s waterjets there were no screws to foul. And a six-ship Strikepod was deployed as an escort at all times, and there were also Firesquids [anti-torpedo torpedoes] for additional defense. But even so, the Esquires were quite vulnerable, and the Shāyús quickly moved to exploit this.

In what way?

The Esquires were defending well, but the Shāyú’s tactics were evolving. Initially they would engage the Atoms ship-to-ship and attempt to defeat them before moving on to the objective. But soon they learned to avoid the Atoms altogether and engage in hit and run attacks from below, targeting the Esquire’s stern in an attempt to ram and disable the microsubmarine bay and propulsion. Living up to their namesake, I suppose. [Shāyú is Mandarin for shark.]

Did Falken adapt accordingly?

Falken quickly recognized the need to deploy its full complement of Atoms to defend against the volume of attacking Shāyús, and actually began to form smaller squadrons of two or three Esquires to offset the numerical disadvantage. Falken also ordered escorting Strikepods to assume a tighter, closer formation, one that emphasized protecting the Esquire’s belly and backside, and began using Firesquids as decoys to great effect, something we hadn’t even considered.

Atom attrition was high then?

For a time, yes, and resupply was challenging. The payload modules on nearby Virginias were filled to capacity, but that was only around forty or fifty units. At the rate we were losing them, we’d be critical in a matter of weeks.

So the Shāyús adapt, Falken counters, but the attacks continue until one day the Shāyús succeed in disabling an Esquire within twelve miles of Mischief Reef.

And now it’s a race to recover.

The [USS] Mustin [DDG 89] was about forty kilometers away, and was immediately ordered to the area. The PLAN had also been alerted, and vectored the destroyer Haikou, which was only five kilometers away. So Mustin puts a Seahawk up, but even at full throttle Haikou is still going to win that race.

Haikou arrives, and they immediately put a boarding party in the water. ETA on the Seahawk is two minutes, and the Mustin is still thirty minutes away at flank. We blast the LRAD, but they’re wearing headphones now, so we fire a warning from the 50 cal, and light off a small swarm of Foxhawks. This gets their attention, and manages to buy us the few minutes we need.

The Seahawk arrives, loaded with Hellfires, and five minutes later, Mustin appears on the horizon. Now we’ve got ourselves a standoff. The Chinese are making threats, and we’re making counter-threats. And then the militia shows up – fishing boats, CCG, wrapping cabbage to cut off Mustin and the Esquire. And so we’re eyeball to eyeball, now, fingers on the trigger.

An hour goes by. Two. Eight. “Stand by” is the order. Twelve hours. Darkness falls, and we keep vigil through the night. By now, the media has it, and talk of war is everywhere. A new day dawns on the South China Sea, and around 1930 Eastern, I’m summoned to the vault for a telepresence with the Sit Room.

To brief?

Not exactly.

First they asked me to confirm the conclusions of my earlier analysis, that the Shāyú emplacements were likely a gray zone prelude to a Chinese land grab at Bombay Reef and Scarborough Shoal.

Then they asked whether I believed the Chinese would willingly dismantle Bombay and Scarborough in return for withdrawal of the Esquires.

And did you?

The Chinese would want the Esquires gone ASAP for political reasons, but they also were well aware of their capabilities, and how they would dramatically augment U.S. firepower in the event of regional hostilities. It seemed to me that Beijing would be willing to forfeit those locations if it meant a reduced U.S. military presence, and also the ability to save face by appearing to expel the U.S. Navy from the South China Sea.

And then I offered a pretty candid, if unsolicited, opinion on the deal.

Which was?

That the Chinese would be getting much more than they were giving up. That dismantling the emplacements, while a short-term loss for the Chinese and a gain for us, would do little to deter future militarization. The U.S. would also be giving up significant strategic leverage, and potentially damaging our credibility in the process.

So you were against it?

You’re damn right I was. Call me a hawk, but we’d gone round after round with Beijing for over a decade, and then took one on the chin at Nanxun Jiao. We’d finally taken decisive action, and now we’re just going to let it slip away?

But ultimately it did.

Unfortunately, yes.

Around 2200 the Chinese suddenly back off, and Mustin is allowed to move in and recover the Esquire. The next day news breaks of emergency multilateral talks in Tallinn, Estonia involving the U.S., China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

There was great optimism leading up to Tallinn, that this could be the diplomatic breakthrough that would empower regional states to push back on Beijing knowing that the U.S. had their back. But ultimately it was not to be. The Chinese dismantled the Shāyú emplacements at Bombay and Scarborough, and in return the United States withdrew every last Esquire. Beijing also pledged to work toward “greater understanding” with its neighbors and other ambiguous words to that effect. The Tallinn Communiqué was hailed as a success by all, but for entirely different reasons. The U.S. and our allies believed this was a significant step toward regional stability by checking Chinese expansionism. The Chinese, meanwhile, declared victory in having expelled the United States from its backyard while strengthening its role as regional hegemon.

Were you disappointed with the outcome? 

Disappointed? Perhaps. The Navy exists to ensure peace and protect U.S. interests through strength, and so when policy seems at odds with that mandate, yes, I guess it makes me bristle. But I wasn’t surprised. Tallinn wasn’t the first toothless resolution in the history of international diplomacy, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

And all I could think, sitting there in SPODCOM, watching the last of the Esquires being recovered under the watchful eye of PLAN warships, was that it wouldn’t be long before we’d be back there again.

Only next time, things might not end so cleanly.

[End Part III]

David R. Strachan is a naval analyst and 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: “The Middle of Nowhere” by hunterkiller via DeviantArt

The Deep Ocean: Seabed Warfare and the Defense of Undersea Infrastructure, Pt. 2

Read Part One here.

By Bill Glenney

Concepts from the CNO SSG

From 1998 to 2016, the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) consistently recognized and accounted for the challenge of cross-domain maritime warfare, including the deep ocean. The Group generated several operational concepts that would give the Navy significant capabilities for the deep ocean part of the maritime battle.

Vehicles and Systems

Within the body of SSG concepts were reasonably detailed descriptions of a range of unmanned underwater vehicles, undersea sensors, and undersea weapons such as the towed payload modules, extra-large UUVs, logistics packages, and bottom-moored weapons. All would use the seabed and undersea for sensing, attacking, and sustaining in support of maritime forces.

One vehicle worth discussing is the armed UUV for single-sortie obstacle neutralization that would provide the Navy with the capability to counter armed UUVs, or conduct search for and clearance of fixed and mobile mines without the need for local air/surface superiority, or a manned support ship.1 It could plausibly do so at tactical sweep rates higher than today’s MCM forces. This can be achieved well before 2030, yet this capability is something neither the existing nor planned MCM forces can do.

The SSG XXXII concept can be achieved by integrating the following capabilities on the conceptualized extra-large UUV (XLUUV):

  • A synthetic aperture sonar – a capability the Navy had in 2013 
  • Automatic target-recognition software – a capability the Navy was developing
  • A 30 mm cannon that shoots super-cavitating rounds – a capability previously funded but not developed by the Navy

But, instead of focusing on the vehicles, there are two examples of operational-level concepts that exploit these vehicles and systems in recognition of the fact that the deep ocean is a critical yet misunderstood and underutilized part of maritime warfighting. 

Blitz MCM

In 1999, the SSG generated a concept called “Blitz MCM.”2 This work has stood the test of time technically and analytically, but has not been adopted by the Navy. And, while the SSG described it in terms of mine countermeasures, this same approach can be applied to deep ocean warfighting and the defense of undersea infrastructure.

At its most basic level, Blitz MCM resulted from the recognition that sensor performance in the undersea was not going to improve significantly from a tactical perspective over the period of 2000-2030. For clarity, yes, the accuracy of various undersea sensors has improved routinely, providing accuracy down to fractions of a meter and able to produce fairly detailed pictures of objects. But the effective range of these sensors has not and will not dramatically increase, still being measured in hundreds and maybe a thousand yards at best. These short ranges preclude their use as a single sensor when it comes to tactical maneuver in the maritime environment.

The SSG solution was to use large numbers of these individual sensors.

In order to enable the rapid maneuver by maritime forces, the force must be able to conduct in-stride mine reconnaissance and clearance of approach routes and intended areas of operations. In order to avoid lengthy operational pauses to search large areas and neutralize mines or armed UUVs or undersea explosives, Blitz MCM uses relatively autonomous UUVs that rely on sensing technology only moderately advanced beyond that available to the fleet 20 years ago. However, unlike today’s operations where small numbers of mine-hunting vehicles and aircraft are involved, Blitz MCM relies on the deployment of large numbers of unmanned vehicles out ahead of the force to rapidly work through the areas of interest to find, tag, or clear threats. Hundreds of small UUVs can work together as an intelligent swarm to clear thousands of square miles of ocean per day.

In some cases, based on the information provided by the vehicles, alternate approach routes or operating areas would be chosen, and the movements of closing units can be rapidly redirected accordingly. In other cases, the required paths will be cleared with a level of confidence that allows force elements to safely continue through to their intended operating areas.

As illustrated in figure 7, UUV-Ms use conformal, wide-band active/passive sonar arrays, magnetic sensors, electric field sensors, blue-green active/passive lasers, and trace chemical “sniffing” capabilities to detect mines. Onboard automatic target recognition capabilities are essential to the classification and identification effort. Acoustic and laser communications to near-surface relays or seabed fiber-optic gateways maintain connectivity.

Figure 7 – Mine Hunting and Clearance Operations (CNO SSG XIX Final Report)

Unmanned air vehicles are critical in their role as UUV carriers, especially when rapid deployment of UUVs is required across a large space. UCAV-Ms contribute to the effort with their mine-hunting lasers. They also serve as communications gateways from the “swimmer” UUVs to the network.

The UUV-Ms will generally operate in notional minehunting groups of several dozen to over a hundred vehicles. Teams of vehicles will swim in line abreast formations or in echelons with overlapping fields of sonar coverage. Normally they will swim at about 8-10 knots approximately 50 feet above the bottom. Following in trail would be additional UUVs assigned a “linebacker” function to approach closely and examine any suspicious objects detected. Tasking and team coordination will be conducted by the UUVs over acoustic or laser modems. Once a linebacker classifies and identifies a probable mine, its usual protocol will be to report the contact, standoff a short distance, and then send in a self-propelled mine clearing charge to destroy or neutralize the mine. Each UUV-M could carry approximately 16 of these micro-torpedoes. When one linebacker has exhausted its supply, it will automatically trade places with another UUV-M in the hunting team.

Rapid neutralization of mine threats is key to the clearance effort. Today, this dangerous task is often performed by human divers. 

Blitz MCM uses a “leapfrog laydown” of UUV-Ms, as illustrated in Figure 8. Analogous to the manner that sonobuoys are employed in an area for ASW coverage, the force would saturate an area of interest with UUV-Ms to maximize minehunting and clearance capabilities. Once dropped into the water, the UUV-Ms quickly form into echelons and begin their hunting efforts. Navigation and communication nodes will be dropped along with the Hunter UUV-Ms.

Figure 8 – Leapfrog Laydown of UUVs (CNO SSG XIX Final Report)

Large delivery rates will be possible with multiple sorties of UCAV-Ms each dropping two to four UUV-Ms on a single load and then rapidly returning with more. Upon completion of their missions, the Hunter UUV-Ms will be recovered by UCAVs or USVs and returned to the appropriate platforms for refueling, servicing, and re-deployment.

First order analysis indicates that with approximately 150 UUV-Ms in the water and a favorable oceanographic and bottom environment, reconnaissance and clearance rates of about 6,000 to 10,000 square miles per day (a 20-mile wide swath moving at 12-20 knots) should be achievable. This capability is several orders of magnitude over current MCM capabilities.

Naval Warfighting Bases

The SSG XXXII concept called Naval Warfighting Bases3 requires the Navy to think about sea power and undersea dominance in an entirely new way. And this new thinking goes against the grain of culture and training for most naval officers and is unconventional in two ways:

  • First, in Naval Warfighting Bases, forces ashore will have a direct and decisive role in establishing permanent undersea superiority in high interest areas
  • Second, “playing the away game” – the purview of forward deployed naval forces − is not sufficient to establish and sustain undersea dominance at home

As shown in Figure  9, afloat forces – CSGs, ESGs, SAGs, and submarines – do not have the capacity or the capabilities to establish permanent undersea dominance of the waters adjacent to the U.S. homeland and its territories (shown in yellow) and of key maritime choke points (shown with white circles), while simultaneously reacting to multiple crisis spots around the world (shown in red). The Navy must discard its current model of undersea dominance derived solely from mobile, forward deployed at-sea forces and replace it with one that is more inclusive − one that looks beyond just afloat forces. This new model must capitalize on the permanent access the Navy already has from shore-based installations at home and abroad (shown with yellow stars).

Figure 9 – Global Requirements for Undersea Superiority

Naval Warfighting Bases builds on detailed local understanding of the undersea, coupled with the projection of combat power from the land to control the sea; thereby providing permanent undersea dominance to defend undersea critical infrastructure near the homeland, protect major naval bases and ports of interest, and to control strategic chokepoints. Naval Warfighting Bases also provides the critical benefit of freeing up afloat Navy forces for missions only they can conduct.

At home, the U.S. Navy could establish something called an Undersea Defense Identification Zone, akin to the Air Defense Identification Zone, to detect and classify all deep sea contacts prior to their entry into the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ). By enhancing the capabilities of key coastal installations, the Navy will transform each into a Naval Warfighting Base. The base commander will be a warfighter with the responsibility, authority, and capability to establish and maintain permanent undersea superiority out to a nominal range of 300 nautical miles seaward from the base to include the majority of U.S. undersea and maritime critical infrastructure.

Figure 10 – Undersea Defense Identification Zones Provide Permanent Undersea Superiority

Base commanders will have the capability to detect and track large numbers of contacts as small as wave-glider sized UUVs. Each Naval Warfighting Base will have a detachment of forces to actively patrol its sector. Naval Warfighting Base commanders will be able to maintain continuous undersea understanding, enabling control of the deep ocean.

Naval Warfighting Base commanders will also have an integrated set of shore-based and mobile weapons systems with the capability to neutralize adversary undersea systems, such as UUVs, mines, and sensors. Naval Warfighting Base commanders will be capable of disabling or destroying all undersea threats in their sector, employing armed unmanned systems, and employing undersea warfare missiles fired from ashore.

An undersea warfare missile is a tactical concept that combines a missile and a torpedo, similar to modern ASROC missiles. The missile portion would provide the range and speed of response, while the torpedo portion would provide the undersea killing power. Broadly integrating undersea warfare missiles into a variety of platforms would provide a tremendous capability to cover larger areas without having to tap manned aviation or surface assets for weapon delivery. These missiles would provide responsive, high volume, and lethal capabilities. And they could be fired from land installations, submarines, surface combatants, and aircraft.

As practiced today, waterspace management (WSM) and prevention of mutual interference (PMI) result in a highly centralized authority, and extremely tight control and execution for undersea forces. This type of C2 would prevent undersea forces and Naval Warfighting Bases from becoming operational realities, and it would eliminate the warfighting capabilities from a balanced force of manned and unmanned systems. Undersea dominance is not possible without more deconflicted C2. The submarine force in particular must get over the fear of putting manned submarines in the same water as UUVs, and develop the related procedures and tactics to do so.

Defense of Undersea Infrastructure as a Navy Mission

As early as 2008 in their final report to the CNO, after having spent a second year of deep study on the convergence of sea power and cyber power, the SSG gave the CNO the immediately actionable step to:

take the lead in developing the nation’s deep seabed defense (emphasis in the original), given the absolute criticality of seabed infrastructure to cyberspace. Challenge maritime forces and the research establishment to identify actions and technologies that will extend maritime domain awareness to the ocean bottom, from the U.S. coastline to the outer continental shelf and beyond. Prepare now for a future in which U.S. commercial exploitation of the deep seabed – including the Arctic – is both commercially feasible and urgently required, making deep seabed defense a national necessity.”4

In 2008 and again in 2013, Navy leadership offered that there is no requirement for the U.S. Navy to defend undersea infrastructure except for some very specific, small area locations.5 In this context, the term requirement is as it relates to formally approved DON missions, functions, tasks, budgeting and acquisition, but not actual warfighting necessity.

Conclusion

The force must have the capabilities to sense, understand, and act in the deep ocean. The capabilities to do so are already available to anyone with a reasonable amount of money to buy them. Operationally speaking, hiding things on the seabed is fairly easy. On the other hand, finding things on the seabed is relatively difficult unless one is looking all the time, and has an accurate baseline from which to start the search and compare the results. The deep ocean presents an “area” challenge and a “point” challenge simultaneously, and both must be addressed by the maritime force. Understanding the deep ocean and fighting within it is also a matter of numbers and time – requiring lots of vehicles, sensors, and time.

The U. S. Navy is not currently in the game. With a variety of unmanned vehicles, sensors, and weapons coupled with Blitz MCM, Naval Warfighting Bases, and making undersea infrastructure defense a core U.S. Navy mission, the fleet can make the deep ocean – the entire undersea and seabed – a critical advantage in cross-domain warfighting at sea.

Professor William G. Glenney, IV, is a researcher in the Institute for Future Warfare Studies at the U. S. Naval War College.

The views presented here are personal and do not reflect official positions of the Naval War College, DON or DOD.

References

1. Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group XXXII Final Report, Own the Undersea (March 2014, Newport, RI), pp 4-6 to 4-9.

2. Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group XIX Final Report, Naval Power Forward (September 2000, Newport, RI), pp 6-8 to 6-12.

3. Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group XXXII Final Report, Own the Undersea (March 2014, Newport, RI), pp 2-15 to 2-20.

4. Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group XXVII Final Report Collaborate & Compel – Maritime Force Operations in the Interconnected Age (December 2008), pp 8-1 and 8-4.

5. Author’s personal notes from attendance at SSG XXVII briefings to the CNO on 19 July 2008 and SECNAV on 24 July 2008, and SSG XXXII briefing to the CNO on 25 July 2013.

Featured Image: Pioneer ROV (Blueye Robotics AS)

The Deep Ocean: Seabed Warfare and the Defense of Undersea Infrastructure, Pt. 1

By Bill Glenney

Introduction

Given recent activities by the PLA(N) and the Russian Navy, the matters of seabed warfare and the defense of undersea infrastructure have emerged as topics of interest to the U. S. Navy.1,2 Part One of this paper presents several significant considerations, arguably contrary to common thinking, that highlight the challenges of bringing the deep sea and benthic realm into cross-domain warfighting in the maritime environment. Part Two presents three warfighting concepts drawn from the body of work done by the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) that would give the Navy capabilities of value for the potential battlespace.

The Deep Ocean Environment

For clarity the term “deep ocean” will be used to cover the ocean bottom, beneath the ocean bottom to some unspecified depth, and the ocean water column deeper than about 3,000 feet.3 The deep ocean is where the U.S. Navy and the submarine force are not. Undersea infrastructures are in the deep ocean and on or under the seabed for various purposes.

How does the maritime fight on the ocean surface change when there must be a comparable fight for the deep ocean? In the maritime environment, it is long past time for the U.S. Navy to be mindful of and develop capabilities that account for effects in, from, and into the deep ocean, including effects on the ocean floor. Cross-domain warfighting demands this kind of completeness and specificity. As the Army had to learn about and embrace the air domain for its Air-Land battle in the 1980s, the Navy must do the same with the deep ocean for maritime warfare today and for the future.

However, the current frameworks of mine warfare, undersea warfare, and anti-submarine warfare as practiced by the Navy today are by no means sufficient to even deny the deep ocean to an adversary let alone control the deep ocean.  To “own” a domain, a force must have the capability to sense and understand what is in and what is happening in that domain. The force must also have the capability to act in a timely manner throughout that domain.

Today, the Navy and many nations around the world have radars and other sensors that can detect, track, and classify most of anything and everything that exists and happens in the atmosphere from the surface of the ocean and land up to an altitude of 90,000 feet altitude or higher, even into outer space. The Navy and many nations also have weapons – on the surface and on land, and in the air – that can act anywhere within the atmosphere. Some nations even have weapons that can act in the atmosphere from below the ocean surface. In short, with regard to the air domain, relevant maritime capabilities abound, including  fixed or mobile, unmanned or manned, precise or area. Naval forces can readily affect the air domain with capabilities that can cover the entire atmosphere.

But the same cannot be said for the deep ocean. Figure 1 below is based on information drawn from unclassified sources. Consider this depiction of the undersea in comparison with the air domain. Notice that there is a lot of light blue space – space where the Navy apparently does not have any capability to sense, understand, and act. The Navy’s capability to effect in, from, and into the deep ocean is at best extremely limited, but for the most part non-existent. Capabilities specifically relative to the seabed are even less, and with the Navy’s mine countermeasures capabilities also being very limited. What systems does the Navy have to detect unmanned underwater vehicles at very deep depths? What systems does the Navy have to surveil large ocean areas and the resident seabed infrastructure? What systems does the Navy have to act, defend, or attack, in the deep ocean?

Figure 1 – The Deep Ocean

Arguably, the Navy has built an approach to maritime warfighting that dismisses the deep ocean, and done so based on the assumption that dominating the top 3,000 feet of the waterspace is sufficient to dominating the entire waterspace – ocean floor to ocean surface. Undersea infrastructure is presumably safe and protected because the ceiling over it is locked up.

However, the force must have the capabilities to sense, understand, and act in the deep ocean.

While the assumption for dominating the deep ocean by dominating the ceiling may have been useful in the past, it clearly is no longer valid. In the past, it was very expensive to do anything in the deep ocean. The technology was not readily available, residing only in the hands of two or three nations or big oil companies. This no longer holds true. The cost of undersea technology for even the deepest known parts of the ocean has dropped dramatically, and also widely proliferated. If one has a couple hundred million dollars or maybe a billion dollars, they can sense, understand, and act in the deep ocean without any help from a nation or military. Unlike the U.S. government-funded search for the SS Titanic by Robert Ballard, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen independently found USS Indianapolis in over 15,000 feet of water in the Philippine Sea. The capabilities to sense, understand, and act in the deep ocean are available to anyone with a reasonable amount of money to buy them.

Figure 1 is misleading in one perspective. At the level of scale in figure 1, the ocean floor looks flat and smooth. If something is placed on the ocean bottom, such as a towed payload module, a logistics cache, sensors, or a weapon system, could it be easily found?

Figure 2 is a picture of survey results from the vicinity of the Diamantina Trench approximately 700 miles west of Perth, Australia in the Indian Ocean. The red line over the undersea mountain is about 17 miles in length. The water depth on the red line varies from 13,800 feet to 9,500 feet as shown on the right.4

Figure 2 – Diamantina Trench

Consider figure 3. The red line is just under three miles in length. The depth variation ranges from 12,100 feet to 11,900 feet.5 These figures provide examples of evidence that the abyssal is not featureless. The assumption of a flat and smooth ocean floor is simply wrong, and severely understates the challenge of sensing and acting in the deep sea.

Figure 3 – A Closer View in the Diamantina Trench

How hard would it be to find a standard-sized shipping container (8ft x 8ft x 20ft or even 40ft) on this floor? It could be incredibly difficult, requiring days or weeks or even months with many survey vehicles, especially if the area had not been previously surveyed. This is a lesson the U. S. Navy learned in the Cold War and has long since forgotten from its “Q routes” for port access. And it would be harder still if one were purposefully trying to hide whatever they placed on the ocean floor, such as in the pockmarks of figure 3.

Based on reported results from a two-year search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH-370, approximately 1.8 million square miles of the ocean floor were searched and mapped to a horizontal resolution on the order of 100 meters and vertical resolution of less than one meter.6 Yet, the plane remains unlocated.

Hiding things on the seabed is fairly easy, while finding things on the seabed is incredibly difficult. Unless one is looking all the time, and has an accurate baseline from which to start the search and compare the results, sensing in the deep sea is significant challenge. The next consideration is that of the matter of scale of the geographic area and what resides within it. This is what makes numbers matter.

Figure 4 provides a view of the Gulf of Mexico covering about 600,000 square miles in area and with waters as deep as 14,000 feet. There are about 3,500 platforms and rigs, and approximately 43,000 miles of pipeline spread across the Gulf.

Figure 4. – The Gulf of Mexico (National Geographic)

Of note, the global economy and worldwide demands for energy have caused the emergence of a strategic asymmetry exemplified by this figure. China gets most of its energy imports by surface shipping which is vulnerable to traditional anti-shipping campaigns. The U. S. gets much of its energy from undersea systems in the Gulf of Mexico. While immune from anti-shipping, this infrastructure is vulnerable to seabed attack. In late 2017, the Mexican government leased part of their Gulf of Mexico Exclusive Economic Zone seafloor to the Chinese for oil exploration.

Figure 5 provides a depiction of global undersea communication cables with some 300 cables and about 550,000 miles of cabling.

Figure 5 – Global Undersea Telecommunications Cables

Figure 6 provides a view of the South China Sea near Natuna Besar. This area is about 1.35 million square miles with waters as deep as 8,500 feet. Recall that in the two-year search for Malaysian Air flight MH 370 they surveyed only 1.8 million square miles, and did so in a militarily-benign environment. 

Figure 6 – The South China Sea

The deep ocean demands that a maritime force be capable of surveilling and acting in and over large geographic areas just like the ocean surface above it. Undersea infrastructure is already dispersed throughout those large areas. In addition, because the components of undersea infrastructure are finite in size, the deep ocean also demands that a maritime force be capable of surveilling and acting in discrete places. While it is arguable that defense in the deep ocean is a wide-area challenge and offense is a discrete challenge, the deep ocean demands that a maritime force be capable of doing both as part of the maritime battle. Therefore, the deep ocean presents an “area” challenge and a “point” challenge simultaneously, and both must be addressed by maritime forces.

In addition, the size of the area and the number of points of interest means that a dozen UUVs or a couple of nuclear submarines are not in any way sufficient to address the maritime warfighting challenge of defending the deep ocean and undersea infrastructure of this scale. Furthermore, the situation is exacerbated by systems and vehicles in the deep ocean above the seabed. The threat is not a few, large, manned platforms, but many small unmanned vehicles and weapons.

The historical demarcation among torpedoes, mines, and vehicles is no longer productive except maybe for purposes of international law and OPNAV programmatics. Operationally and tactically, the differentiation is arbitrary and a distraction from operational thinking. The Navy should be talking in terms of unmanned systems – some armed or weaponized, and some not; some mobile and some not; some intelligent and some not. Torpedoes can easily become mobile, armed UUVs with limited intelligence. Mines can also become mobile or fixed UUVs with very limited intelligence.

In the course of the author’s research and in research conducted by the CNO SSG, there were no situations or considerations where reclassifying mines and torpedoes as UUVs was problematic with regard to envisioning war at sea. Doing so eliminated a significant tactical and operational seam and opened up operational thinking. The systems for the detection and neutralization of UUVs are the same as those needed to detect and neutralize torpedoes and mines, and the same for surveilling or attacking undersea infrastructure.

Conclusion

Ultimately, understanding the deep ocean and warfare in the deep ocean is a matter of numbers and time – requiring plenty of sensors, and plenty of time. Part Two will present three warfighting concepts drawn from the body of work done by the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) that would give the Navy capabilities for the deep sea battlespace.

Professor William G. Glenney, IV, is a researcher in the Institute for Future Warfare Studies at the U. S. Naval War College.

The views presented here are personal and do not reflect official positions of the Naval War College, DON or DOD.

References 

1. This article is based on the author’s remarks given at the Naval Postgraduate School Warfare Innovation Continuum Workshop on 19 September 2018. All information and conclusions are based entirely on unclassified information.

2. See for example Rishi Sunak, MP, Undersea Cables:  Indispensable, Insecure, Policy Exchange (2017, London, UK);  Morgan Chalfant and Olivia Beavers, “Spotlight Falls on Russian Threat to Undersea Cables”, The Hill, 17 June 2018 accessed at http://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/392577-spotlight-falls-on-russian-threat-to-undersea-cables;  Victor Abramowicz, “Moscow’s other navy”, The Interpreter, 21 June 2018 accessed at https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/moscows-other-navy?utm_source=RC+Defense+Morning+Recon&utm_campaign=314b587fab-EMAIL;  Stephen Chen, “Beijing plans an AI Atlantis for the South China Sea – without a human in sight”, South China Morning Post, 26 November 2018 accessed at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/2174738/beijing-plans-ai-atlantis-south-china-sea-without-human-sight;  and Asia Times Staff, “Taiwan undersea cables ‘priority targets’ by PLA in war”, Asia Times, 6 December 2017 accessed at http://www.atimes.com/article/taiwan-undersea-cables-priority-targets-pla-war.

3. Based on unclassified sources, manned nuclear submarines can operate to water depth of 1,000-1,500 feet, manned diesel submarines somewhat shallower, and existing undersea weapons to depths approaching 3,000 feet.

4. Kim Picard, et. al., “Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 search data reveal geomorphology and seafloor processes in the remote southeast Indian Ocean,” Marine Geology 395 (2018) 301-319, pg 316.

5. Kim Picard, et. al., “Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 search data reveal geomorphology and seafloor processes in the remote southeast Indian Ocean,” Marine Geology 395 (2018) 301-319, pg 317.

6. Kim Picard, Walter Smith, Maggie Tran, Justy Siwabessy and Paul Kennedy, “Increased-resolution Bathymetry in the Southeast Indian Ocean”, Hydro International, https://www.hydro-international.com/content/article/increased-resolution-bathymetry-in-the-southeast-indian-ocean, accessed 13 December 2017.

Featured Image: Deep Discoverer, a remotely operated vehicle, explores a cultural heritage site during Dive 02 of the Gulf of Mexico 2018 expedition. (Image courtesy of the NOAA/OER)

Spasibo

Fiction Topic Week

By Evan D’Alessandro

The containers arrived at Norfolk early in the morning, with the snow a powdered sugar-like dusting on the trucks as they moved through the port. The darkness failed to hide their arrival from the Russians watching them through the hijacked security cameras. Another shipment in the cold weather of nondescript containers, their true propose not yet revealed. The containers had traveled for 36 hours to arrive on time and be loaded onto the requisitioned container ship MV Lt. Lyle J. Bouck. The watching Russians marked the containers as convoy supplies without a second thought, oblivious to what they had just missed.

Days before the containers were moved an AI had considered each ship’s cargo carefully. It speed, tonnage, fuel, acoustic signature, and survivability from a number of threats were all variables in the calculation. Ultimately, the AI decided that this convoy was not worth protecting. The cargo was all non-personnel, and the ships were old and only the commander’s ship was manned. The Navy had been stretched thin even with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Coast Guard ships that had been pressed into convoy duty. No ships would be assigned to protect them. They would be listed as unprotected, having to use the winter storms to shield themselves from satellites, as they attempted to dash across the Atlantic, praying for the best.

Vasily Sokolov read the report gleaned from a backdoor purchased off the Dark Web, checked the box for ‘no escort’ and moved on. He scrolled through the supply manifest slowly and then pulled up the satellite imagery for the ships, a satellite composite only four hours old.  The only visible armaments on the ships was the M109 Paladin, undoubtedly with its hypervelocity projectiles for air and missile defense. It sat atop a stack of red and blue containers, moored to them by large metallic brackets. A bulky cable snaked its way back to the superstructure of the ship, terminating in its dark underbelly. Vasily checked the ‘3D’ box and turned the ship, revealing a short ugly dome perched atop the superstructure, the predictive software pulling from known ship plans and previous satellite imagery. Quickly checking the projected dimensions on the dome against shipment records, Vasily confirmed that it contained the fire control radar that had been bolted on by techs the day before. With three of the ships in the convoy carrying a Paladin, it was hoped there would be some protection from hypersonic missiles. Vasily chuckled, as if missiles would be wasted on these low-value ships. A quick look at the aft decks of the ships confirmed that each was carrying two ‘Grasshoppers,’ the ASW drone that the Americans used. As he moused his way through the other ships, he could see Paladins emplaced onboard the other convoy ships, and prefabricated hangers being assembled on the back decks for the Grasshoppers. The tiny dots of technicians on his computer screen would be working through the night to get them finished in time to depart on their dangerous voyage.

The convoy sailed at 0800, picking up a low-pressure front that the predictive weather AI’s expected to turn to rain in the next 16 hours. The winter storms of the Atlantic were notorious, but the front seemed destined only for continual, dismal rain. The Grasshoppers went to work immediately, making sure that they weren’t picking up a tail when they exited the anti-drone net across the mouth of the harbor. The cycle of one hour on, two hours charging would continue as long as the weather permitted.

At 2100, in the darkness of the cloudy night, the containers were opened. Large cylinders were wheeled out and quickly put underneath the superstructure and covered in canvas. In the morning, they would be unseen by any satellite that managed to catch the convoy, and the Russians would be none the wiser. The convoy’s secret weapon, two Mk. 2 Autonomous Underwater Combat Vehicles (AUCVs) were prepared for battle. As their last restraint was being tightened the rain began, cloaking the convoy in its misty hold; the convoy would hide under this front for the rest of its journey.

Vasily Sokolov looked at the computer screen and leaned back. He stifled a yawn, and longed to go back to bed, but, no, there was a war going on, and his job needed to be done. His eyes ran down to the last box simply titled ‘Recommendations.’ Once again he paused, the convoy was equipped to deal with hypersonics, but not torpedo carriers, so that’s what he would recommend. One should be enough for an unarmed convoy, no, two for safety. Better safe than sorry his father had always said. Give them torpedo interceptors? No, the convoy wouldn’t be able to fight back, they only had 12 Grasshoppers. Better to load as many torpedoes as possible. His mind made up, Vasily Sokolov cracked his fingers and began to type.

The rain had begun to lessen in the middle of the Atlantic as the Captain arrived on the bridge from her all too short sleep. The USNR had called her up, and assigned her to what she considered to be little more than a oversized bathtub with propellers. The Captain’s voice echoed out across the bridge as she put on her VR display. “What does the report say?” The Tech looked out at the whitecaped waves as the threat report started to print out.

“Report for 41°37’41.5″N 31°33’22.5″W. Two Type 34 Autonomous Torpedo Carriers detected, no other threats at this time.”

 “Two Mother Hens” the Tech called out, “both are probably carrying a full load of eggs, no interceptors, the Autonomous Acoustic Monitoring AI predicts them to be here, but no one’s sure.” The Captain grumbled, she had never been comfortable with the idea of the football-sized drones floating through the water replicating SOSUS, but it was undoubtedly effective. “They went silent 4 or 5 hours ago, switched over to electric,” the Tech continued. “Any idea on what type of eggs?” the Captain asked with her light southern drawl. “Nope, the report has nothing on the torps,” the Tech replied wearily once again staring back out at the waves. The captain sighed as she stripped off the VR display, and went off to make up for her lack of coffee. For a brief moment her eyes gazed across the overcast rain and the Grasshoppers doing their job. There was nothing else she could do.

Ten miles out the Mother Hens were studying the acoustic signatures of the convoy. The onboard AI’s knew everything that Russian Naval Intelligence had gleaned about the convoy and were locked in deliberations. After a few minutes, they decided on a simultaneous pincer movement from the front and back as their plan of attack, and both slowly set off to get into attack position.

Grasshopper 4 was completing a set of passive dips on the north side of the convoy as droplets of rain pinged off its aluminum body. It had just popped up and moved 300 feet further north, covering the left flank of the convoy, and lowered its sonar when something unexpected happened. Imperceptible to the human ear, but detectable to the computer was a slight rumble. The computer reached a decision in seconds, deciding to stay put in the cold, grey rain, and requested Grasshopper 7 to immediately move into the area. Onboard the Bouck, a track popped up on the freshly-caffeinated Captain’s VR display, simply reading ‘possible threat.’ Beneath the waves of the Atlantic, the Mother Hen continued on its way oblivious to the threat above. Grasshopper 4 asked for permission to go to active sonar but the Captain denied it as  Grasshopper 7 sped its way towards Grasshopper 4, and the Bouck’s own Grasshopper 9 lifted off. The active could wait. As Grasshopper 4 waited it compared the rumble to previously recorded signatures in the Grasshoppers’ database, the VR display showing a rapidly increasing chance that the contact was a Mother Hen.  Calmly, the Captain watched the hostile track as the probability reached 60 percent, and then gave the order to fire.

Across the waves, Grasshopper 4 dropped the lower part of its body. The dull-grey, square casing discarded from the torpedo as it fell into the black water below, and the torpedo immediately went active. The Mother Hen detected the crash of debris ahead, and within milliseconds of hearing the first ‘ping,’ let off its own countermeasures. On the Bouck’s bridge the Captain looked on at the command map. Three of the four-noisemaker patterns were known, having been stolen from Russian firms under cyber espionage, and the torpedo immediately ignored them. The fourth noisemaker was unknown, and the Captain watched as the torpedo waivered for a heart-stopping second, then turned to chase the first Mother Hen.

The first Mother Hen had made it far too close to the convoy, nearly guaranteeing a hit with its torpedoes. The onboard AI considered trying to run but discarded the idea instantly. With an air of sadness, the first Mother Hen turned in towards the convoy and the oncoming torpedo, and unceremoniously fired all of its ‘eggs.’  A wave of  torpedoes lanced out in a spread: the Hen’s final gamble. As the torpedoes left, the two canisters on the Mother Hen’s back were blown upwards in a silver stream of bubbles towards the surface. One immediately broadcast the position of the convoy and the fate of the doomed Mother Hen. The second one popped out, and with an eruption of fire flew after Grasshopper 4. With little formality the missile closed, as Grasshopper 4 tried to hug the dark ocean for safety, before being turned into a bright ball of flame. The sorrow that was felt upon the loss of Grasshopper 4 was immediately overshadowed by the churning sea that signaled the death of the Mother Hen. Grasshopper 7 dipped into the cold waters and went active, ensuring that the Mother Hen was not playing dead. No return on the sonar. A confirmed kill.

Onboard the Bouck, the VR display changed to ‘threat destroyed.’ On the bridge, the Captain had already ordered a hard turn to starboard, turning parallel to the torpedoes and minimizing the convoy’s cross section. With the threat of incoming torpedoes and the possibility of a second Hen, the Captain unveiled her trump card. With an unceremonious crash into the Atlantic, the two carefully hidden Mk. 2 AUCV’s dropped into the waves, their long grey forms diving into the depths. All available Grasshoppers simultaneously rose from their charging ports in a frenzy of activity, as they moved across the convoy seeking out their enemies.

One of the Mk. 2’s now sat underneath the hull of the Bouck, trying to hide the fact that two were now in the water. The other Mk.2 assessed the incoming torpedo spread. The Mk.2’s AI pulled information from Grasshopper 7 and its own sensors, overlaying the convoy’s turn, and projecting forward. Three threats, the Mk.2 AI decided, and it dived and launched. Six ‘Silverfish’ torpedo interceptors raced out from the Mk. 2, closing in on the inbound torpedoes. The Captain looked on from the bridge. By the way the Mother Hen’s torpedoes were dodging, it was obvious they were outdated; clearly the Russians had underestimated the convoy’s defenses.

The Silverfish jabbered the whole way there, determining the Mother Hen’s torpedoes’ type and patterns. The first torpedo went left when it should have gone right, meeting its end in a mess of debris. The second torpedo dodged the first Silverfish, slipping through by diving at just the proper time, only to be met by the second Silverfish. The third torpedo dodged left, then right, the first Silverfish missing by mere inches, shortly followed by the second Silverfish mistaking a feint for a move and shooting underneath the torpedo.

The Mk. 2 looked on impassively, quickly calculating the chance of hitting the third torpedo, and launched a further three Silverfish. The torpedo was within 1000 feet and closing as the Silverfish streaked towards it, separated by mere seconds. The torpedo danced left, right, up, and down in an attempt to throw off the Silverfish gaining on it. But in the end it was not successful, the second Silverfish tearing its engines to pieces leaving it dead in the water. The Captain looked up coolly from the command map, only to hear klaxons blare.

The second Mother Hen had made it much closer to the convoy, slipping in through the convoy’s baffles while they were distracted, and finding itself a wolf among a flock of sheep. Sitting under the hull of one of its prey, it reached its decision and cut its engines, drifting slowly back, unseen in the darkness of the Atlantic.

The Captain sat up in shock as the VR display squealed an alarm, ‘FISH IN THE WATER! FISH IN THE WATER!’ and twisted around to see the tracks of four torpedoes from the second Mother Hen heading towards the Bouck and her sister ship the Sgt. William L. Slape. Behind her the Mk. 2 that had dealt with the initial torpedo barrage spit out the last of its 12 Silverfish at the new incoming wave, hoping that the interceptors would overtake the torpedoes before they hit. A Grasshopper also dropped down behind the convoy and went active, trying to acquire the threat. Within a second, another barrage of torpedoes from the second Mother Hen headed towards two other ships in the convoy, traveling underneath the water, preparing to pop up and hit the ship’s hulls perpendicularly.

The Captain waved her hand and the VR display stopped its alarms and calmly showed the tracks towards her convoy. Below her the fresh Mk. 2 was considering its options. It could try to destroy the torpedoes targeting the Bouck and the Slape, or it could go after the torpedoes targeting the ships farther forward. Grasshopper 5 noticed a lack of sound as one of the torpedoes targeting the Bouck stopped accelerating; it was now unguided and slowing as its propeller stopped, the watertight seals failing and the engine being swamped. The tracks of the Silverfish from the first Mk. 2 glowed green on the VR display, but it was more than clear that they would not stop the torpedoes in time.

The fresh Mk. 2 made its decision, and started to flip 180 degrees. Halfway through its turn it launched all 12 of its onboard Silverfish towardsthe torpedoes planning to pop-up, and brought its motors onto full. The Captain watched as her Mk. 2 launched its Silverfish, and her VR display show a 94 percent kill chance on the torpedoes targeting the ships farther down the line. The fresh Mk. 2 dropped both its torpedoes on the now acquired Mother Hen and pushed its engines to full, accelerating towards the torpedo.

The VR display shuddered as the rear end of the Bouck was lifted six inches from the water and its rear decks were covered in a spray as the Mk.2 met the oncoming torpedo. The torpedo tried to fight until the end, but the Mk. 2 imposed its bulk between the torpedo and the Bouck. An explosion was seen in the distance, the death of the second Mother Hen that had attacked. There was a second of calm then the Slape lifted several feet in the air as she too was hit. Two great spouts of water shot up from the side of the Slape as the torpedoes impacted just below the waterline. The VR display made an all-clear noise as the Silverfish intercepted and destroyed the remaining torpedoes, overtaking them and shattering them into a thousand pieces. Damage reports flooded in from the dying Slape. Like stricken rats, the Slape’s Grasshoppers, recharging from their last shift, fled the ship as it filled with water quickly shuttling to open charging ports on other convoy ships. The VR display marked the Slape as a loss, with a bright red outline, as the Grasshoppers buzzed, diligently searching for more enemies.

Behind the convoy a beacon popped up transmitting the location and death of the second Mother Hen. The Captain watched its progress as the noise of the fight slowly faded from her ears. Slowly the Mother Hen’s beacon was swallowed into the Atlantic, along with the shattered wreck of the Slape. The rain slowly picked back up in intensity as it covered the convoy with its grey cloak.

Vasily looked once more at his computer screen as it displayed the fate of the Mother Hens. “Spasibo”, he said to himself as a wry smile grew on his face, “Thank you for showing me your countermeasures.” He perched a cigarette between his smiling lips, reached out, and began to type, “To all AI Anti-Shipping Deployments….”

Evan D’Alessandro is a student at Luther College studying astrobiology, data science, and international relations. He enjoys military history and policy debate, and aspires to become a naval intelligence officer in the future. He can be contacted at evan.dalessandro@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Torpedo Exexutor, concept art by Markus Biegholdt, 3D art by Miroslaw Cichon.