Tag Archives: drones

Exercise Digital Horizon: Accelerating the Development of Unmanned Surface Vehicles

By George Galdorisi

The international community has been tremendously proactive in undertaking operations, exercises, experiments, and demonstration to accelerate the development and fielding of unmanned surface vehicles, reflecting the real importance of these systems to world navies. Much of this work has occurred in and around the Arabian Gulf under the auspices of Commander U.S. Fifth Fleet and Task Force 59.

These ambitious exercises throughout the course of 2022 provided a learning opportunity for all participating navies. These culminated in the capstone unmanned event, Exercise Digital Horizon, a three-week event in the Middle East focused on employing artificial intelligence and 15 different unmanned systems: 12 unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

A key goal of Digital Horizon was to speed new technology integration across the 5th Fleet, and to seek cost-effective alternatives for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) missions. As Carrington Malin described the importance of Digital Horizon:

“Despite the cutting-edge hardware in the Arabian Gulf, Digital Horizon is far more than a trial of new unmanned systems. This exercise is about data integration and the integration of command and control capabilities, where many different advanced technologies are being deployed together and experimented with for the first time.

The advanced technologies now available and the opportunities that they bring to enhance maritime security are many-fold, but these also drive an exponential increase in complexity for the military. Using the Arabian Gulf as the laboratory, Task Force 59 and its partners are pioneering ways to manage that complexity, whilst delivering next-level intelligence, incident prevention and response capabilities.”1

Digital Horizon brought together emerging unmanned technologies and combined them with data analytics and artificial intelligence in order to enhance regional maritime security and strengthen deterrence by applying leading-edge technology and experimentation.2 Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces introduced the exercise and highlighted its potential: “I am excited about the direction we are headed. By harnessing these new unmanned technologies and combining them with artificial intelligence, we will enhance regional maritime security and strengthen deterrence. This benefits everybody.”3

Click to expand. Graphic illustration depicting the unmanned systems that will participate in exercise Digital Horizon 2022. The three-week unmanned and artificial intelligence integration event involved employing new platforms in the region for the first time. (U.S. Army graphic by Sgt. Brandon Murphy)

Captain Michael Brasseur, then-commodore of Task Force 59, emphasized the use of unmanned maritime vehicles to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, including identifying objects in the water and spotting suspicious behavior.4 He noted: “We pushed beyond technological boundaries and discovered new capabilities for maritime domain awareness to enhance our ability to see above, on and below the water.”5

During Digital Horizon, Task Force 59 leveraged artificial intelligence to create an interface on one screen, also called a “single pane of glass,” displaying the relevant data from multiple unmanned systems for watchstanders in Task Force 59’s Robotics Operations Center (ROC). Reviewing what was accomplished during this event, Captain Brasseur marveled at the pace of innovation: “We are challenging our industry partners in one of the most difficult operational environments, and they are responding with enhanced capability, fast.”6

One of the features of Digital Horizon, and in line with the first word of the exercise, “Digital,” was the ability of one operator to command and control five unique drones, a capability long-sought by U.S. Navy officials.7 The Navy is acutely aware of the high cost of manpower and is dedicated to moving beyond the current “one UXS, multiple joysticks, multiple operators,” paradigm that has plagued UXS development for decades.

Digital Horizon was a unique exercise from the outset. Task Force 59 worked with the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) in order to leverage that organization’s expertise as a technology accelerator. Additionally, given the U.S. Navy’s ambitious goals to rapidly test and subsequently acquire USVs to populate the Fleet, CTF-59 used a contractor-owned/contractor operated (COCO) model to bring a substantial number of unmanned systems to Digital Horizon, well beyond those already in the inventory. This approach sidestepped the often clunky DoD acquisition system while providing appropriate oversight during the exercise and gaining operational experience with new systems.

MANAMA, Bahrain (Nov. 19, 2022) Various unmanned systems sit on display in Manama, Bahrain, prior to exercise Digital Horizon 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy)

Another distinctive feature of Digital Horizon involved launching and recovering small UAVs from medium-size USVs. This lash-up leveraged the capabilities of both unmanned assets, enabling the long-endurance USVs to carry the shorter-endurance UAVs to the desired area of operations. This “operationalized” a CONOPS that emerged from the U.S. Navy laboratory community years ago.8

The results of Digital Horizon lived up to the initial hype. During a presentation at the 2023 Surface Navy Association Symposium, here is how Vice Admiral Cooper described what was accomplished during Digital Horizon:

“We are creating a distributed and integrated network of systems to establish a “digital ocean” in the Middle East, creating constant surveillance. This means every partner and every sensor, collecting new data, adding it to an intelligent synthesis of around-the-clock inputs, encompassing thousands of images, from seabed to space, from ships, unmanned systems, subsea sensors, satellites, buoys, and other persistent technologies.

No navy acting alone can protect against all the threats, the region is simply too big. We believe that the way to get after this is the two primary lines of effort: strengthen our partnerships and accelerate innovation…One of the results from the exercise was the ability to create a single operational picture so one operator can command and control multiple unmanned systems on one screen, a ‘Single Pane of Glass’ (SPOG)…Digital Horizon was a visible demonstration of the promise and the power of very rapid tech innovation.”9

The results of Digital Horizon could change the way the world’s navies conduct maritime safety and security. Having multiple unmanned systems conduct maritime surveillance, with the operations center then using big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to amalgamate this sea of data into something that commanders can use to make real-time decisions, enables navies to “stretch” their crewed vessels and use them for more vital missions than merely conducting surveillance.

As one example of how Digital Horizon brought together COTS unmanned surface vehicles with COTS systems and sensors, the T-38 Devil Ray was equipped with multiple state-of-the-art COTS sensors to provide persistent surveillance. The T-38 provided AIS, full motion video from SeaFLIR-280HD and FLIR-M364C cameras, as well as the display of radar contacts on a chart via the onboard Furuno DRS4D-NXT Doppler radar. These were all streamed back to Task Force 59’s Robotics Operations Center via high bandwidth radios and SATCOM.

These exercises and initiatives are important if the Navy is to convince a skeptical Congress that its plans for unmanned systems are sound, and represent an important course change in the way the Navy intends to communicate with Congress, by “showing, not telling” what its unmanned systems can do.10 This approach is vital, for as long as Congress remains unconvinced regarding the efficacy of the unmanned systems the Navy wishes to procure; it is unlikely that funding will follow.11

Secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, explained this new “show, don’t tell,” philosophy built on an ongoing series of exercises, experiments and demonstrations, further indicating that he believes the Navy is “on the same page as Congress:”

“The Navy has a responsibility to be able to prove that the technology that Congress is going to invest in actually works and it meets what we need to address the threat. I think that’s the responsible thing to do…I don’t see it as a fight between Congress and the Department of Navy. I think we’re aligned in our thinking about what has to be done.”12

Indeed, in remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Secretary Del Toro said the Navy intends to stand up additional unmanned task forces around the globe modeled after what Task Force 59 accomplished during Digital Horizon, noting:

“We’ve demonstrated with Task Force 59 how much more we can do with these unmanned vehicles—as long as they’re closely integrated together in a [command and control] node that, you know, connects to our manned surface vehicles. And there’s been a lot of experimentation; it’s going to continue aggressively. And we’re going to start translating that to other regions of the world as well. That will include the establishment of formal task forces that will fall under some of the Navy’s other numbered fleets.”13

Secretary of the Navy Del Toro continued this drumbeat during the U.S. Naval Institute/AFCEA “West” Symposium in February 2023. In a keynote address describing the Navy’s progress and intentions regarding integrating unmanned systems into the Fleet, he emphasized the progress that CTF-59 had made, especially in the area of successfully integrating unmanned systems and artificial intelligence during Digital Horizon.14

A Marine Advanced Robotics WAM-V unmanned surface vessel operates in the Arabian Gulf, Nov. 29, during Digital Horizon 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy)

Importantly, the U.S. Navy has now created the infrastructure to accelerate the testing and evaluation of unmanned surface vehicles. In 2019, the Navy stood up Surface Development Squadron One to provide stewardship for unmanned experimentation and manned-unmanned teaming.15 In 2022, seeking to put additional emphasis on unmanned maritime vehicles, the Navy established Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One (USVDIV-1), under the command of Commander Jeremiah Daley.16

This new division oversees medium and large unmanned surface vessels out of Port Hueneme Naval Base in Ventura County.17 Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One is engaged with the Fleet to move the unmanned surface vessels further west and exercise autonomy, payloads, and hull, mechanical and electrical (HM&E) systems to ensure that future programs of record (LUSV and MUSV) are successful from inception, and that they provide lethality and combat effectiveness for future naval and joint forces.

Digital Horizon presages a new paradigm in the way navies will think about uncrewed assets, no longer as “vehicles” but rather as “systems” that are nodes in a web of assets delivering far greater capability than the sum of the parts. World navies will conduct ambitious unmanned exercises, experiments and demonstrations throughout 2023 and beyond, and the lessons learned from Digital Horizon will no doubt inform those efforts.

Captain George Galdorisi (USN – retired) is a career naval aviator whose thirty years of active duty service included four command tours and five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff. He began his writing career in 1978 with an article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. He is the author of 15 books, including four New York Times best-sellers. The views presented are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

References

1. Carrington Malin, “A Testbed for Naval Innovation,” Middle East AI News, December 1, 2022.

2. Aaron-Matthew Lariosa, “US Navy Highlights TF 59 Contributions to Fleet’s Unmanned Vision,” Naval News, January 23, 2023.

3. “U.S. Launches New Unmanned & AI Systems Integration Event,” U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Public Affairs, November 23, 2022, accessed at: https://www.cusnc.navy.mil/Media/News/Display/Article/3226901/us-launches-new-unmanned-ai-systems-integration-event/.

4. J.P. Lawrence, “Navy’s ‘Influx’ of Aquatic and Aerial Drones Tested in the Middle East,” Stars and Stripes, December 1, 2022.

5. “Digital Horizon Wraps Up: Task Force 59 Perspective, Second Line of Defense, December 22, 2022.

6. Geoff Ziezulewicz, “New in 2023: Here Comes the First-Ever Surface Drone Fleet,” Navy Times, January 3, 2023.

7. Justin Katz, “Accenture Demos Data Vis, C2 for Multiple USVs During Navy’s Digital Horizons Exercise,” Breaking Defense, December 16, 2022.

8. Vladimir Djapic et al, “Heterogeneous Autonomous Mobile Maritime Expeditionary Robots and Maritime Information Dominance,” Naval Engineers Journal, December 2014.

9. Audrey Decker, “5th Fleet Commander Details ‘Digital Ocean’ After TF-59 Reaches FOC,” Inside the Navy, January 16, 2023.

10. See, for example, George Galdorisi, “Catch a Wave: Testing Unmanned Surface Vehicles Is Becoming an International Endeavour,” Surface SITREP, Winter 2022.

11. “Navy Failing to Make ‘Critical Pivot’ In Unmanned Investment,” Inside the Navy, October 10, 2022.

12. Justin Katz, “Show, Don’t Tell: Navy Changes Strategy to Sell Unmanned Systems to Skeptical Congress,” Breaking Defense, March 10, 2022.

13. Jon Harper, “Navy to Establish Additional Unmanned Task Forces Inspired by Task Force 59,” Defense Scoop, December 4, 2022.

14. Remarks by the Honorable Carlos Del Toro, Secretary of the Navy, at the U.S. Naval Institute/AFCEA “West” Symposium, February 16, 2023.

15. Meagan Eckstein, “Navy Stands Up Surface Development Squadron for DDG-1000, Unmanned Experimentation,” USNI News, May 22, 2019.

16. “Navy to Stand Up New USV Command This Summer,” Inside the Navy, January 13, 2022.

17. Joshua Emerson Smith and Andrew Dyer, “Navy Ramps Up Efforts on Unmanned Vessels,” San Diego Union Tribune, May 16, 2022, and Diana Stancy Correll, “Navy Creates Unmanned Surface Vessel Division to Expedite Integration of Unmanned Systems,” Navy Times, May 16, 2022.

Featured Image: T38 Devil Ray during Exercise Digital Horizon. (Photo by Dave Meron)

Two Platforms for Two Missions: Rethinking the LUSV

By Ben DiDonato

The Navy’s current Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle (LUSV) concept has received heavy criticism on many fronts. To name but a few, Congress has raised concerns about concepts of operation and technology readiness, the Congressional Research Service has flagged the personnel implications and analytical basis of the design, and legal experts have raised alarm over the lack of an established framework for handling at-sea incidents involving unmanned vessels. An extensive discussion of these concerns and their implications would take too long, but in any case, criticism is certainly extensive, and the Navy must comply with Congress’s legal directives.

That said, the core issues with the current LUSV concept arise from one fundamental problem. It’s trying to perform two separate roles – a small surface combatant and an adjunct missile magazine – which have sharply conflicting requirements and require radically different hulls. A small surface combatant needs to minimize its profile, especially its freeboard, to better evade detection, needs a shallow draft for littoral operations, and must have not only a crew, but the necessary facilities for them to perform low-end security and partnership missions to provide presence. The adjunct missile magazine, on the other hand, must accommodate the height of the Mk 41 VLS which substantially increases the draft and/or freeboard, should not have a crew, and should avoid detection in peacetime to increase strategic ambiguity. Not only do these conflicts make it irrational to design one vessel to fulfill both missions, but they point to two entirely separate types of vessels since the adjunct missile magazine role should not be filled by a surface ship at all.

The Adjunct Missile Magazine

The adjunct missile magazine role is best filled by a Missile Magazine Unmanned Undersea Vessel (MMUUV). Sending this capability underwater immediately resolves many of the issues associated with a surface platform since it cannot be boarded, hacked, detected by most long-range sensors, or hit by anti-ship missiles, and so obviates most crew, security, and legal questions. The size required to carry a full-sized VLS also makes it highly resistant to capture since it should have a displacement on the order of 1,000 tons, far more than most nets can bring in, and it could also be designed with a self-destruct capability to detonate its magazine.

The cost should be similar to the current LUSV concept since it can dispense with surface ship survivability features like electronic warfare equipment and point defense weapons to offset the extra structural costs. Because it has no need to fight other submarines and would use standoff distance to mitigate ASW risks, it has no need for advanced quieting or sonar and could accept an extremely shallow dive depth. Even a 150-foot test depth would likely be sufficient for the threshold requirement of safe navigation, and anything past 200 feet would be a waste of money. These are World War One submarine depths. Furthermore, since it only needs to fire weapons and keep up with surface combatants while surfaced, a conventional Mk 41 VLS under a watertight hatch could be used instead of a more complex unit capable of firing while submerged. For additional savings, the MMUUV could be designed to be taken under tow for high-speed transits rather than propel itself to 30+ knots. A speed on the order of 5 knots would likely be sufficient for self-propelled transit, and it would only need long range, perhaps 15,000 nautical miles, to reach its loiter zone from a safe port without tying up underway replenishment assets. Since visualization is helpful for explaining novel concepts, the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) design team produced a quick concept model to show what this platform might look like. In the spirit of minimizing cost at the expense of performance, and projecting that tugs could handle all port operations, all control surfaces are out of the water while surfaced to reduce maintenance costs.

Rendering of the MMUUV. (Author graphic)

On the command-and-control front, the situation is greatly simplified by the fact that the MMUUV would spend most of its time underwater. In its normal operating mode, it would be dispatched to a pre-planned rendezvous point where it would wait for a one-time-use coded sonar ping from a traditional surface combatant commanding it to surface. It would then be taken under tow and fired under local control using a secure and reliable line-of-sight datalink to eliminate most of the concerns associated with an armed autonomous platform. A variation of this operating mode could also be used as a temporary band-aid for the looming SSGN retirement, since MMUUVs could be loaded with Tomahawks, prepositioned in likely conflict zones, and activated by any submarine or surface ship when needed to provide a similar, if less flexible and capable, concealed strike capability to provide strategic ambiguity. Finally, these platforms could be used as independent land attack platforms by pre-programming targets in port and dispatching them like submersible missiles with a flight time measured in weeks, instead of minutes or hours. Under this strike paradigm, a human would still have control and authorize weapon release, even if that decision and weapon release happens in port instead of at sea. This focus on local control also mitigates cybersecurity risks since the MMUUV would not rely on more vulnerable long-range datalinks for most operations and could perform the independent strike missions with absolutely zero at-sea communications, making cyberattack impossible.

As a novel concept, this interpretation of the adjunct missile magazine concept obviously has its share of limitations and unanswered questions, particularly in terms of reliability and control. Even so, these risks and concerns are much more manageable than the problems with the current LUSV concept, and so give the best possible chance of success. More comprehensive analysis may still find that this approach is inferior to simply building larger surface combatants to carry more missiles, but at least this more robust concept represents a proper due-diligence effort to more fully explore the design space.

The Small Surface Combatant

The other role LUSV is trying to fill is that of a small surface combatant. These ships take a variety of forms depending on the needs and means of their nation, but their role is always a balance of presence and deterrence to safeguard national interests at minimal cost. The US Navy has generally not operated large numbers of these types of ships in recent decades, but the current Cyclone class and retired Pegasus class fit into this category.

While limited information makes it difficult to fully assess the ability of the current LUSV concept to fill this role, what has been released does not paint a promising picture. The height of the VLS drives a very tall hull for a ship of this type which makes it easy to detect, and therefore vulnerable, a problem that is further compounded by limited stealth shaping and defensive systems. There also does not seem to be any real consideration given to other missions besides being an adjunct missile magazine, with virtually no launch capabilities or additional weapons discussed or shown. This inflexibility is further compounded by the Navy’s muddled manning concept, which involves shuffling crew around to kludge the manned surface combatant and unmanned missile magazine concepts together in a manner reminiscent of the failed LCS mission module swap-out plan. Finally, the published threshold range of 4,500 nautical miles, while likely not final, is far too short for Pacific operations without persistent oiler support.

The result is a vulnerable, inflexible ship unsuited to war in the Pacific, and thus incapable of deterring Chinese aggression. This may indicate the current LUSV concept is intended more as a technology demonstrator than an actual warship. However, because the U.S. Navy urgently needs new capabilities to deter what many experts see as a window of vulnerability to Chinese aggression, the current plan is unacceptable.

Fortunately, there is an alternative ready today. The Naval Postgraduate School has spent decades studying these small surface combatants and refining their design, and is ready to build relevant warships today. The latest iteration of small surface combatant design, the Lightly Manned Autonomous Combat Capability (LMACC), achieves the Navy’s autonomy goals while providing a far superior platform at a lower cost and shorter turnaround time. Where the LUSV design is large, unstealthy, and poorly defended, the LMACC has a very low profile, aggressive stealth shaping, SeaRAM, and a full-sized AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare suite designed to defend destroyers, making it extremely difficult to identify, target, and hit. While the LUSV concept is armed with VLS cells, LMACC would carry the most lethal anti-ship missile in the world, LRASM, as well as a wide range of other weapons to let it fulfill diverse roles like anti-swarm and surface fire support, something that cannot be done with LUSV’s less diverse arsenal. To maximize its utility in the gray zone, the LMACC design boasts some of the best launch facilities in the world for a ship of its size.

On the manning front, LMACC has a clearly defined and legally unambiguous plan with a permanent crew of 15, who would partner with the ship’s USV-based autonomous capabilities and team with a variety of other unmanned platforms. This planned 15-person crew is complemented by 16 spare beds for detachments, command staff, special forces, or EABO Marines to maximize flexibility, and also hedges against the unexpected complications with automated systems which caused highly publicized problems for LCS.

LMACC was designed with the vast distances of the Pacific in mind, so it has the range needed for effective sorties from safe ports and provisions to carry additional fuel bladders when even more range is needed. Unlike the LUSV concept which Congress has rightly pushed back on, LMACC is a lethal, survivable, flexible, and conceptually sound design ready to meet our needs today.

The full details of the LMACC design were published last year and can be found in a prior piece, and since that time the engineering design work has been nearly completed. A rendering of the updated model, which shows all exterior details and reflects the floorplan, is below. Our more detailed estimating work, which has been published in the Naval Engineer’s Journal and further detailed in an internal report to our sponsor, Director, Surface Warfare (OPNAV N96), shows we only need $250-$300 million (the variation is primarily due to economic uncertainty) and two years to deliver the first ship with subsequent units costing a bit under $100 million each. The only remaining high-level engineering task is to finalize the hullform. This work could be performed by another Navy organization such as Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock, a traditional warship design firm, one of the 30 alternative shipyards we have identified, an independent naval architecture firm, or a qualified volunteer, so we can jump immediately into a production contract or take a more measured approach based on need and funding.

Rendering of the LMACC. (Author graphic)

LMACC has also been the subject of extensive studies and wargaming, including the Warfare Innovation Continuum and several Joint Campaign Analysis courses at NPS. Not only have these studies repeatedly shown the value of LMACC when employed in its intended role teamed with MUSVs and EABO Marines, especially in gray zone operations where its flexibility is vital, but they have also revealed its advantage in a shooting war with China is so decisive that not even deliberately bad tactics stop it from outperforming our current platforms in a surface engagement. Finally, while our detailed studies have focused on China as the most pressing threat, LMACC’s flexibility also makes it ideally suited to pushing back on smaller aggressors like Iran and conducting peacetime operations, such as counterpiracy, to guarantee its continued utility in our ever-changing world.

Conclusion

While there are still some questions about the MMUUV concept which could justify taking a more measured approach with a few prototypes to work out capabilities, tactics, and design changes before committing to full-rate production, there is an extensive body of study, wargaming, and engineering behind LMACC which conclusively prove its value, establish its tactics, and position it for immediate procurement at any rate desired. If the Navy is serious about growing to meet the challenge of China in a timely manner, it should begin redirecting funding immediately to pivot away from the deeply flawed LUSV concept and ask Congress to authorize serial LMACC production as soon as possible. Splitting the LUSV program into two more coherent platforms as described in this article will allow the Navy to fully comply with Congress’s guidance on armed autonomy, aggressively advance the state of autonomous technology, and deliver useful combat capability by 2025.

Mr. DiDonato is a volunteer member of the NRP-funded LMACC team lead by Dr. Shelley Gallup. He originally created what would become the armament for LMACC’s baseline Shrike variant in collaboration with the Naval Postgraduate School in a prior role as a contract engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. He has provided systems and mechanical engineering support to organizations across the defense industry from the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) to Spirit Aerosystems, working on projects for all branches of the armed forces. Feel free to contact him at Benjamin.didonato@nps.edu or 443-442-4254.

Additional points of contact:

The LMACC program is led by Shelley Gallup, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Research, Information Sciences Department, Naval Postgraduate School. Dr. Gallup is a retired surface warfare officer and is deeply involved in human-machine partnership research. Feel free to contact him at Spgallup@nps.edu or 831-392-6964.

Johnathan Mun, Ph.D. Research Professor, Information Sciences Department, Naval Postgraduate School. Dr. Mun is a leading expert and author of nearly a dozen books on total cost simulation and real-options analysis. Feel free to contact him at Jcmun@nps.edu or 925-998-5101.

Feature Image: Austal’s Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV) showing an optionally-manned bridge, VLS cells and engine funnels amidships, and plenty of free deck space with a tethered UAS at the rear. The LUSV is meant to be the U.S. Navy’s adjunct missile magazine. (Austal picture.)

U.S.-China Tensions and How Unmanned Military Craft Raise the Risk of War

This article originally featured in the Nikkei Asian Review under the title, “US-China tensions — unmanned military craft raise risk of war,” and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Evan Karlik

The immediate danger from militarized artificial intelligence isn’t hordes of killer robots, nor the exponential pace of a new arms race.

As recent events in the Strait of Hormuz indicate, the bigger risk is the fact that autonomous military craft make for temping targets – and increase the potential for miscalculation on and above the high seas.

While less provocative than planes, vehicles, or ships with human crew or troops aboard, unmanned systems are also perceived as relatively expendable. Danger arises when they lower the threshold for military action.

It is a development with serious implications in volatile regions far beyond the Gulf – not least the South China Sea, where the U.S. has recently confronted both China and Russia.

If China dispatched a billion-dollar U.S. destroyer and a portion of its crew to the bottom of the Taiwan Strait, a war declaration from Washington and mobilization to the region would undoubtedly follow. But should a Chinese missile suddenly destroy an orbiting, billion-dollar U.S. intelligence satellite, the White House and the U.S. Congress might opt to avoid immediate escalation.

“Satellites have no mothers,” quip space policy experts, and the same is true for airborne drones and unmanned ships. Their demise does not call for pallbearers, headstones, or memorial statues.

As autonomous systems proliferate in the air and on the ocean, military commanders may feel emboldened to strike these platforms, expecting lower repercussions by avoiding the loss of human life.

Consider when Chinese naval personnel in a small boat seized an unmanned American underwater survey glider in the sea approximately 100 kilometers off the Philippines in December 2016. The winged, torpedo-shaped unit was within sight of its handlers aboard the U.S. Navy oceanographic vessel Bowditch, who gaped in astonishment as it was summarily hoisted aboard a Chinese warship less than a kilometer distant. The U.S. responded with a diplomatic démarche and congressional opprobrium, and the glider was returned within the week.

U.S. Navy oceanographic gliders record temperature and salinity, and are remotely piloted from a round-the-clock operations center in Mississippi. (U.S. Navy photo)

Lately, both Chinese and Russian navies in the Western Pacific have shown themselves bolder than ever. Early in June, south of Okinawa, the Russian destroyer Admiral Vinogradov came within tens of meters of the U.S. guided-missile cruiser Chancellorsville.

In September 2018, the American destroyer Decatur conducted a freedom of navigation transit near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea; it nearly collided with a Chinese destroyer attempting to ‘shoulder’ the American vessel off its course through these hotly contested waters.

In coming years, the Chinese military will find increasingly plentiful opportunities to intercept American autonomous systems. The 40-meter prototype trimaran Sea Hunter, an experimental submarine-tracking vessel, recently transited between Hawaii and San Diego without human intervention. It has yet to be used operationally, but it is only a matter of time before such vessels are deployed.

The U.S. Navy’s nearly $3 billion ‘Ghost Fleet’ initiative aims to develop a total of 10, 2,000-ton unmanned warships. Boeing recently edged out Lockheed Martin to begin construction of four extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles, each capable of transiting twelve thousand kilometers autonomously, for $43 million.

China’s navy may find intercepting such unmanned and unchaperoned surface vessels or mini-submarines too tantalizing to pass up, especially if Washington’s meek retort to the 2016 glider incident is seen as an indication of American permissiveness or timidity.

With a captive vessel, persevering Chinese technicians could attempt to bypass anti-tamper mechanisms, and if successful, proceed to siphon off communication codes or proprietary artificial intelligence software, download navigational data or pre-programmed rules of engagement, or probe for cyber vulnerabilities that could be exploited against similar vehicles.

No doubt Beijing is closely watching how the Trump administration responds to Iran’s downing of a Global Hawk surveillance drone on June 20, assessing U.S. willingness to punch back in kind, or to escalate.

Nearly 100,000 ships transit the strategically vital Singapore Strait annually, where more than 75 collisions or groundings occurred last year alone. In such congested international sea lanes, declaring a foreign navy’s autonomous vessel wayward or unresponsive would easily serve as convenient rationale for towing it into territorial waters for impoundment, or for boarding it straightaway.

More than 4,000 AI and robotics researchers have joined an open letter advocating a ban on autonomous offensive weapons that function without human supervision, and this past March, the U.N. Secretary-General decried such machines as “politically unacceptable, morally repugnant,” and worthy of international prohibition.

Such limits or controls on artificial intelligence would be immensely more difficult to verify when compared to existing inspection regimes for nuclear missiles or centrifuges. In the meantime, urgent action is needed.

A memorandum of understanding signed five years ago by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese defense ministry, as well as the collaborative code of naval conduct created at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium, should be updated with an expanded right-of-way hierarchy and non-interference standards to clarify how manned ships and aircraft should interact with their autonomous counterparts. Without such guidance, the risk of miscalculation increases.

An incident without any immediate human presence or losses could nonetheless trigger unexpected escalation and spark the next conflict.

We should fear that, much more than killer robots.

Evan Karlik is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. He served last year as a Defense Fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives. His views are his own and are in no way intended to reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Featured Image: (Feb. 1, 2019) The Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned sea surface vehicle developed in partnership between the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).(U.S. Navy photo)

Spasibo

Fiction Topic Week

By Evan D’Alessandro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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