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Naval Escalation in an Unmanned Context

By Jonathan Panter

On March 14, two Russian fighter jets intercepted a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in international airspace, breaking one of the drone’s propellers and forcing it to crash into the Black Sea. The Russians probably understood that U.S. military retaliation – or, more importantly, escalation – was unlikely; wrecking a drone is not like killing people. Indeed, the incident contrasts sharply with the recent revelation of another aerial face-off. In late 2022, Russian aircraft nearly shot down a manned British RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft. With respect to escalation, senior defense officials later indicated, the latter incident could have been severe.1

There is an emerging view among scholars and policymakers that unmanned aerial vehicles can reduce the risk of escalation, by providing an off-ramp during crisis incidents that, were human beings involved, might otherwise spark public calls for retaliation. Other recent events, such as the Iranian shoot-down of a U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk in the Persian Gulf in 2019 – which likewise did not spur U.S. military kinetic retaliation – lend credence to this view. But in another theater, the Indo-Pacific, the outlook for unmanned escalation dynamics is uncertain, and potentially much worse. There, unmanned (and soon, autonomous) military competition will occur not just between aircraft, but between vessels on and below the ocean.

Over the past two decades, China has substantially enlarged its navy and irregular maritime forces. It has deployed these forces to patrol its excessive maritime claims and to threaten Taiwan, expanded its nuclear arsenal, and built a conventional anti-access, area-denial capacity whose overlap with its nuclear deterrence architecture remains unclear. Unmanned and autonomous maritime systems add a great unknown variable to this mix. Unmanned ships and submarines may strengthen capabilities in ways not currently anticipated; introduce unexpected vulnerabilities across entire warfare areas; lower the threshold for escalatory acts; or complicate each side’s ability to make credible threats and assurances.

Forecasting Escalation Dynamics

Escalation is a transition from peace to war, or an increase in the severity of an ongoing conflict. Many naval officers assume that unmanned ships are inherently de-escalatory assets due to their lack of personnel onboard. Recent high-profile incidents – such as the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk incidents mentioned previously – seem, at first glance, to confirm this assumption. The logic is simple: if one side destroys the other’s unmanned asset, the victim will feel less compelled to respond, since no lives were lost.

While enticing, this assumption is also illusory. First, the example is of limited applicability: most unmanned ships and submarines under development will not be deployed independently. They will work in tandem with each other and with manned assets, such that the compromise of one vessel – potentially by cyber means – often affects others, changing a force’s overall readiness. The most serious escalation risk thus lies at a systemic, or fleetwide, level – not at the level of individual shoot-downs.

Second, lessons about escalation from two decades of operational employment of unmanned aircraft cannot be imported, wholesale, to the surface and subsurface domains – where there is little to no operational record of unmanned vessel employment. The technology, operating environments, expected threats, tactics, and other factors differ substantially.

Our understanding of one variant of escalation, that in the nuclear realm, is famously theoretical – the result of deductive logic, modeling, or gaming – rather than empirical, since nuclear weapons have only been used once in conflict, and never between two nuclear powers. Right now, the story is similar for unmanned surface and subsurface vessels. Neither side has deployed unmanned vessels at in sufficient numbers or duration, and across a great enough variety of contexts, for researchers to draw evidence-based conclusions. Everything remains a projection.

Fortunately, three existing areas of academic scholarship – crisis bargaining, inadvertent nuclear escalation, and escalation in cyberspace – provide some clues about what naval escalation in an unmanned context might look like.

Crisis Bargaining

During international crises, a state may try to convince its opponent that it is willing to fight over an issue – and that, if war were to break out, it would prevail. The goal is to get what you want without actually fighting. To intimidate an opponent, a state might inflate its capabilities or hide its weaknesses. To convince others of its willingness to fight, a state might take actions that create a risk of war, such as mobilizing troops (so-called “costly signals”). Ascertaining capability and intent in international crises is therefore quite difficult, and misjudging either may lead to war.2

Between nuclear-armed states, these phenomena are more severe. Neither side wants nuclear war, nor believes that the other is willing to risk it. To make threats credible, therefore, states may initiate an unstable situation (“rock the boat”) but then “tie their own hands” so that catastrophe can be averted only if the opponent backs down. States do this by, for example, automating decision-making, or stationing troops in harm’s way.3

The proliferation of unmanned and autonomous vessels promises to impact all of these crisis bargaining strategies. First – as noted previously – unmanned vessels may be perceived as “less escalatory,” since deploying them does not risk sailors’ lives. But this perception could have the opposite effect, if states – believing the escalation risk to be lower – deploy their unmanned vessels closer to an adversary’s territory or defensive systems. The adversary might, in turn, believe that his opponent is preparing the battlespace, or even that an attack is imminent. Economists call this paradox “moral hazard.” The classic example is an insured person’s willingness to take on more risk.

Second, a truly autonomous platform – one lacking a means of being recalled or otherwise controlled after its deployment – would be ideal for “tying hands” strategies. A state could send such vessels to run a blockade, for instance, daring the other side to fire first. Conversely, an unmanned (but not autonomous) vessel might have remote human operators, giving a state some leeway to back down after “rocking the boat.” In a crisis, it may be difficult for an adversary to distinguish between the two types of vessels.

A further complication arises if a state misrepresents a recallable vessel as non-recallable, perhaps to gain the negotiating leverage of “tying hands,” while maintaining a secret exit option. And even if an autonomous vessel is positively identified as such, attributing “intent” to it is a gray area. The more autonomously a vessel operates, the easier it is to attribute its behaviors to its programming, but the harder it is to determine whether its actions in a specific scenario are intended by humans (versus being default actions or error).

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles?

Scholars have begun to address such questions by studying unmanned aerial systems.4 To give two recent examples, one finding suggests that unmanned aircraft may be de-escalatory assets, since the absence of a pilot means domestic publics would be less likely to demand blood-for-blood if a drone gets shot down.5 Another scholar finds that because drones combine persistent surveillance with precision strike, they can “increase the certainty of punishment” – making threats more credible.6

Caution should be taken in applying such lessons to the maritime realm. First, unmanned ships and submarines are decades behind unmanned aerial vehicles in sophistication. Accordingly, current plans point to a (potentially decades-long) roll-out period during which unmanned vessels will be partially or optionally manned.7 Such vessels could appear unmanned to an adversary, when in fact crews are simply not visible. This complicates rules of engagement, and warps expectations for retaliation if a state targets an apparently-unmanned vessel that in fact has a skeleton crew.

Second, ships and submarines have much longer endurance times than aircraft. Hence, mechanical and software problems will receive less frequent local troubleshooting and digital forensic examination. An aerial drone that suffers an attempted hack will return to base within a few hours; not so with unmanned ships and submarines because their transit and on-station times are much longer, especially those dispersed across a wide geographic area for distributed maritime operations. This complicates efforts to attribute failures to “benign” causes or adversarial compromise. The question may not be whether an attempted attack merits a response due to loss of life, but rather whether it represents the opening salvo in a conflict.

Finally, with regard to the combination of persistent surveillance and precision strike, most unmanned maritime systems in advanced stages of development for the U.S. Navy do not combine sensing and shooting. Small- and medium-sized surface craft, for instance, are much closer to deployment than the U.S. Navy’s “Large Unmanned Surface Vessel,” which is envisioned as an adjunct missile magazine. The small- and medium-sized craft are expected to be scouts, minesweepers, and distributed sensors. Accordingly, they do little for communicating credible threats, but do present attractive targets for a first mover in a conflict, whose opening goal would be to blind the adversary.

Inadvertent Nuclear Escalation

During conventional war, even if adversaries carefully avoid targeting the other side’s nuclear weapons, other parts of a military’s nuclear deterrent may be dual-use systems. An attack on an enemy’s command-and-control, early warning systems, attack submarines, or the like – even one conducted purely for conventional objectives – could make the target state fear that its nuclear deterrent is in danger of being rendered vulnerable.8 This fear could encourage a state to launch its nuclear weapons before it is too late. Incremental improvements to targeting and sensing in the past two decades – especially in the underwater realm – have exacerbated the problem by making retaliatory assets easier to find and destroy.9

In the naval context, the risk is that one side may perceive a “use it or lose it” scenario if it feels that its ballistic missile submarines have all been (or are close to being) located. In particular, the ever-wider deployment of assets that render the underwater battlespace more transparent – such as small, long-duration underwater vehicles equipped with sonar – could undermine an adversary’s second-strike capability. Today, the US Navy’s primary anti-submarine platforms aggregate organic sensing and offensive capabilities (surface combatants, attack submarines, and maritime patrol aircraft). The shift to distributed maritime operations using unmanned platforms, however, portends a future of disaggregated capabilities. Small platforms without onboard weapons systems will still provide remote sensing capability to the joint force. If these sensing platforms are considered non-escalatory because they lack offensive capabilities and sailors onboard, the US Navy might deploy them more widely.10

Escalation in Cyberspace

The US government’s shift to persistent engagement in cyberspace, a strategy called “Defend Forward,”11 has underscored two debates on cyber escalation. The first concerns whether operations in the cyber domain expose previously secure adversarial capabilities to disruption, shifting incentives for preemption on either side.12 The second concerns whether effects generated by cyberattacks (i.e., cyber effects or physical effects) can trigger a “cross-domain” response.13

These debates remain unresolved. Narrowing the focus to cyberattacks on unmanned or autonomous vessels presents an additional challenge for analysis, because these technologies are nascent and efforts to ensure their cyber resilience remain classified. Platforms without crews may present an attractive cyber target, perhaps because interfering with the operation of an unmanned vessel is perceived as less escalatory since human life is not directly at risk.

But a distinction must be made between the compromise of a single vessel and its follow-on effects at a system, or fleetwide level. Based on current plans, unmanned vessels are most likely to be employed as part of an extended, networked hybrid fleet. If penetrating one unmanned vessel’s cyber defenses can allow an adversary to move laterally across a network, this “effect” may be severe, potentially affecting a whole mission or warfare area. The subsequent decline in offensive or defensive capacity at the operational level of war could shift incentives for preemption. Since unmanned vessels operating as part of a team (with other unmanned vessels or with manned ones) are dependent on beyond-line-of-sight communications, interruption of one of these pathways (e.g., disabling a geostationary satellite over the area of operations) could have a similar systemic effect.

The Role of Human Judgment

Modern naval operations already depend on automated combat systems, lists of “if-then” statements, and data links. For decades, people have increasingly assigned mundane and repetitive (or computationally laborious) shipboard tasks to computers, leaving officers and sailors in a supervisory role. This state of affairs is accelerating with the introduction of unmanned and autonomous vessels, especially when combined with artificial intelligence. These technologies are likely to make human judgment more, not less, important.14 Many future naval officers will be designers, regulators, or managers of automated systems. So too will civilian policymakers directing the use of unmanned and autonomous maritime systems to signal capability and intent in crisis. For both policymakers and officers, questions requiring substantial judgment will include:

The “moral hazard” problem. If unmanned vessels are perceived as less escalatory – because they lack crews, or because they carry only sensors and no offensive capabilities – are they more likely to be employed in ways that incur other risks (such as threatening adversary defensive or nuclear deterrent capabilities in peacetime)?

The autonomy/intent paradox. When will an autonomous vessel’s action be considered a signal of an adversary’s intent (since the adversary designed and coded the vessel to act a certain way), versus an action that the vessel “decided” to take on its own? If an adversary claims ignorance – that he did not intend an autonomous vessel to act a certain way – when will he be taken at his word?15

The attribution problem. Since unmanned vessels have no crews, local troubleshooting of equipment – along with digital forensics – will occur less frequently than it does on manned vessels. Remotely attributing a problem to routine component or software failure, versus to adversarial cyberattack, will often be harder than it would be with physical access. Will there have to be a higher “certainty threshold” for positive attribution of an attack on an unmanned vessel?

The “roll-out” uncertainty. How will the first few decades of hybrid fleet operations (utilizing partial and optional-manning constructs) complicate the decision to target or compromise unmanned vessels? If a vessel appears unmanned, but has an unseen skeleton crew – and then suffers an attack – how should the target state assess the attacker’s claim of ignorance about the presence of personnel onboard?

The cyber problem. Do unmanned systems’ attractiveness as a cyber target (due to their absence of personnel, often highly-networked employment) present a system-wide vulnerability to those warfare areas than lean more heavily on unmanned systems than others? Which warfare areas would have to be affected to change incentives for preemption?

Since unmanned vessels have not yet been broadly integrated into fleet operations, these questions have no definitive, evidence-based answers. But they can help frame the problem. The maritime domain in East Asia is already particularly susceptible to escalation. Interactions between potential foes should, ideally, never escalate without the consent and direction of policymakers. But in practice, interactions-at-sea can escalate due to hyper-local misperceptions, influenced by factors like command, control, and communications, situational awareness, or relative capabilities. All of these factors are changing with the advent of unmanned and autonomous platforms. Escalation in this context cannot be an afterthought.

Jonathan Panter is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Columbia University. His research examines Congressional oversight over U.S. naval operations. Prior to attending Columbia, Mr. Panter served as a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy. He holds an M.Phil. and M.A. in Political Science from Columbia, and a B.A. in Government from Cornell University.

The author thanks Johnathan Falcone, Anand Jantzen, Jenny Jun, Shuxian Luo, and Ian Sundstrom for comments on earlier drafts of this article.


1. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt, “Miscommunication Nearly Led to Russian Jet Shooting Down British Spy Plane, U.S. Officials Say,” New York Times, April 12, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/12/world/europe/russian-jet-british-spy-plane.html.

2. James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization 49, no. 3 (Summer 1995): 379-414.

3. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, [1966] 2008), 43-48, 99-107.

4. See, e.g., Michael C. Horowitz, Sarah E. Kreps, and Matthew Fuhrmann, “Separating Fact from Fiction in the Debate over Drone Proliferation,” International Security 41, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 7-42.

5. Erik Lin-Greenberg, “Wargame of Drones: Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Crisis Escalation,” Journal of Conflict Resolution (2022). See also Erik Lin-Greenberg, “Game of Drones: What Experimental Wargames Reveal About Drones and Escalation,” War on the Rocks, January 10, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/01/game-of-drones-what-experimental-wargames-reveal-about-drones-and-escalation/.

6. Amy Zegart, “Cheap flights, credible threats: The future of armed drones and coercion,” Journal of Strategic Studies 43, no. 1 (2020): 6-46.

7. Sam Lagrone, “Navy: Large USV Will Require Small Crews for the Next Several Years,” USNI News, August 3, 2021, https://news.usni.org/2021/08/03/navy-large-usv-will-require-small-crews-for-the-next-several-years.

8. Barry D. Posen, Inadvertent Escalation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); James Acton, “Escalation through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-and-Control Systems Raises the Risks of an Inadvertent Nuclear War,” International Security 43, no. 1 (Summer 2018): 56-99. For applications to contemporary Sino-US security competition, see: Caitlin Talmadge, “Would China Go Nuclear? Assessing the Risk of Chinese Nuclear Escalation in a Conventional War with the United States,” International Security 41, no. 4 (Spring 2017): 50-92; Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Dangerous Confidence? Chinese Views on Nuclear Escalation,” International Security 44, no. 2 (Fall 2019): 61-109; and Wu Riqiang, “Assessing China-U.S. Inadvertent Nuclear Escalation,” International Security 46, no. 3 (Winter 2021/2022): 128-162.

9. Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The New Era of Counterforce,” International Security 41, no. 4 (Spring 2017): 9-49; Rose Goettemoeller, “The Standstill Conundrum: The Advent of Second-Strike Vulnerability and Options to Address It,” Texas National Security Review 4, no. 4 (Fall 2021): 115-124.

10. Jonathan D. Caverley and Peter Dombrowski suggest that one component of crisis stability – the distinguishability of offensive and defensive weapons – is more difficult at sea because naval platforms are designed to perform multiple missions. From this perspective, disaggregating capabilities might improve offense-defense distinguishability and prove stabilizing, rather than escalatory. See: “Cruising for a Bruising: Maritime Competition in an Anti-Access Age.” Security Studies 29, no. 4 (2020): 680-681.

11. For an introduction to this strategy, see: Michael P. Fischerkeller and Robert J. Harknett, “Persistent Engagement, Agreed Competition, and Cyberspace Interaction Dynamics and Escalation,” Cyber Defense Review (2019), https://cyberdefensereview.army.mil/Portals/6/CDR-SE_S5-P3-Fischerkeller.pdf.

12. Erik Gartzke and John R. Lindsay, “Thermonuclear Cyberwar,” Journal of Cybersecurity 3, no. 1 (March 2017): 37-48; Erica D. Borghard and Shawn W. Lonergan, “Cyber Operations as Imperfect Tools of Escalation,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 13, no. 3 (Fall 2019): 122-145.

13. See, e.g., Sarah Kreps and Jacquelyn Schneider, “Escalation firebreaks in the cyber, conventional, and nuclear domains: moving beyond effects-based logics,” Journal of Cybersecurity 5, no. 1 (Fall 2019): 1-11; Jason Healey and Robert Jervis, “The Escalation Inversion and Other Oddities of Situational Cyber Stability,” Texas National Security Review 3, no. 4 (Fall 2020): 30-53.

14. Avi Goldfarb and John R. Lindsay, “Prediction and Judgment: Why Artificial Intelligence Increases the Importance of Humans in War,” International Security 46, no. 3 (Winter 2021/2022): 7-50.

15. The author thanks Tove Falk for this insight.

Featured Image: A medium displacement unmanned surface vessel and an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter from Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 73 participate in U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem (UxS IBP) April 21, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Shannon Renf)

Every Ship a SAG and the LUSV Imperative

By Lieutenant Kyle Cregge, USN

The US Navy’s strike capacity is shrinking. As highlighted in Congressional testimony with senior leaders, the Surface Navy is set to lose 788 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells through the end of the Davidson Window in 2027. This 8.85% of current Surface Navy VLS capacity represents the equivalent of eight Arleigh Burke-class destroyers leaving the fleet as the Ticonderoga cruisers are retired. However, even the most aggressive and expensive shipbuilding alternative would not return equivalent VLS numbers to the surface fleet until the late 2030s. Present maritime infrastructure capacity further strangles efforts to buy additional Arleigh Burke destroyers, Constellation-class frigates, and Virginia-class submarines. These complex multi-mission ships cost billions of dollars and years of investment in build times, and yet service life extension proposals are equally unsavory. From extending aging Ticonderoga cruisers to arming merchants or Expeditionary Fast Transports, none are cheap, scalable, or sustainable in the long-term. All this while the world’s largest navy, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), continues its building spree at speed and scale, delivering combatants equipped with long-range anti-ship missiles meant to challenge America’s role as balancer in Eurasia.

Figure 1. Click to expand. Surface Ship VLS Data, Adopted from the CBO’s analysis of the Navy’s FY23 Shipbuilding Plan.

Where can the Surface Navy focus its efforts for future growth given the financial constraints and maritime industrial base capacity? What capabilities are most likely to enable a replaceable, lethal force to deter or deny Chinese aggression from the Taiwan Strait to the Second Island Chain?

The Surface Navy must build and deploy the Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle (LUSV) at scale as small surface combatants, to economically restore and grow VLS capacity over the next decade. A concept for its implementation and other USVs like it, “Every Ship a SAG,” proposes a distributed future force architecture, where every manned ship can operate far afield from each other, while each is surrounded by multiple VLS-equipped and optionally manned LUSVs. Doctrinally, a Surface Action Group (SAG) is defined as a temporary or standing organization of combatant ships, other than aircraft carriers, tailored for a specific tactical mission. Together, these manned-unmanned teams will form more lethal SAGs than a single ship or manned surface action group operating alone. Led by Surface Warfare Lieutenants as Unmanned Task Group Commanders, this USV-augmented SAG offers a lethal instantiation of the next-generation hybrid fleet.

“Every Ship a SAG” provides a scalable and flexible model for incorporating current and future unmanned systems with the existing surface fleet. The fleet could rapidly up-gun conventional platforms and even amphibious ships, Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), or Expeditionary Staging Bases (ESB) with more lethal USVs as teammates. Lastly, “Every Ship a SAG” offers mitigation for many of the concerns levied at Navy USV concepts, including Hull, Mechanical, and Electrical (HM&E) reliability, maintenance, and spare parts; force protection; C5I/Networks; autonomy; and the role of USVs in deterrence. Mutual support from a manned ship reduces operational risk and will enable the small crew led by the Surface Warfare Early Commander to embark on their USV to execute critical manned operations during dangerous or restricted waters evolutions. These small teams then debark to a designated mothership and perform USV mission integration when the USV is in an unmanned mode. “Every Ship a SAG” offers a critical next step between today’s nascent USV capability and a more advanced, USV-forward, and independent future.

Now is a critical moment in history. LUSVs must be scaled to meet the Navy’s warfighting mission, and Congress must resource the supporting pillars to ensure effective outcomes. When every manned US Navy ship is a Surface Action Group, this distributed hybrid fleet will be more lethal, survivable, and ready to fight and win maritime wars against peer adversaries.

Defining “Every Ship a SAG”

The Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations have consistently argued for the introduction of unmanned systems and their incorporation into the fleet. Leaders have envisioned LUSV as a 200-300ft low-cost, high endurance, and reconfigurable corvette accommodating up to 32 VLS cells. The ship is programmed to be bought in Fiscal Year 2025 with subsequent buys out to 2027 with a three-ship purchase at $241 million per ship. The Navy’s unmanned strategies have referred to LUSVs as “adjunct magazines,” providing greater strike and anti-surface warfare weapons. This vision is appropriate, but has narrowly scoped the ship’s offensive technical capabilities. Myriad experts have penned compelling, lengthy vignettes illustrating USVs in the fleet, with advantages including sensor networking, depth of fire, survivability, and many others.

The “Every Ship a SAG” construct offers a vision for weaponized USVs that is easily understood; from the average fleet sailor to senior leaders to (maybe most critically) Congress. In addition, the concept acknowledges the current fleet design both in Strike Groups and Surface Action Groups, while facilitating the introduction of unmanned ships within a task organization framework common to manned units. Operationally, LUSVs will meet specific, near-term needs in support of national strategies via distributed sea denial and strike, while enhancing the lethality of the surface fleet through increased missile magazine distribution and capacity. When integrated into the force, LUSVs will increase the survivability of the fleet by complicating an adversary’s ability to target and attack surface forces. What does this look like in practice?

In a peacetime environment and workup cycle, the Unmanned Operations Center (UOC) and USV Divisions in Port Hueneme, California, or a local Fleet Maritime Operations center, would manage the traditional “manning,” training, and equipping functions of ship workup cycles towards integrating into Strike Groups and SAGs. These LUSV Divisions would be led by Early Command Junior Officers. In fact, the Surface Community has already begun selecting officers for Unmanned Task Group Early Command roles both in Port Hueneme and in Bahrain with Task Force 59.

Having been assigned to units for scheduled deployments, LUSVs would attach to the designated ships in the deployment group, providing greater flexibility to Combatant Commanders in force packages. Just as the MH-60 Romeo community deploys expeditionary detachments of pilots and aircrew to cruisers and destroyers, these Early Command officers and a small crew would embark a ship, or series of ships, serving in a variety of modalities as expert controllers, emergency maintainers, and expeditionary operators. A key distinction between the helicopter detachment concept and command is the interchangeability of USVs, moving from independent expeditionary command with a manned crew, to embarking on a mothership or series of motherships supporting unmanned operations.

Figure 2: A top-level view comparing USV employment models with generalized benefits and limitations. (Author-generated graphic)

As demonstrated in Figure 2, LUSVs would operate at distances where the manned ship can provide mutual support and respond if needed. This might include periods within the visible horizon but also episodic surges well over the horizon for specific missions. From a lethality perspective, the additional VLS cells and sensors (in the Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle) offer enhanced battlespace awareness and depth of fire than is available with a single ship. While others have argued for pushing attritable USVs far forward towards threats, treating every manned ship as a SAG with its LUSVs in escort will address many of the issues highlighted by leaders, including Congressional representatives.

Concerning reliability and maintenance, the Navy has based LUSV prototypes on existing commercial ship designs while conducting further land and sea-based testing and validating its critical technologies and subsystems. While designed to operate for extended periods without intervention, the Unmanned Expeditionary Detachment will be able to support emergent repair or troubleshooting if necessary.

For concerns of autonomy or ethical use of weapons from unmanned units, LUSVs will rely on human-in-the-loop (HITL) for command and control of weapons employment decisions. Therefore an on-scene commander simplifies network and communications requirements between the manned fleet and its LUSV escorts. Others have also argued for unmanned systems to be attritable, and to be sure, it would be preferable to lose an LUSV to a manned ship. However, these will still be multi-million dollar combatants with exquisite technology that should not fall into an adversary’s hands – much in the same way how Fifth Fleet dealt with Iranian attempts to capture a US Saildrone in 2022. Having a local manned combatant nearby will support kinetic and non-kinetic force protection of the LUSV, regardless of the theater or threat.

USVs Ranger and Nomad unmanned vessels underway in the Pacific Ocean near the Channel Islands on July 3, 2021. (US Navy Photo)

Finally, treating an LUSV as a force multiplier with a certain number of VLS cells is in line with previous arguments to count the fleet via means other than ship hulls, and simplifies the LUSV’s deterrent value as just another ship that delivers a specific capability at a discount, just as other manned ships do.

Sequencing and Scaling “Every Ship a SAG”

No vision for USV integration into the Surface Force would be complete without considering how these systems would fit into the career pipeline of current and future Surface Warfare Officers and their enlisted teams. In an “Every Ship a SAG” model, LUSV ships would start as individual early commands for post-Division Officer Lieutenants, whereas multiple LUSVs would be organized into a Squadron, led by a post-Department Head Early Command Officer. The Surface Community executed this model with its Mark VI Patrol Craft before their recent retirement, and similarly these squadrons would be organized under the nascent USV Divisions, who have a direct line to the experimentation and tactical development done by the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), and specifically for unmanned systems, in Surface Development Squadron One (SURFDEVRON).

Cmdr. Jeremiah Daley, commanding officer, Unmanned Surface Vehicle Division One, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, and Capt. Shea Thompson, commodore, Surface Development Squadron One, tour USV Sea Hunter at Naval Station Point Loma, California, (Sept. 28, 2022, DOD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

The surface community is leading the charge towards a hybrid fleet by advancing USV operational concepts and integrating unmanned experience into a hybrid career path. The first salvo in this career movement was launched in 2021, with the establishment of the Unmanned Early Command positions, but scaling this hybrid model is both critical and beneficial. The community will only benefit from commanding officers with expertise and insights in employing a hybrid surface fleet. As pipelines are clarified and unmanned opportunities grow, officers would transition from one expeditionary tour leading a detachment controlling and maintaining an LUSV, back into Division Officer, Department Head, Executive, and Commanding Officer roles in traditional at-sea commands directing the employment of the same LUSVs. Just as the SWO Nuke community develops expertise in both conventional and nuclear fields at each level of at-sea tours, a future hybrid fleet necessitates competencies in fields like robotics, engineering, applied mathematics, physics, computer science, and cyber.

Lastly, SWO professional experiences and investments in training and education for the use of unmanned systems would further Navy and Department of Defense objectives around Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, and Digital Transformation. With unmanned systems, deploying new HM&E or weapons payloads may be a simpler task compared to accelerating fleet data collection and its subsequent use in software development and delivery. Task Force 59 explicitly linked these issues as the Fifth Fleet Unmanned and Artificial Intelligence Task Force.

“Every Ship a SAG” on a Digital Ocean

Some may question whether “Every Ship a SAG” aligns with the already successful work of Task Force 59, directed by Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, Commander, Naval Forces Central Command, and Captain Michael Brasseur, the Task Force’s Commodore. Captain Brasseur has long advocated for increased AI and Unmanned Integration into the Navy, going back to his time as Co-Founder and first Director of NATO’s Maritime Unmanned Systems Innovation and Coordination Cell (MUSIC^2). He convincingly argued for a “Digital Ocean” Concept where drones:

“Propelled by wind, wave, and solar energy… carry  sensors that can collect data critical to unlocking the untapped potential of the ocean…. [to] exploit enormous swaths of data with artificial intelligence- enhanced tools to predict weather patterns, get early warning of appearing changes and risks, ensure the free flow of trade, and keep a close eye on migration patterns and a potential adversary’s ships and submarines.”

Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, left, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, shakes hands with Capt. Michael D. Brasseur, the first commodore of Task Force (TF 59) during a commissioning ceremony for TF 59 onboard Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Sept. 9. TF 59 is the first U.S. Navy task force of its kind, designed to rapidly integrate unmanned systems and artificial intelligence with maritime operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dawson Roth)

Captain Brasseur has implemented his prudent and innovative vision in the Fifth Fleet Area of Responsibility. Task Force 59 is a success whose model is likely to be adopted in other theaters. Rather than conflict with the “Digital Ocean” model, “Every Ship a SAG” complements this work in line with missions of the US Navy as Congressman Mike Gallagher recently updated and codified in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. The Wisconsin Representative edited the Title 10 mission of the Navy such that the service “shall be organized, trained, and equipped for the peacetime promotion of the national security interests and prosperity of the United States and prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea.” In short: a “Digital Ocean” and all it enables serves the peacetime promotion of American national security interests and prosperity, especially in coordination with our allies and partners.

“Every Ship a SAG” postures the Navy for prompt and sustained combat operations incident to the sea. Both missions have been a part of the U.S. Navy since its inception, and both visions are applicable as unmanned ships enter our fleets. Further, LUSVs retain additional utility below the level of armed conflict. To support UOC training, experimentation, and manned ship certifications, LUSVs would serve as simulated opposition forces during high-end exercises, reducing demand on manned sustainment forces, or enabling higher-end threat presentations. Precisely in these scenarios are the venues whereby the fleet can integrate new systems and networks while bridging toward operational concepts for unmanned systems as LUSVs earn increased confidence. In the interim and foreseeable future, however, “Every Ship a SAG” remains the scalable, flexible model for deployed LUSVs within current fleet operations. 

Sober Acknowledgement of Critical Pillars

Unmanned ships and various other transformational technologies are not a panacea for the current and future threats facing the US Navy. Even the promises and methodologies proposed here rely upon critical readiness pillars, each of which could warrant deep individual examinations but are worth mentioning.

Even if the US Navy built a certain number of LUSVs to replace lost VLS capacity, failure to resource them or manage them effectively would still likely doom the program. The fleet must understand and plan for the “total cost of ownership” of a hybrid fleet. These units will still require manpower at various levels and a maintenance infrastructure to sustain them in fleet concentration areas. Nor can the fleet avoid at-sea time to test, integrate, and experiment with these systems, much in the same way that RADM Wayne E. Meyer emphasized, build a little, test a little, learn a lot,” with the success of the Aegis Weapons System. The Navy has made efforts to assuage Congressional concerns about reliability through investment in land-based testing. Yet the Surface Navy will need continued, reliable resourcing to continue that testing afloat while integrating LUSVs with traditional forces and experimenting with future concepts.

Characterizing those costs are beyond what is available in open-source, but wide-ranging demand for talent is imposing costs across the public and private sectors. Similarly dire is the state of munitions, as highlighted at the Surface Navy Association National Symposium by Commander, Fleet Forces Command, Admiral Caudle who “noted that [even] if the Navy had ready its 75 mission-capable ships, ‘their magazines wouldn’t all be full.’” Put simply: no amount of LUSVs built at economic costs will be worth anything if they lack the appropriate weapons to place in their launchers.

Lastly, the adaption of agile practices to implement better software, data, AI models, etc., is critical for the fleet to field increasingly capable and autonomous USVs. The Department of Defense and the Navy have made various investments in this direction. These include but are not limited to the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems (PEO IWS) “The Forge” working to accelerate ship combat system modernizations and development of the Integrated Combat System; to the Naval Postgraduate School’s new Office of Research and Innovation, to the type-command AI Task Forces. Each is working to provide value across various programs in the digital space. Resourcing, integration, and acceleration of those efforts are crucial.

Figure 3: Proposed priority pillars for success for the LUSV program, paired with a collection of Wayne Hughes’ Cornerstones of Naval Operations from Fleet Tactics and a posthumous article.

Individually, each pillar is a wicked problem, but we must take a sober look at those requirements while examining the same realities in the maritime industrial base. The reality appears that little can be done in the near term to accelerate new ship deliveries of complex multi-mission combatants built in Bath, Maine, and Pascagoula, Mississippi. At present, Fincantieri Marine in Wisconsin is the sole yard for FFG-62, while the remaining large shipyards pursue some collection of ESBs, littoral connectors, and generally, more multi-mission units. Fundamentally, a ship like LUSV is the only near-team option to accelerate a pre-war ship buildup given the PLAN’s construction speed.

As the world’s only Navy with a near-term plan and resourcing to meet and exceed 355 ships, the PLAN along with its fellow services has delivered longer-range weapons at greater capacities than the United States for years. By all available open-source data, the US Navy is falling behind the PLAN in the marathon of naval power while the PLAN accelerates toward future advantages.

Figure 4: Comparison of U.S. to PLAN fleet count totals, based on Congressional Research Service reporting on Chinese Military Modernization since 2005.i

Naval writers and thinkers can parse arguments about quantity versus quality, what the right metric is to assess fleet strength, or whether in a joint, Navy vs. Anti-Navy fight, a pure-maritime comparison is warranted. These are valuable discussions. Regardless, the US Navy’s Surface Forces onboard strike and anti-surface warfare capacities will continue to shrink in the near-term while Chinese threats accelerate. Furthermore, the Chinese industrial base capacity far exceeds American capacity at present. The relationship between US Navy leaders and industry could be described as frosty at best, with recent comments from the Chief of Naval Operations to industry including statements to “Pick up the pace… and prove [you have extra capacity]” and from the Commander of Fleet Forces Command stating that he is “not forgiving” industry’s delays.

Given the long-term buys of multi-mission combatants, national shipyards appear unlikely to generate increased efficiencies, accelerated timelines, or better-quality ships if they continue to build only the multi-billion dollar multi-mission combatants they have previously built. Accelerating LUSV procurement across the six shipyards solicited for LUSV concepts would provide increased capital and demand signal for the shipbuilding industry while providing complementary capabilities to the fleet. Yet while the LUSV can and should be a domestic program for growth, corvette-sized unmanned ships with VLS could easily fall into cooperative build plans with the various allies and partners who have frigate-sized, VLS-equipped combatants. The Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) technology-sharing agreement could provide an additional avenue for foreign construction. Further US coordination with Japan and South Korea could also prove fruitful, as the two East Asian allies represent the second and third largest global commercial shipbuilders  behind China.

While refining broader LUSV programs, it is worth considering the differences in shipbuilding costs between choosing LUSVs in a SAG compared to traditional manned combatants. Figure 5 provides a table of notional Surface Action Groups based on the fleet of today through 2027, while Figure 6 presents a table with the future ship programs and their costs.

Figure 5: Hypothetical future SAG LUSV force packages and VLS comparisons with current fleet combatants.
Figure 6: Hypothetical future SAG LUSV force packages and VLS comparisons with future fleet combatants.

Congressional Budget Office estimates for future programs like SSN(X) and DDG(X) present stark realities. The next-generation programs could run costs up to $6.3 billion and $3.3 billion, respectively. By comparison, if the Surface Navy chose to pursue an expanded LUSV buy to recapitalize the 788 VLS cells planned to disappear through 2027, this would require 25 32-cell LUSVs, totaling 800 cells. At $241 million per LUSV, the total (shipbuilding-only) costs would be $6.025 billion, or approximately less than a single SSN(X) or two DDG(X)s. While LUSV has a reduced collection of mission sets by comparison to future submarines and destroyers, it remains a ship that can conceivably be built in at least six American shipyards. Further, future LUSVs purpose-built to support Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) could hypothetically resolve the issue of the margin of the DDG-51 hull form being “maxed out” in space, weight, air, power, and cooling. Rather than a future large surface combatant required to have each capability resident in a single hull, as in DDG(X), a CPS LUSV in escort with a Flight III DDG may represent a proven ship design and better value, that other companies are attempting to support.

Ultimately, there are myriad ways to frame budgetary realities, but LUSV is the only cost-effective method for the surface force to quickly scale VLS capacity within existing force structure and given the present maritime industrial base.


The Surface Navy has a crucial opportunity to strengthen its capabilities and enhance its readiness by building and deploying LUSVs at scale. The “Every Ship a SAG” concept remains rooted in the intellectual work going back nearly a decade to “Distributed Lethality,” “Hunter-killer SAGs,” and their incorporation into Distributed Maritime Operations – only now with unmanned combatants. This manned-unmanned model provides a feasible solution for incorporating unmanned systems into the Surface Warfare Officer career path and forming more lethal Surface Action Groups for the future fight.

“Every Ship a SAG” addresses the concerns raised about Navy USV concepts and presents a clear vision for the future of wartime maritime operations. As the global security situation continues to evolve, the Surface Navy must take decisive action and invest in LUSVs to ensure it is prepared to meet its warfighting mission. It is time for Congress to fully support this effort by providing the necessary resources to bring the “Every Ship a SAG” model to life. Act now and make every ship a Surface Action Group.

Lieutenant Kyle Cregge is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He is the Prospective Operations Officer for USS PINCKNEY (DDG 91). The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or the Department of Defense.


i. O’Rourke, Ronald. “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress.” December 1, 2022.

ii. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress.” 2011. Pages 6, 12, and 25. Average Costs for New Flight IIA Destroyers based on averaging multi-year procurement of DDGs 114-116, coming to $1,847 Million per ship.

iii. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress.” 2022. Page 25. Table A-1. Per ship cost determined based on “Estimated Combined Procurement Cost of DDGs 1000, 1001, and 1002” in millions as shown in annual Navy budget submissions, using the FY23 Budget submission dividing the three ships’ cost by three.

iv. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy LPD-17 Flight II and LHA Amphibious Ship Programs: Background and Issues for Congress”. 2022. Pages 1 and 6. AND https://www.navy.mil/Resources/Fact-Files/Display-FactFiles/Article/2169795/aircraft-carriers-cvn/

v. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress” 2021. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/20971801-rl32418-12 Page 9.

vi. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress.” 2022. Page 9.

vii. Congressional Budget Office. “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2023 Shipbuilding Plan”. 2022. https://www.cbo.gov/publication/58447 Table 7, “Average Costs per Ship Over the 2023–2052 Period for Flight III DDG”.

viii. Ibid, for FFG-62 Frigates.

ix. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy Constellation (FFG-62) Class Frigate Program: Background and Issues for Congress”. 2021. Congressional Research Service.  https://sgp.fas.org/crs/weapons/R44972.pdf

x. CBO. Navy FY23 Shipbuilding Plan Analysis. Table 7. “Average Costs” DDG(X).

xi. Ibid. “Average Costs”. LPD(X), LHA-6, CVN-78.

xii. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress” 2021. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/20971801-rl32418-12 Page 9.

xiii. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress.” 2022. Page 9.

xiv. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy DDG(X) Next-Generation Destroyer Program: Background and Issues for Congress” 2022. Page 2.

Featured Image: The guided missile destroyers USS Mustin (DDG 89), foreground, and USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) steam through the Philippine Sea during a replenishment at sea Sept. 18, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Paul Kelly/Released)

Why Unmanned Systems Are The Go-To Option for Gray Zone Ops in the Gulf

Securing the Gulf Topic Week

By Heiko Borchert


Current incidents in the Arabian Sea should be seized as an opportunity to advance naval conceptual thinking about unmanned maritime systems in gray zone operations. Gray zone activities are an astute object for concept development, as they “creep up on their goals gradually,” rather than involving decisive moves, as Michael Mazarr has argued. In response, Mazarr contends, gray zone operations will “call for a greater emphasis on innovation” as these operations take different forms and intensities and thus require varied responses. This coincides with the general need to devote more attention to concepts development that drives the use of new naval technologies such as unmanned systems.

Applying Unmanned Systems to Gulf Security

Maritime stability in the Arabian Sea has deteriorated significantly over the past couple of weeks. In response to the Iranian seizure of the Stena Imperio, a Swedish oil tanker under British flag, London reached out to different European capitals in view of establishing a maritime protection mission escorting commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.

This incident and prior events in the Arabian Sea such as harassing commercial vessels with speedboats and assaults on commercial vessels are a perfect illustration of so-called gray zone activities. Located between war and peace, gray zone activities involve “coercive actions to change the status quo below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response,” as Lyle J. Morris and others have suggested.

These activities raise an obvious question: How best to respond? Staying out of the region for an interim period, as the British government has advised U.K. shipping, has been interpreted as a watershed moment “when the UK admits it can no longer protect its merchant vessels.” But even if political support for the maritime protection mission matured, the question would remain if there were enough adequate platforms to do the job.

Deploying big capital ships or surface combatants to escort merchant vessels might send a strong message of resolve to Iran, but doubts remain if this approach is adequate. Past experiences in the Arabian Sea have made it clear that naval vessels remain vulnerable to speedboats operating at a high tempo in distributed maneuver operations. While this is certainly only one method of attack, it is most important for strategic communication. Small boats successfully attacking or deterring prestigious naval ships delivers a message that all gray zone actors want to convey.

It is time to supply navies with an additional option using unmanned systems. Unmanned maritime systems (UMS) have been developed and used for quite some time, but right now, the majority of unmanned maritime systems are used for mine countermeasures. There is an obvious operational need to do the job, concepts of operations are in place, and technology is mature. This makes a perfect fit, but more can be done.

Unlike gray zone activities in the South China Sea that involve the building of artificial islands to underline sovereignty claims and the use of naval militia and the coast guard to intimidate neighbors, Iran’s actions are of a different quality. In the Arabian Sea, mosaic defense emphasizes mass, speed, and surprise. Unmanned maritime systems would be ideal to respond because they can be built to be lost. This levels out current asymmetries between speed boats and big capital ships and denies the adversary the offensive on strategic communications. This attrition-like role is only one mission UMS could play in future maritime protection missions. Overall, the mission envelope could be much broader.

First, assuming that a maritime protection mission depends on persistent situational awareness and understanding, unmanned systems can be used to collect intelligence and provide reconnaissance. For this mission the emphasis should be on closing the sensor chain from seabed activities through the undersea world to the sea surface into airspace and space. In all of these domains unmanned systems are already in use, but more needs to be done to fuse data to augment the existing Recognized Maritime Pictures (RMP), for example to detect anomalies stemming from adversarial behavior at sea.

Second, unmanned systems at sea can push the defense perimeter out. Forward deployed unmanned surface vehicles (USV) could be used to intimidate an adversary’s embarking speed boat fleet thus delaying the launch of operations and creating “noise” that would send alarms to the RMP. A more wicked though not yet technically mature option would focus on very small, mine-like unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). These assets could be deployed covertly by submarines or by air assets. These UUV could turn into a sort of adhesive explosives that stick to boats running over them, thus rendering them dysfunctional.

Third, unmanned maritime systems could be used for deception operations. A swarm of USV could enter a theater of operation disguised as a big capital ship on the adversary’s sensors. As the adversary prepares to counter the ship the USV swarm would disperse into many different smaller platforms thus out tricking the adversarial defense posture. A similar mission can be envisaged for the underwater domain where UUV are already used to imitate the signature of submarines.

Fourth, USVs could constitute the outer ring of maritime protection missions. Robust platforms could be equipped with remote-controlled weapon stations, like the Protector USV developed by Rafael Advanced Systems, to engage incoming speed boats or flying platforms. In addition, USV could be used to deploy electronic counter-measures, for example, to jam adversarial sensors and take out communications between unmanned aerial assets and the respective control units. 


While some of these ideas are closer to reality than others, what matters most is that concepts and operational requirements need to drive the use of unmanned maritime systems in gray zone operations. So far, the discussion about UMS mainly focuses on providing solutions to meet the needs that emerge in naval warfare areas such as mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, or anti-surface warfare. However, gray zone activities cut across all of these tasks. Adequate responses need to adopt a more horizontal approach, as well looking at the technological building blocks that can be used for all missions. Here, the most recent decision of Belgium and the Netherlands to develop a toolbox of unmanned systems for mine-countermeasures shows the way to the future. This approach could be turned into a holistic concept to deal with UMS for maritime gray zone activities.

Putting extra emphasis on innovation and concepts development also opens up avenues for fruitful cooperation with the Gulf states that step up efforts to expand their own naval capabilities while at the same time ramping up efforts to establish a local naval industrial base. Involving them from the start would make sure that specific regional requirements could be adequately addressed while at the same time contributing toward building up local technology expertise in important  areas and incentivizing the establishment of local capabilities and concepts. In the long run this joint approach could help shoulder the burden to provide maritime stability in one of the world’s most pivotal regions.

Dr. Heiko Borchert runs Borchert Consulting & Research AG, a strategic affairs consultancy.

Featured Image: A Bladerunner craft fitted with the MAST system. (Wikimedia Commons)

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)