Tag Archives: unmanned

A Survey of Missions for Unmanned Undersea Vehicles: Publication Review

As a closer to last week’s run of UUV articles – a publication review by Sally DeBoer, UUV week’s associate editor.


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Discussion of how the world’s navies will incorporate unmanned underwater vehicles into their doctrine and infrastructure is very broad indeed. Will these technologies be complementary to existing architecture or stand-alone platforms? Will they operate autonomously (indeed, can we even achieve the degree of autonomy required?) or with a man-in-the-loop? Perhaps because the technology is so (relatively) new and (relatively) unestablished, with potential applications so vast, the conversation surrounding it blurs the line between what is and what if.

Conceptualization of the US Navy UUV concept

Thankfully, the meticulous staff at the RAND Corporation’s National Defense Research Institute, sponsored by the US Navy, produced a thorough and carefully researched study in 2009 outlining the most practical and cost-effective applications for underwater technologies. Using the US Navy’s publically-available 2004 UUV Master Plan (an updated version of this document was produced in 2011 but has not been released to the public) as a jumping off point, the authors of the study evaluated the missions advocated for UUVs in terms of military need, technical risks (as practicable), operational risks, cost, and possible alternatives. Analyzing an “unwieldy” set of 40 distinct missions spanning nine categories initially advocated in the 2004 version UUV Master Plan, the study delivers a more focused approach to how the US Navy might best and most effectively incorporate these unmanned systems. Though the UUV Master Plan document is, admittedly, quite out of date (the study itself now more than six years old), the findings therein are still highly relevant to the discussion surrounding the future of unmanned technologies beneath the waves.

Working with the very limited data available on UUVs, the authors of the study considered the technical issues inherent in developing and fielding unmanned underwater systems. Though the full complement of UUV hardware and software is considered in the study, for brevity’s sake this publication review will focus only on two technical factors: autonomy and communications. Intuitively, some missions (such as those of a clandestine or sensitive nature) demand more autonomy than others (like infrastructure monitoring or environmental surveillance). Pertaining to ISR missions, the study suggested that vehicle autonomy limitations would be a significant limiting factor.   AUVs may not, for instance, be able to effectively determine what collected information is time-critical and what information is not. This potential weakness could be a tremendous risk; either the notional AUV would fail to transmit information in a timely manner or it would transmit non-useful information needlessly, risking detection and sacrificing stealth. Without significant development, therefore, lack of autonomy would present a technical challenge and, for some advocated missions, an operational risk.  In the words of the authors “autonomy and bandwidth form a trade-space in which onboard autonomy is traded for reach-back capability and visa-versa.” The study also addressed perhaps the most frequently cited criticism of UUV technologies: communications and connectivity. Submerged UUVs, the study concludes, are limited in their ability to communicate by “the laws of physics,” while surfaced UUV’s ability to communicate are limited by technology (mast height, data output rates) and present yet another trade-off between stealth and connectivity. These communication systems are, in the words of the authors, considered mature, and are unlikely to be significantly improved by additional research and development.

It’s important to note (and probably obvious to readers) that development of technologies to address the challenges of autonomy and communication for UUV platforms are likely completely opaque to this author. The study’s findings, however, seem to match the challenges the US Navy is facing developing UUVs in the years after its publication. The Office of Naval Research’s Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) program awarded a $7.3 million contract to Metron Inc. to develop and field autonomy software, hardware, and sensors. The LDUUV, a pier-launched system, intended for endurance missions of more than seventy days, will need to effectively avoid interference, requiring a high degree of autonomy. A 2011 Office of Naval research brief envisioned that the LDUUV would “enable the realization of fully autonomous UUVs operating in complex near shore environments” concurrent with the development of “leap ahead” technologies in autonomy.  In November of 2014, ONR unveiled a plan to develop an ASW mission package for the LDUUV, pursuing technology development in mission autonomy, situational awareness, and undersea sensors, with emphases on software-in-the-loop and hardware-in-the-loop simulations, and other ASW mission package components. Whether or not intensive R&D will produce the degree of “leap ahead” autonomy necessary for such operations remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, the RAND study’s recommended UUV missions are of particular interest and may dictate the application of funding in a time of scarcity. Put another way, the study’s conclusions provide a cogent and clear roadmap for what the US Navy can do with UUVs as they are and will reasonably become, not how it would like them or envision them to be.

LDUUV Prototype
LDUUV Prototype

So, then, there is the million (multi-billion?) dollar question: what missions are practically and cost-effectively best suited for UUVs, given these limitations, especially if a mismatch between desired technical functionality and funding and actual ability and allotments continues? The authors suggest (in concurrence with CIMSEC’s own Chris Rawley) that UUV technologies are first and foremost best suited for mine countermeasures, followed in priority by missions to deploy leave-behind sensors, near-land or harbor monitoring, oceanography, monitoring undersea infrastructure, ASW tracking, and inspection/identification in an ATFP or homeland defense capacity. These recommendations are based on already-proven UUV capabilities, cost-effectiveness, and demand. UUVs performing these missions, in particular MCM, have seen steady and

Conceptualization of the Knifefish SMCM UUV System
Conceptualization of the Knifefish SMCM UUV System

encouraging progress in the years since the study’s publication. NATO’s Center for Maritime Research and Exploration (CMRE) collected and analyzed data from four UUVs with high-resolution sonar deployed during Multinational Autonomy Experiment (MANEX) 2014. The Littoral Combat Ship’s (LCS) mine-hunting complement includes a pair of Surface Mine Countermeasures (SMCM) UUVs, dubbed Knifefish, that uses its low-frequency broadband synthetic aperture side-scanning sonar to look for floating, suspended, and buried mines and an onboard processor to identify mines from a database. The way ahead for longer-term missions demanding greater autonomy and reach-back over long distances is, for the time being, less clear.

This publication review is truly a very (very!) cursory glance at an incredibly detailed, highly technical study, and in no way does justice to the breadth and depth of the document.  I encourage interested readers to download the original .pdf.  However, the study’s contributions to an overall understanding of how and where UUVs can practically and cost-effectively support naval operations are significant, effectively reckoning the need to develop cutting-edge technologies with sometimes harsh but ever-present operational and financial realities. UUVs will undoubtedly have a significant role in the undersea battle-space in the years to come; RAND’s 2009 study provides keen insight into how that role may develop.

Sally DeBoer is an associate editor for CIMSEC.  She is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and a recent graduate of Norwich University’s Master of Arts in Diplomacy program. She can be reached at Sally.L.DeBoer(at)gmail(dot)com.

UUVs as Stealthy Logistics Platforms

Guest post for UUV Week by  Steve Weintz.

As potential adversaries sharpen their abilities to deny U.S. forces the freedom to maneuver, they concurrently constrain America’s traditional strength in supporting expeditionary power. Sea-bases bring the logistical “tail” closer to the expeditionary “teeth,” but they must stay outside the reach of A2/AD threats. Submarines remain the stealthiest military platform and will likely remain so for some time to come. In addition to their counter-force and counter-logistics roles, subs have seen limited service as stealth cargo vessels. History demonstrates both the advantages and limitations of submarines as transports. Submarine troop carriers, such as those used in SOF operations, are distinct from submarine freighters; the submarine’s role in supply and sustainment is addressed here. Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) will revolutionize minesweeping, intelligence collection, and reconnaissance. But they may also finally deliver on the century-old promise of the submarine as a stealthy logistics platform.

Deutschland (Launched 1916)

Although early submarine pioneers like Simon Lake saw commercial advantage in subs’ ability to avoid storms and ice, submarines as cargo carriers were first used operationally to counter Britain’s A2/AD strategy against Germany in World War I. The Deutschland and her sister boat Bremen were to be the first of a fleet of submarine blockade-runners whose cargo would sustain the German war effort. Despite her limited payload – only 700 tons – the privately-built Deutschland paid for herself and proved her design concept with her first voyage. But the loss of Bremen and America’s turn against Germany scuttled the project.

Cargo subs were again employed in World War II. The “Yanagi” missions successfully transported strategic materials, key personnel, and advanced technology between Germany and Japan. The Japanese also built and used subs to resupply their island garrisons when Allied forces cut off surface traffic. Their efforts met with limited success – enough to continue subsequent missions but not enough to shift the outcome of the Allied strategy. The Soviet Union also used submarines to sustain forces inside denied areas at Sevastopol and elsewhere. These efforts inspired serious consideration of submarine transports that carried over well into the Cold War. Soviet designers produced detailed concepts for “submarine LSTs” capable of stealthily deploying armor, troops and even aircraft.

Dr. Dwight Messimer, an authority on the Deutschland, points out that cargo subs – with one notable exception – have never really surmounted two key challenges. They have limited capacity compared with surface transports, and their cost and complexity are far greater. If subs are made larger for greater capacity, they forfeit maneuverability, submergence speed, and stealth. If built in greater numbers their expense crowds out other necessary warship construction. The Deutschland and Japan’s large transport subs handled poorly and were vulnerable to anti-submarine attacks. Many cargo subs were converted into attack subs to replace attack-sub losses.

The one notable exception to these difficulties is “cocaine subs” so

A "narco-submarine" is apprehended off Honduras
A “narco-submarine” is apprehended off Honduras

frequently encountered by the US Coast Guard. These rudimentary stealth transports are simple and inexpensive enough to construct in austere anchorages, make little allowance for crew comfort, and have proven successful in penetrating denied US waters. The tremendous value of their cargoes means that only a few of these semi-subs need to run the blockade for their owners’ strategy to succeed.

Logistical submarine designers could potentially overcome their two primary challenges by drawing inspiration from smugglers and from nature. UUVs, like other unmanned platforms, enjoy the advantages gained by dispensing with crew accommodations or life-support


equipment. Large UUVs built and deployed in large numbers, like cocaine subs and pods of whales, could transport useful volumes of cargo in stealth across vast distances. MSubs’ Mobile Anti-Submarine Training Target (MASTT), currently the largest UUV afloat, offers a glimpse at what such UUVs might look like. At 60 metric tons and 24 meters in length, MASTT is huge by UUV standards but very small compared to most manned subs.

3D printing technology is rapidly expanding, producing larger objects from tougher, more durable materials. Already, prototype systems can print multistory concrete structures and rocket engines made of advanced alloys. It will soon be possible to print large UUV hulls of requisite strength and size in large numbers. Indeed, printed sub and boat hulls were one of the first applications conceived for large-scale 3D printing. Their propulsion systems and guidance systems need not be extremely complex. Scaled-down diesel and air-independent propulsion systems, again mass-produced, should suffice to power such large UUVs. These long-endurance mini-subs would notionally be large enough to accommodate such power-plants.

10 large UUVs of 30 tons’ payload each could autonomously deliver 300 tons of supplies to forward positions in denied areas. 300 tons, while not a great deal in comparison to the “iron mountain” of traditional American military logistics, is nevertheless as much as 5 un-stealthy LCM-8s can deliver.

A “pod” of such UUVs could sail submerged from San Diego, recharging at night on the surface, stop at Pearl Harbor for refueling and continue on their own to forward bases in the Western Pacific.

Their destinations could be sea-bases, SSNs and SSGNs, or special forces units inserted onto remote islands. Cargoes could include food, ammunition, batteries, spare parts, mission-critical equipment, and medical supplies. In all these cases, a need for stealthy logistics – the need to hide the “tail” – would call for sub replenishment versus traditional surface resupply. Depending on the mission, large UUVs could be configured to rendezvous with submerged subs, cache themselves on shallow bottoms, or run aground on beaches. Docking collars similar to those used on deep-submergence rescue vehicles could permit submerged dry transfer of cargo. UUVs could also serve as stealthy ship-to-shore connectors; inflatable lighters and boats could be used to unload surfaced UUVs at night.

When confronted with anti-submarine attacks a “pod” or convoy of such UUVs could submerge and scatter, increasing the likelihood of at least a portion of their cumulative payload arriving at its destination. Some large UUVs in such a “pod” could carry anti-air and anti-ship armament for defense in place of cargo, but such protection entails larger discussions about armed seaborne drones.

A submarine – even a manned nuclear submarine – is not the platform of choice if speed is essential. Airborne resupply can deliver cargoes much more quickly. But not all cargoes need arrive swiftly. The water may always be more opaque than the sky, and larger payloads can be floated than flown. It remains to be seen if large stealthy unmanned transport aircraft can be developed.

While these notions seem fanciful there is nothing about the technology or the concept beyond the current state of the art. Large numbers of unmanned mini-subs could overcome both the capacity and expense limitations that limited the cargo submarine concept in the past. The ability to stealthily supply naval expeditionary forces despite A2/AD opposition would be a powerful force multiplier.

Steve Weintz is a freelance journalist and screenwriter who has written for War is Boring, io9 and other publications.

Death From Above

Kill Chain

Andrew Cockburn. Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins. Henry Holt Publishers. 307pp. $28.00.

It’s not often that a book review coincides with current events. Books, particularly nonfiction, are usually written and published months, if not years after an event has occurred. That’s because good nonfiction is written in retrospect: writers have spent some time absorbing their subject, researching and analyzing the facts; authors are hesitant to be rash in judgment or thought.

However, there are exceptions. Some pieces of nonfiction, particularly journalists’ works, are appropriate now — not later. Andrew Cockburn’s new book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, is one of them.  Cockburn’s book is timely.  In just the past few weeks there has been a flood of reporting from media outlets stating that a drone strike killed an American and an Italian hostage when targeting a group of Al-Qaeda members operating near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Suddenly, questions about drone strikes, the debate about targeted killing, and the transparency of the drone program are on the front page of print and online news media worldwide.

Yes, timely indeed.

Although Cockburn’s book cover is plastered with silhouettes of unmanned aerial vehicles — with what appears to be the X-47B, Predator, Global Hawk, and Fire Scout, among others — he is making a larger argument.  Cockburn it seems, is arguing that all technology is suspect.  It’s not simply unmanned aerial vehicles, but it’s the idea that human beings are continuously so bold as to come up with technological solutions that will win our wars.   History, however, tells us a much different story.

Cockburn, then, starts his book with an interesting tale.

In 1966 the Vietnam War was not going well.  Secretary McNamara, a man who was fond of scientific solutions to difficult problems, turned his attention to “The Jasons.”  The Jasons, Cockburn says, were a small group of scientists and scholars, many of whom would go on to become Nobel Prize winners. These were also some of the same men — Carl Kaysen, Richard Garwin, George Kistiakowski — that were part of the Manhattan Project some twenty years earlier.

The Jasons tried to do what Rolling Thunder could not — they tried to figure out a way to defeat North Vietnam’s ability to use the Ho Chi Minh trail — to cut off their supply routes.  They ended up deploying small sensors along the trail that could, presumably, pick up the noise, vibration, and in some cases, the ammonia of someone urinating, all in an attempt to locate men and machines moving goods to the South.  Then, if they could hear them and find them, U.S. commanders could task air strikes against the communists on the trail.  It didn’t take long, Cockburn says, for the North Vietnamese to find a work-around.  How long?  It took one week.  Cockburn notes that all the North Vietnamese had to do was to use cows and trucks, often running over an area of the trail multiple times to create a diversion while the real logistical effort was moved elsewhere.  So simple and so effective — and relatively inexpensive.  However, Cockburn says the cost of the electronic barrier for the U.S. was around six billion dollars.

This formula is repeated throughout the rest of the book.  That is 1) There is a military problem 2) Someone always tries to find a technological solution, and then 3) Spends a lot of money only to find out the U.S. has made the problem worse.

Now fast forward almost sixty-years to the age of drones, and Cockburn introduces us to Rex Rivolo, an analyst at the Institute of Defense Analysis.  It’s 2007 and improvised explosive devices are a major problem; they are killing and maiming hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq.  Asked to analyze the networks behind the IEDs, Rivolo, Cockburn says, discovers that targeted killings of these networks  lead to more attacks, not fewer.  This is because someone more aggressive fills the place of the leader who was recently killed.  Rivolo would return to D.C., even getting the ear of the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, telling him that attacking high- value targets was not the right strategy — the IED networks and individuals setting them off were more autonomous then was initially thought.  Going after the senior guy, Rivolo noted, was not the answer.  But, as Cockburn says, nothing changed. Now people simply refer to the continous cycle of targeting and killing  high-value targets as “mowing the grass.”

The idea of killing  senior leaders or HVTs is not new, it’s been around for a long time (think Caesar).  Cockburn, then, brings up one of the more interesting “what if’s” that military officers — or any student of military history — likes to debate.  That is, what if someone had killed Hitler before the end of the war?  Would the war have ended?  Or would he have become a martyr and someone worse or someone better have taken his place?  Cockburn tells us about British Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thornley, who argued during WWII that, no, the Fuhrer should not be killed.  Thornley noted, that if Hitler was killed, his death would likely make him a martyr for national socialism.  And that Hitler was often a man that “override completely the soundest military appreciation and thereby helped the Allied cause tremendously.”  Therefore, the thinking went, we should let Hitler live and dig his own grave.

However, the problem with this debate is that context matters.  Was it Germany in 1933? 1938? Or 1944? It matters because while Cockburn does not differentiate between the killing of a leader of a state and the leader of a terrorist network, they are indeed different systems that have different levers of power and legitimacy.

He is on firmer ground when he rightly notes how difficult it is for anyone to predict systemic effects when targeting a network.  He reiterates these difficulties throughout the book.  The most historical compelling case is WWII and the strategic bombing campaign.  All one has to do is pick up the WWII U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey and read the fine work done by John K. Galbraith, Paul Nitze, and others.  Disrupting or destroying networks from the air — in this case, Germany’s economy — was incredibly difficult.  In many cases, assumptions of German capabilities or weaknesses were far from correct.  And as Cockburn notes, the term “effects based operations,” namely, operations that are military and nonmilitary that can disrupt complex systems while minimizing risk, was a term that was outlawed in 2008 by General Mattis while the head of Joint Forces Command.

Ultimately, the debate over drones — who should control them, what should they be used for, should the U.S. target particular individuals — will continue.  It’s an important topic.  There are, however, a few shortcomings in this book.  One of the biggest questions that goes unanswered is this: If the U.S. should not strike identified enemies or high-value targets…then what?  Do nothing? Allow a Hitler to simply remain in power?  Is this not a form of moral ignorance?

The questions military planners and policy makers should ask is this:  Do we understand the character of this war?  And are these the right tools we should use to win this war?  We should not blame a drone — or any other type of tech for that matter — for bad strategies, poor operational planning, and gooned up tactics.

Drones are the future.  But we should read Cockburn’s book as a cautionary tale.  We should disabuse ourselves of the illusion that future technologies will be our savior.  And finally, we should not let those illusions crowd out the very difficult task  of understanding our adversaries and the enduring nature of war.

Andrew Cockburn’s book is worth reading.  But have your pencil ready — you’ll want to  argue with him in the margins.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a naval intelligence officer and recent graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI.  LCDR Nelson is also CIMSEC’s book review editor and is looking for readers interested in reviewing books for CIMSEC.  You can contact him at books@cimsec.org.  The views above are the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the US Navy or the US Department of Defense.

Sea Control 66: Unmanned Naval Vessels

seacontrol2Alexander Clarke (Phoenix Think Tank), Scott Cheney-Peters (CIMSEC), and Douglas Clarke (Naval Architect) discuss the future of manned, unmanned, and optimally manned naval vessels and the practical considerations of the latter categories’ expansion at sea…

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 66 – The Brits Discuss Drones

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