Tag Archives: unmanned

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

Call for Articles: Unmanned Systems Program Office Launches CIMSEC Topic Week

Submissions Due: April 30, 2019
Week Dates: May 6–May 10, 2019

Article Length: 1000-3500 words
Submit to: Nextwar@cimsec.org

By CAPT Pete Small, Program Manager, Unmanned Maritime Systems

The U.S. Navy is committed to the expedited development, procurement, and operational fielding of “families” of unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) and unmanned surface vessels (USVs). CNO Adm. John Richardson’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (Version 2.0) explicitly calls for the delivery of new types of USVs and UUVs as rapidly as possible.

My office now manages more than a dozen separate efforts across the UUV and USV domains, and that number continues to increase. The Navy’s commitment to unmanned systems is strongly reinforced in the service’s FY2020 budget with the launching of a new high-priority program and key component of the Future Surface Combatant Force — the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV) — along with the funding required to ensure the program moves as rapidly as possible through the acquisition process. This effort is closely aligned with the Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel (MUSV) rapid prototyping program started in FY19. Mine Countermeasures USV (MCM USV) efforts have several key milestones in FY19 with Milestone C and low-rate initial production of the minesweeping variant and the start of minehunting integration efforts.

U.S. Navy’s unmanned surface vessels systems vision. (NAVSEA Image)

On the UUV side, the ORCA Extra Large UUV (XLUUV) program has commenced the fabrication of five systems that are expected to begin testing in late 2020. The Snakehead submarine-launched Large Displacement UUV (LDUUV) is wrapping up detailed design and an operational prototype will be ready for Fleet experimentation by 2021. Several medium UUV programs continue in development, production, and deployment including Mark 18, Razorback, and Knifefish. So these new and different systems are coming online relatively quickly.

Supporting the established families of UUVs and USVs are a number of Core Technology standardization efforts in the areas of battery technology, autonomy architecture, command and control, and machinery control. While these architecture frameworks have stabilized and schedules have been established, there are still a host of logistical and sustainability issues that the Navy must work through. Most of these unmanned platforms do not immediately align with long-established support frameworks for surface ships and submarines. These are critical issues and will impact the operational viability of both UUVs and USVs if they are not fully evaluated and thought through before these systems join the Fleet.

Here are some of the questions we are seeking to more fully understand for the long-term sustainment and support of UUVs and USVs:

  • Where should the future “fleets” of UUVs and USVs be based or distributed?
  • What infrastructure is required?
  • How or where will these systems be forward deployed?
  • What sort of transportation infrastructure is required?
  • What is the manning scheme required to support unmanned systems?
  • How and where will these unique systems be tested and evaluated?
  • How do we test endurance, autonomy, and reliability?
  • What new policies or changes to existing policies are required?
  • How will these systems be supported?
  • What new training infrastructure is required?

To help jumpstart new thinking and address these questions and many others we have yet to consider, my office is partnering with the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) to launch a Special Topic Week series to solicit ideas and solutions. We are looking for bold suggestions and innovative approaches. Unmanned systems are clearly a growing part of the future Navy. We need to think now about the changes these systems will bring and ensure their introduction allows their capabilities to be exploited to the fullest.

CAPT Pete Small was commissioned in 1995 from the NROTC at the University of Virginia where he earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering. He earned a Master of Science Degree in Operations Research in 2002 from Columbia University, and a Master of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Naval Engineer Degree in 2005 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently serving as Program Manager PMS 406, Unmanned Maritime Systems. 

Featured Image: Common Unmanned Surface Vessel (CUSV) intended to eventually serve as the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS) unmanned patrol boat. (Textron photo)

Unmanned Mission Command, Pt. 2

By Tim McGeehan

The following two-part series discusses the command and control of future autonomous systems. Part 1 describes how we have arrived at the current tendency towards detailed control. Part 2 proposes how to refocus on mission command.

Adjusting Course

Today’s commanders are accustomed to operating in permissive environments and have grown addicted to the connectivity that makes detailed control possible. This is emerging as a major vulnerability. For example, while the surface Navy’s concept of “distributed lethality” will increase the complexity of the detection and targeting problems presented to adversaries, it will also increase the complexity of its own command and control. Even in a relatively uncontested environment, tightly coordinating widely dispersed forces will not be a trivial undertaking. This will tend toward lengthening decision cycles, at a time when the emphasis is on shortening them.1 How will the Navy execute operations in a future Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) scenario, where every domain is contested (including the EM spectrum and cyberspace) and every fraction of a second counts? 

The Navy must “rediscover” and fully embrace mission command now, to both address current vulnerabilities as well as unleash the future potential of autonomous systems. These systems offer increased precision, faster reaction times, longer endurance, and greater range, but these advantages may not be realized if the approach to command and control remains unchanged. For starters, to prepare for future environments where data links cannot be taken for granted, commanders must be prepared to give all subordinates, human and machine, wide latitude to operate, which is only afforded by mission command. Many systems will progress from a man “in” the loop (with the person integral to the functioning), to a man “on” the loop (where the person oversees the system and executes command by negation), and then to complete autonomy. In the future, fully autonomous systems may collaborate with one another across a given echelon and solve problems based on the parameters communicated to them as commander’s intent (swarms would fall into this category). However, it may go even further. Mission command calls for adaptable leaders at every level; what if at some level the leaders are no longer people but machines? It is not hard to imagine a forward deployed autonomous system tasking its own subordinates (fellow machines), particularly in scenarios where there is no available bandwidth to allow backhaul communications or enable detailed control from afar. In these cases, mission command will not just be the preferred option, it will be the only option. This reliance on mission command may be seen as a cultural shift, but in reality, it is a return to the Navy’s cultural roots.

Back to Basics

Culturally, the Navy should be well-suited to embrace the mission command model to employ autonomous systems. Traditionally once a ship passed over the horizon there was little if any communication for extended periods of time due to technological limitations. This led to a culture of mission command: captains were given basic orders and an overall intent; the rest was up to them. Indeed, captains might act as ambassadors and conduct diplomacy and other business on behalf of the government in remote areas with little direct guidance.2 John Paul Jones himself stated that “it often happens that sudden emergencies in foreign waters make him [the Naval Officer] the diplomatic as well as the military representative of his country, and in such cases he may have to act without opportunity of consulting his civic or ministerial superiors at home, and such action may easily involve the portentous issue of peace or war between great powers.”3  This is not to advocate that autonomous systems will participate in diplomatic functions, but it does illustrate the longstanding Navy precedent for autonomy of subordinate units.

Another factor in support of the Navy favoring mission command is that the physics of the operating environment may demand it. For example, the physical properties of the undersea domain prohibit direct, routine, high-bandwidth communication with submerged platforms. This is the case with submarines and is being applied to UUVs by extension. This has led to extensive development of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) vice remotely operated ones; AUVs clearly favor mission command.

Finally, the Navy’s culture of decentralized command is the backbone of the Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) construct. CWC is essentially an expression of mission command. Just as technology (the telegraph cable, wireless, and global satellite communication) has afforded the means of detailed control and micromanagement, it has also increased the speed of warfighting, necessitating decentralized execution. Command by negation is the foundation of CWC, and has been ingrained in the Navy’s officer corps for decades. Extending this mindset to autonomous systems will be key to realizing their full capabilities.

Training Commanders

This begs the question: how does one train senior commanders who rose through the ranks during the age of continuous connectivity to thrive in a world of autonomous systems where detailed control is not an option? For a start, they could adopt the mindset of General Norman Schwarzkopf, who described how hard it was to resist interfering with his subordinates:

“I desperately wanted to do something, anything, other than wait, yet the best thing I could do was stay out of the way. If I pestered my generals I’d distract them:  I knew as well as anyone that commanders on the battlefield have more important things to worry about than keeping higher headquarters informed…”4

That said, even while restraining himself, at the height of OPERATION DESERT STORM, his U.S. Central Command used more than 700,000 telephone calls and 152,000 radio messages per day to coordinate the actions of their subordinate forces. In contrast, during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Nelson used only three general tactical flag-hoist signals to maneuver the entire British fleet.5

Commanders must learn to be satisfied with the ambiguity inherent in mission command. They must become comfortable clearly communicating their intent and mission requirements, whether tasking people or autonomous systems. Again, there isn’t a choice; the Navy’s adversaries are investing in A2/AD capabilities that explicitly target the means that make detailed control possible. Furthermore, the ambiguity and complexity of today’s operating environments prohibit “a priori” composition of complete and perfect instructions.

Placing commanders into increasingly complex and ambiguous situations during training will push them toward mission command, where they will have to trust subordinates closer to the edge who will be able to execute based on commander’s intent and their own initiative. General Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed training that presented commanders with fleeting opportunities and rewarding those who seized them in order to encourage commanders to act in the face of uncertainty.

Familiarization training with autonomous systems could take place in large part via simulation, where commanders interact with the actual algorithms and rehearse at a fraction of the cost of executing a real-world exercise. In this setting, commanders could practice giving mission type orders and translating them for machine understanding. They could employ their systems to failure, analyze where they went wrong, and learn to adjust their level of supervision via multiple iterations. This training wouldn’t be just a one-way evolution; the algorithms would also learn about their commander’s preferences and thought process by finding patterns in their actions and thresholds for their decisions. Through this process, the autonomous system would understand even more about commander’s intent should it need to act alone in the future. If the autonomous system will be in a position to task its own robotic subordinates, that algorithm would be demonstrated so the commander understands how the system may act (which will have incorporated what it has learned about how its commander commands).

With this in mind, while it may seem trivial, consideration must be made for the fact that future autonomous systems may have a detailed algorithmic model of their commander’s thought process, “understand” his intent, and “know” at least a piece of “the big picture.” As such, in the future these systems cannot simply be considered disposable assets performing the dumb, dirty, dangerous work that exempt a human from having to go in harm’s way. They will require significant anti-tamper capabilities to prevent an adversary from extracting or downloading this valuable information if they are somehow taken or recovered by the enemy. Perhaps they could even be armed with algorithms to “resist” exploitation or give misleading information. 

The Way Ahead

Above all, commanders will need to establish the same trust and confidence in autonomous systems that they have in manned systems and human operators.6 Commanders trust manned systems, even though they are far from infallible. This came to international attention with the airstrike on the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital operating in Kunduz, Afghanistan. As this event illustrated, commanders must acknowledge the potential for human error, put mitigation measures in place where they can, and then accept a certain amount of risk. In the future, advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence will yield algorithms that far exceed human processing capabilities. Autonomous systems will be able to sense, process, coordinate, and act faster than their human counterparts. However, trust in these systems will only come from time and experience, and the way to secure that is to mainstream autonomous systems into exercises. Initially these opportunities should be carefully planned and executed, not just added in as an afterthought. For example, including autonomous systems in a particular Fleet Battle Experiment solely to check a box that they were used raises the potential for negative training, where the observers see the technology fail due to ill-conceived employment. As there may be limited opportunities to “win over” the officer corps, this must be avoided. Successfully demonstrating the capabilities (and the legitimate limitations) of autonomous systems is critical. Increased use over time will ensure maximum exposure to future commanders, and will be key to widespread adoption and full utilization.  

The Navy must return to its roots and rediscover mission command in order to fully leverage the potential of autonomous systems. While it may make commanders uncomfortable, it has deep roots in historic practice and is a logical extension of existing doctrine. Former General Dempsey wrote that mission command “must pervade the force and drive leader development, organizational design and inform material acquisitions.”Taking this to heart and applying it across the board will have profound and lasting impacts as the Navy sails into the era of autonomous systems.

Tim McGeehan is a U.S. Navy Officer currently serving in Washington. 

The ideas presented are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.

References

[1] Dmitry Filipoff, Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War, CIMSEC, January 4, 2016, http://cimsec.org/distributed-lethality-and-concepts-of-future-war/20831

[2] Naval Doctrine Publication 6: Naval Command and Control, 1995, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a304321.pdf, p. 9      

[3] Connell, Royal W. and William P. Mack, Naval Customs, Ceremonies, and Traditions, 1980, p. 355.

[4] Schwartzkopf, Norman, It Doesn’t Take a Hero:  The Autobiography of General Norman Schwartzkopf, 1992, p.523

[5] Ibid 2, p. 4

[6] Greg Smith, Trusting Autonomous Systems: It’s More Than Technology, CIMSEC, September 18, 2015, http://cimsec.org/trusting-autonomous-systems-its-more-than-technology/18908     

[7] Martin Dempsey, Mission Command White Paper, April 3, 2012, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/concepts/white_papers/cjcs_wp_missioncommand.pdf

Featured Image: SOUTH CHINA SEA (April 30, 2017) Sailors assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 23 run tests on the the MQ-8B Firescout, an unmanned aerial vehicle, aboard littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Leigh Ellis/Released)

Chinese UAV Development and Implications for Joint Operations

By Brandon Hughes

Drone Diplomacy

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

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

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

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

Deployment

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

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

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

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

Command Guidance

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

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

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

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

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

Interoperability

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

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

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

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

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

Functionality 

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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