Category Archives: Drones

Development, testing, deployment, and use of drones.

Create an Unmanned Experimental Squadron and Learning System

Unmanned Maritime Systems Topic Week

By Dustin League and LCDR Daniel Justice


The U.S. Navy faces a future where large portions of its fleet will be composed of non-traditional assets. Specifically, unmanned systems comprise a significant portion of the CNO’s “key platforms and payloads” which the Navy seeks to acquire.1 That direction from the top is further born out in the Navy’s most recent shipbuilding plan which includes 10 large unmanned surface vessels and 191 unmanned undersea vehicles of various sizes. These numbers contrast with the total of 55 “battle force ships” planned to be built over the same period.2 Tonnage obviously also plays a role in this type of comparison, but by sheer numbers the Navy is moving toward unmanned vice manned platforms. The Navy must think past the engineering hurdles and determine how to effectively employ these new assets. To do so, we propose that the Navy revisit history and revitalize the complex learning system it used to exploit an earlier set of new capabilities prior to World War II. Specifically, we call for the Navy to accelerating standing up a dedicated experimental squadron with the purpose of exploring advanced tactics for employing unmanned systems in a series of tactically challenging, objective-based exercises.      

The Precedent

Unmanned systems create new tactical and operational opportunities for the U.S. Navy and adversaries. But this is not the first time in the Navy’s history where technological advances have called into question old operating patterns. The Navy has come through similar transitions, with varying levels of success. Sometimes the Navy stayed ahead of transitions, taking advantage of technology before war (effectively employing naval air power) and sometimes it learned more slowly and at greater cost (for example, night-time battles in the Solomon Islands). What allowed the Navy to successfully adapt in these circumstances – whether fast or slow – was, as Trent Hone discusses in his book Learning War, its complex learning system.

Hone identifies the basic four-part pattern the Navy employed between 1898-1945 to adapt its tactics and doctrine and incorporate a host of new technologies:

  • Identify the problem
  • Establish constraints
  • Encourage parallel experimentation
  • Exploit the best-fitting solution3

These components formed a complex system that allowed the Navy to transform after the Spanish-American War, provide support to the British during World War I, and eventually defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II. These four components were, to various degrees, embodied by different organizations within the Navy. The Naval War College was a key component in this structure and utilized war games to explore tactical innovations. However, the Navy’s success relied on operationalizing the concepts through actual fleet maneuvers. It accomplished this through various means like the Atlantic Fleet Torpedo Flotilla under Sims and Knox and the Fleet Problems of the 1920s and 1930s. Today, as it grapples with UxV employment, the Navy first needs to ensure it still functions as a complex learning system similar to what its predecessors designed.

Identify the problem. The Navy is introducing a host of new unmanned systems to the fleet, but what is the problem? Perhaps the Navy doesn’t know how to best use all these new systems and employing them poorly imposes opportunity costs. Should swarms of UxVs be sent separately and autonomously ahead of a battle fleet? Would they be better used as autonomous “wingmen” to manned systems? How do we get the best robot bang for our AI buck? Money spent on deploying a highly capable UxV in a way which utilizes only a fraction of its capability is money that could be better spent on systems the Navy knows how to use to full effect.

Establish constraints. Unmanned systems are not magic. They have significant limitations, not all of which are yet understood. In the undersea realm particularly, energy storage and sensing will continue to impose far greater restrictions on UUVs than have been seen on UAVs. Other constraints will emerge over time as more experience is gained operating with these systems. Hard limits on autonomous behaviors, on clandestine recovery, or on communications may yet be discovered and which may eventually drive system CONOPs. Rules of Engagement and associated human-in-the-loop requirements also pose considerable constraints. Efforts will continue to overcome these issues, but solving any limitation will be less important than understanding the constraints. Understanding and characterizing constraints allows for the simulation of a system—a method the Navy has long embraced.

Encourage parallel experimentation. To determine how to use a new system, the Navy has to try and be willing to fail. Hone describes the development of long-range gunnery techniques as an example of parallel experimentation in a safe-to-fail environment.4 In that process, the Navy allowed the ships and squadrons of its fleet to trial new systems, technologies, and tactics without forcing the entire Navy to adopt a single solution too early. This flexible approach, where systems were incorporated into the existing architecture of combatants, prevented the Navy from making a selection too early in the development process. It also prevented a “race to the bottom” solution where every ship was forced to implement the lowest common denominator option. UxV experimentation should utilize the same methodology and safe-to-fail mentality.  

Exploit the best-fitting solution. Fleet-wide adoption of solutions present its own challenge. Here the Navy’s learning system of the early 20th century can be augmented by more recent research on innovation and adaptation. Since the mid-1980s academics studying business innovation have understood that there is a distinction between “invention,” the act of coming up with a new idea, and “innovation,” the act of causing a new idea to be widely accepted in an organization.5 It is not a given that a large, complex organization will naturally pick up and start using the best solutions to its problems, even after they are identified. Deliberate effort needs to be taken on the part of leadership to ensure the organization adopts the new methods.

In The Innovator’s Way, Peter Denning and Robert Dunham compiled and analyzed the results of two decades of innovation research. Their work helps to understand the challenges the Navy will face in exploiting new solutions—what Denning and Dunham refer to as “Third Adoption” or “Sustainment.”6 First, large organizations can be resistant to new approaches.7 This phenomenon has been recognized in naval circles for some time, often referred to as the “frozen middle.”Denning recommends leaders overcome resistance by adopting allies inside the network they seek to influence and continually reshaping the narrative about the new tactics to improve their “innovation story.”9 Second, once new ideas are spread through the Navy, leadership will have to ensure they do not drop out of use before they are truly obsolete. To ensure this, Navy leadership must ensure UxV CONOPs are enabled and supported.10 This entails continued training, material support, and continued value communication.11

Adopting the Process for Unmanned Systems

Many of the pieces required to replicate the success of the early 1900s are already understood by today’s Navy leaders. The Navy has already recognized the need for a squadron devoted to exploring how new systems are best employed. Vice Admiral Richard Brown, Commander, Naval Surface Forces and Naval Surface Forces Pacific, has called out the need for an experimental squadron to test new technologies, systems, and CONOPs for surface warfare. His assessment that the Navy needs “aggressive experimentation” is spot on.12 The Navy needs to move from saying the right things to committing to an actual organization to implement the modern-day equivalent of Hone’s parallel experimentation using real-world forces.

The best-fit platform for an experimental squadron will be one that is good enough, not perfect. A perfect experimental squadron will never exist. It is easy to imagine an experimental squadron made up of all our best and most capable new systems. One should also be able to imagine the horrendous cost, not only in terms of paying for and maintaining those systems but also the opportunity cost. A destroyer assigned to an experimental squadron is one that can’t be supporting the Navy’s vital needs elsewhere, imposing more strain on already thin force structure. So, rather than the ideal, the Navy must work with “good-enough.”

The Littoral Combat Ship was never meant to be the ideal solution to any kind of naval warfare, it was meant to be a good-enough solution to several. It is apt then, that its very organization provides a good-enough solution to a Navy problem it was never explicitly designed to fit all. In 2016, responding to a host of issues, the LCS program was reorganized to include a test division within LCSRON 1. The first four LCS’s grouped together with a mandate to “focus solely on testing hardware, software and concepts of operations to support bringing new mission module equipment into the fleet.”13 This is the mission description of an experimental squadron—only it is a single division of a single unit class of dubiously capable ships. Still, it is good enough.

The employment of an experimental squadron provides the Navy with a test-bed for unmanned systems. Designed with mission adaptability in mind, the LCS should serve as an excellent platform for employing a wide range of unmanned systems across a variety of missions. Echoes of this approach, using small ships in conjunction with unmanned systems to test and develop tactics and techniques, can been seen in previous Navy efforts such as the Center for Asymmetric Warfare’s (CAW) efforts with the small patrol craft CSW-1.14 It is also feasible to combine this suggested LCSRON test squadron approach to the “concept development hubs” whose formation is directed in the second iteration of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.15 Having multiple ships dedicated to employing UxVs to solve common operational challenges promotes creative and competitive problem solving. Having a single unit (such as UUVRON) devoted to the logistic and engineering challenges of the family of unmanned systems makes sense, but exploring new tactics is a task better suited to a diversified organization. The four-ship experimental squadron should be seen not as the sole solution for perfecting UxV tactics, it can only serve as a hotbed to be backed by follow-on fleet experimentation. The entire fleet should be involved. We add two precepts for how the Navy can best employ this learning system as embodied by the experimental squadron.

Objectives-based exercises. The test squadron must focus on real experimentation, which brings with it the opportunity for failure. The Navy must accept the likelihood that many of their experiments will fail. Deriving lessons from failure through hotwashes and critiques is not a new concept in the Navy. Tightly-scripted evolutions which showcase the ability of a system to complete specified tasks provide minimal insight, especially when they are devoid of capable opposition forces. They are demonstrations, not real exercises. Experiments and exercises provide more insight in failure than success—failure illuminates new constraints; success delivers only the expected. Technical demonstrations prove viability and build operator confidence in the system, but they do not provide tactical insight or shape doctrine. That kind of insight comes from allowing the fleet to experiment in pursuit of operational and tactical objectives.

This concept was seen in the early 20th century with the development of The Combat Air Patrol (CAP), first employed by Ernest King as part of Fleet Problem XII.[16] It was not employed as part of an exercise which detailed a flight schedule for CAP aircraft—a technical demonstration of capability, instead it was employed because King saw a need to protect his carrier while he sought to meet the tactical and operational demands of the Problem. These kinds of exercises, where commanders are given broader objectives to achieve rather than specific evolutions to perform will elicit real insight and experimentation. The problems must be challenging, the kind where today’s tactics, doctrine, and systems are allowed to fail. Only when old tools fail will commanders innovate new, successful methods.

Levels of reality. Putting ships to sea is expensive, turning on computers is cheap, and assigning problems to students is even cheaper. Even a relatively cheap experimental squadron like the one proposed here cannot test every new tactical theory or CONOP. A hierarchy of experimentation should be constructed which allows for the most promising ideas to bubble up to the experimental squadron for real-world vetting.

At the base level the Navy needs to draw on the tactical acumen and creativity of its line officers. The Naval War College and Postgraduate School provide excellent venues for this exploitation. Consideration should also be given to expanding this exploratory phase to civilian institutions with strong security studies programs. The War College has a storied history of employing wargames in developing new tactics and doctrine. Students can be assigned problems to research and design tactical and operational solutions. These solutions can then be wargamed—using constraints derived from real-world operations—to sort the wheat from the chaff. The goal should not be to find one solution but a set of solutions worthy of further exploration in the real world.

Wargames are an excellent venue for testing operational concepts, but they require time and manpower. The number of them that can be run—even by incorporating organizations beyond the traditional—will always be lower than the demand. Computer simulation, by contrast, requires much less time. There is considerable resource demand in building the models for simulation, but running them consumes far less time than human wargames.17 This allows for testing hundreds or thousands of cases stochastically with varying parameters. The fidelity of these models can also vary, with pure software at the lowest level and hardware-in-the-loop models incorporating the actual, physical systems. Hardware-in-the-loop testing can reveal the limitations in a CONOP which might not be apparent during a wargame due to insufficiently granular constraints.

At the highest level of fidelity the experimental squadron can test CONOPs using real hardware in its actual operating environment. The fidelity of computer simulations and even wargames will never match the real world. Ships at sea putting UxVs through stressing—both engineering and tactically—evolutions will expose flaws and opportunities that the best models will miss. Such exercises will generate the feedback needed to revise the constraints of the wargames and computer simulations, ensuring that the next batch of CONOPs to percolate up to the squadron are more robust and ready for primetime. 

The experimental squadron itself should employ various degrees of simulation. The tenure of William Sims as commander of the Atlantic Torpedo Flotilla provides the model for how to employ the squadron.18 Sims created tactical problems for his ships, utilized conferences and games to conceptualize new approaches and tactics, and then used the ships of his command to play them out at sea. The ships of LCSRON 1’s development division, enhanced with a family of UxV systems, should be employed in the same manner. The LCS’s can employ onboard trainers to conduct software- and hardware-in-the-loop simulations, the ships’ captains can game new tactics, and they can conduct live exercises at sea. At times the LCS’s themselves can play the roles of simulated combatants of other types (destroyers, cruisers, carriers19) but there should also be opportunities to train with the fleet.

Disseminate knowledge. After the proposed squadron develops new tactics and doctrines, there remains a final challenge, to disseminate them to the fleet and encourage their adoption. A brilliant new tactic is useless when it only sits on the page of a never-read exercise after action report or in a rarely consulted tactics publication. It must be actually adopted and practiced by units and commands during real operations.

Any ship in the fleet can develop new tactics or new operational concepts. The benefits of institutionalizing learning systems are not only their ability to generate new concepts, but to transform them into useful doctrine. The Combat Information Center revolutionized naval warfare, enabling the U.S. Navy to process the information available from new sensors (primarily radar) and act on it faster than their WWII opponents. Officers like Lieutenant Commander J. C. Wylie responded to the demands of combat with innovation, making do with the systems at hand—jury-rigged as necessary—by creating new methods.20 Their innovations helped deliver American victories throughout the Pacific, but only because the Navy exploited and shared their discoveries by drafting new doctrine and standing up schools to train its officers in the new methods.

Tactics, shared, become doctrine. Doctrine provides the fleet with a shared bedrock of knowledge. As Captain (Ret.) Wayne Hughes says, “Tactical doctrine is the standard operating procedure that the creative commander adapts to the exigencies of battle.”21 That common ground is an enabling constraint which allows commanders to understand what choices their subordinates are likely to make during combat. But doctrine represents only one form of knowledge dissemination, perhaps not the most important, when exploring new systems and technologies. Knowledge must be effectively shared horizontally and vertically—information must also flow through the “levels of reality” discussed above. This allows the creation of feedback loops, another important feature of a complex learning system. Shortening the loop from CONOPs ideation, to fleet testing, and back to the “drawing board” will limit the loss of critical information and drive an upward spiral. Slow, cumbersome chains of communication between the fleet and its supporting organizations will drive frustration within the process and promote the stillbirth of promising concepts.


Unmanned systems tantalize with the possibility of revolutionizing naval warfare. They have the potential to extend the fleet’s reach further than ever before. They may allow the Navy to hold targets at risk despite our adversaries’ best attempts to erect anti-access/area-denial defense systems while putting far fewer Sailors in harm’s way. Failing to develop the tactics and doctrine which best exploits that potential will risk leaving critical capabilities off the table. Exploiting unmanned systems to the hilt requires the Navy to look back in history to the last time it faced such challenges both in terms of incorporating new technology and facing great power maritime competition – the interwar and WWII periods. The Navy created within itself a complex, adaptive learning organization that was able to bring radar, airpower, combat information, and submarines into battle across the Pacific Ocean against a powerful adversary and win. 

We have proposed one method for re-creating that success. The Naval War College, and other institutions, should challenge students to formulate new tactics and CONOPs for employing unmanned systems. The Navy and its industry partners should use modeling and simulation to trial those tactics. But perhaps most importantly, a dedicated experimental squadron hosting the whole family of unmanned vehicles should put the most promising tactics into action in live, challenging, objective-based exercises with the results fed back to restart the loop. Only the best ideas will survive these trials and deliver on the full promise of unmanned systems to tomorrow’s fleet.

Dustin League is a Senior Military Operations Analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. and a former U.S. Navy Submarine Warfare Officer. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of SPA, Inc.

LCDR Dan Justice is a U.S. Navy Foreign Affairs Officer and former Submarine Warfare Officer. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy. 


[1] (Richardson 2018)

[2] (Navy 2019)

[3] (Hone 2018, 338)

[4] (Hone 2018, 55-91)

[5] (Denning and Dunham 2010, xiv)

[6] (Denning and Dunham 2010, 187)

[7] (Denning and Dunham 2010, 200)

[8] (Knudson 2016)

[9] (Denning and Dunham 2010, 200)

[10] (Denning and Dunham 2010, 205)

[11] (Denning and Dunham 2010, 209)

[12] (Eckstein, Navy Pursuing ‘Surface Development Squadron’ to Experiment with Zumwalt DDGs, Unmanned Ships 2019)

[13] (Eckstein, Littoral Combat Ship Program Vastly Different a Year Into Major Organizational, Operational Overhaul 2017)

[14] (Cawcontacts 2010)

[15] (Richardson 2018)

[16] (Hone 2018, 333)

[17] For an excellent description of the benefits and difficulties of iterative wargaming see James Lacy’s article “How does the next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons from a Wargame” (Lacy 2019)

[18] (Hone 2018, 114-117)

[19] It would be exceedingly difficult for an LCS to play a mock submarine.

[20] (Hattendorf 1967)

[21] (Hughes and Girrier 2018)


Denning, Peter, and Robert Dunham. The Innovator’s Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation. MIT Press, 2010.

Eckstein, Megan. “Littoral Combat Ship Program Vastly Different a Year Into Major Organizational, Operational Overhaul.” USNI News. September 6, 2017. (accessed April 9, 2019).

“Navy Pursuing ‘Surface Development Squadron’ to Experiment with Zumwalt DDGs, Unmanned Ships.” USNI News. January 28, 2019.

Hattendorf, John B. “Introduction.” In Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control, by J.C. Wylie. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1967.

Home, Trent. Learning War: The Fighting Doctrine of the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018.

Hughes, Wayne Jr., and Robert P. Girrier. Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (Third Edition). Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018.

Knudson, Jason. “The Frozen Middle and the CRIC.” USNI Blog. February 2016. (accessed April 2019).

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 27, 2019) The Independence variant littoral combat ships USS Independence (LCS 2), left, USS Manchester (LCS 14), and USS Tulsa (LCS 16) are underway in formation in the eastern Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe/Released)

Unmanned Systems Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

This week CIMSEC will be publishing articles submitted in response to a call for articles issued in partnership with the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Maritime Systems Program Office (PMS 406). As Captain Pete Small, Program Manager of PMS 406, urged in the call, “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.” 

Below is a list of articles featuring during the topic week that may be updated as prospective authors finalize additional publications.

Create an Unmanned Experimental Squadron and Learning System” by Dustin League and LCDR Daniel Justice
Unmanned Units Need Tenders for Distributed Operations” by Griffin Cannon
Autonomous Pickets for Force Protection and Fleet Missile Defense” by 1st Lt. Walker D. Mills
Accelerating the Renaissance of the U.S. Navy’s Amphibious Assault Forces” by George Galdorisi
Providing Secure Logistics for Amphibious Assault with Unmanned Surface Vehicles” by Neil Zerbe
The Case for Unmanned Surface Vehicles in Future Maritime Operations” by Wayne Prender

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) prototype Sea Hunter pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii on Oct. 31, 2018. US Navy Photo

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


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?


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

Featured Image: “The Middle of Nowhere” by hunterkiller via DeviantArt

Drones in Africa: A Leap Ahead for Maritime Security

By CAPT Chris Rawley and LCDR Cedric Patmon

Technology adoption moves in fits and starts. The developing world cannot be forced into accepting new technology, but it can be enabled, and often in a surprising manner. A recent example is the leap in communications technology. During the 20th Century most of the world developed a robust network of terrestrial-based telecommunications based primarily on the ubiquitous land-line telephone system. Without this infrastructure in place Sub-Saharan African countries were largely left behind at the start of the information revolution. But at the turn of the new century something interesting happened. Rather than retroactively building an archaic phone system Africans embraced mobile phone technology. From 1999 through 2004 the number of mobile subscribers in Africa eclipsed those of other continents, increasing at a rate of 58 percent annually. Asia, the second fastest area of saturation, grew at only 34 percent during that time. The explosive growth of mobile phones and more recently smart phones across practically every African city and village has liberated economies and facilitated the free flow of information. This technology also enabled Africans to lead the world in mobile money payment solutions, bypassing increasingly obsolete banking systems.

Today, Africans have another opportunity to leap ahead in technology to protect one of their most important areas of commerce – their coastal seas. Africa’s maritime economy is absolutely critical to the continent’s growth and prosperity during the next few decades. On the edge of the Eastern Atlantic the Gulf of Guinea is bordered by eight West African nations, and is an extremely important economic driver. More than 450 million Africans derive commercial benefit from this body of water. The region contains 50.4 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves and has produced up to 5.5 million barrels of oil per day. Additionally, over 90 percent of foreign imports and exports cross the Gulf of Guinea making it the region’s key connector to the global economy.

Favorable demographics and industrious populations put coastal Africans in a position to prosper, but an increase in illegal fishing activities and piracy since the early 2000s has severely impeded this potential. The growth in acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea from 2000 onward points to the challenges faced by West African states.

According to Quartz Africa, illegal fishing activities in the region have a negative economic impact of $2-3 billion annually. “Fish stocks are not restricted to national boundaries, and that is why the solutions to end the overfishing of West Africa’s waters can only come from joint efforts between the countries of the region,” Ahmed Diame, Greenpeace’s Africa Oceans campaigner, said in a statement. Marine pollution, human, and narcotics trafficking are also major issues facing the region.

Due to the economic impact of illicit activities in and around West Africa a Summit of the Gulf of Guinea heads of state and government was held in 2013 in Yaoundé, Cameroon. This resulted in the adoption of the Yaoundé Declaration on Gulf of Guinea Security. Two key resolutions contained in the Declaration were the creation of an inter-regional Coordination Centre on Maritime Safety and Security for Central and West Africa, headquartered in Yaoundé, and the implementation of a new Code of Conduct Concerning the Prevention and Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery Against Ships, and Illegal Maritime Activities in West and Central Africa. Adoption of this agreement has laid the foundation for critical information sharing and resource cooperation that can be used to combat piracy, illegal fishing, and other illicit activities in the Gulf of Guinea.

Though the Code of Conduct established an architecture for maritime security in the region, without enforcement on the water, diplomatic efforts are largely impotent. Key to enforcement is the ability to identify, track, and prosecute nefarious actors on the high seas and in coastal areas. So-called maritime domain awareness is gradually improving in the area, but current options for maritime surveillance are limited. The largest local navies have offshore patrol vessels capable of multi-day over-the-horizon operations, but even these vessels have limited enforcement capacity. Patrol vessels face maintenance issues and fuel scarcity. Shore-based radar systems at best reach out 30 or 40 nautical miles, but are plagued by power and maintenance issues. Moreover, a shore-based radar, even with signals correlated from vessels transmitting on the Automatic Identification System, only provides knowledge that a contact is afloat, not necessarily any evidence to illicit actions.

Latin American navies face similar maritime challenges to those in Africa and have learned that airborne surveillance is simply the best way to locate, track, identify, and classify surface maritime targets involved in illicit or illegal activity. A retired senior naval officer from the region related a study in the Caribbean narcotics transit zone to one of the authors that compared different surveillance mechanisms for the 11,000 square nautical mile area. The probability of detecting a surface target within six hours rose from only five percent with a surface asset to 95 percent when maritime patrol aircraft were included. Only a handful of coastal African countries have fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters, but these aircraft face similar issues to surface assets with fuel costs and mechanical readiness resulting in limited flight time on station.

Drone Solutions to African Maritime Insecurity

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, as they are known colloquially, provide a way for African navies and coast guards to greatly enhance maritime security in a relatively inexpensive manner, similar to the ways mobile telephony revolutionized communications on the continent. Similar to the evolution of computing power outlined by Moore’s law tactical UAS are rapidly growing in capabilities while decreasing in cost. Improvements in sensors, endurance, and payload are advancing quickly. For any solution, acquisition cost, maintainability, and infrastructure required are key factors to be considered. The cost per flying hour of most UAS is negligible compared to their manned counterparts. Today’s fixed and rotary-wing systems, whether specifically designed for military use or for commercial applications, can be adapted for surveillance in a maritime environment without much additional cost.

A Falcon UAV unpiloted aircraft is bungee launched in a midday demonstration flight. (© Helge Denker/WWF-Namibia)

Because each country has unique requirements and budgets no single UAS solution is appropriate. Maritime drones can be based ashore or on coastal patrol vessels. One viable option for countries with limited resources involves services contracted by Western Partners, a model which has already been proven in the region for other applications. Alternatively, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct provides a framework for a possible shared model. This agreement can provide the timely sharing of critical information ascertained by maritime surveillance and reconnaissance systems to aid in the enforcement of the maritime laws and agreements in the region. Contractor-operated drones could be allocated across countries by leadership in the five Zones delineated by the Code. Multinational cooperation on maritime security has already been tested in the annual Obangame Express exercise and during real-world counterpiracy operations. Understanding that not all countries have the investment capability to purchase their own stand-alone systems, consideration could be given to sharing the initial investment costs between countries. The logistics of system placement and asset availability would have to be determined by the participating countries themselves but the benefit of such a program would positively impact the entire region economically, enhance interoperability, and assist in regional stability.

Drones are already being operated across Africa by Africans. Zambia recently purchased Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles for counter-poaching operations. There are also African unmanned systems flying surveillance missions over areas plagued by violent extremists groups. UAS are even being used to transport blood and medical supplies across the continent’s vast rural landscapes. Shifting these assets over water is a natural progression. One concern about using UAS is airspace deconfliction. However, this problem is minimized because there is little to no civil aviation in most parts of Africa. Additionally, most maritime UAS would be flying primarily at low altitudes over water from coastal bases.


The leap-ahead capabilities that unmanned surveillance aircraft could provide to coastal security around Africa are clearly evident. African navies with adequate resources should make acquisition of unmanned air systems a priority. Likewise, western foreign military assistance programs should focus on providing contracted or organic unmanned aircraft capabilities.

Captain Rawley, a surface warfare officer, and Lieutenant Commander Patmon, a naval aviator, are assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet’s Maritime Partnership Program detachment responsible for helping West African countries enhance their maritime security. The opinions in this article are those of the authors alone and do not officially represent the U.S. Navy or any other organization

Featured Image: GULF OF GUINEA (March 26, 2018) A visit board search and seizure team member from the Ghanaian special boat service communicates with his team during a search aboard a target vessel during exercise Obangame Express 2018, March 26. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Released)