Maritime Remotes and the Evolving Surface Fleet: An Element of the Integrated Distributed Force


By Robbin Laird

At the upcoming Williams Foundation Seminar to be held on March 26, 2020, the role of autonomous systems in the evolution of the combat force is the focus of attention.

Clearly, a key aspect of this evolution will be the role of maritime remotes within the maritime force, and notably, how these systems will interact with and extend the reach of the surface fleet.

A recent CSBA study entitled Taking Back the Seas by Bryan Clark and Timothy A. Walton provides a good launch point for addressing the question of the projected role and impact of maritime remotes

The study provides a look into how the US Navy should reshape its entire shipbuilding and development strategy to build its core future capability around a surface fleet which encompasses the coming revolution in autonomous systems.

There is much to recommend this study, but what is missing is the question of how the surface fleet itself plays out its role within the overall kill web of the air-maritime-land force?

The proposed surface fleet transformation which is designed to deliver a distributed combat capability within an integrated force actually intersects with the significant transformation already being realized by aviation, including naval aviation.

Indeed as one senior Admiral put it to me recently when we were discussing the role of software upgradeability in changing the approach to force modernization, ” aviation has been living through this software transformation for a much longer period than the surface fleet.” He then argued for a cross-cutting transformation to accelerate change within the surface fleet itself.

At its heart, the fifth-generation transformation being effected by the F-35 sensor fusion-CNI C2/ISR capability to open up the aperture of C2 decision making at the tactical edge is shaping a significant set of opportunities for the surface and subsurface fleet to deliver strike throughout a distributed battlespace.

The authors of the surface fleet study have provided  a thoughtful look at how maritime autonomous systems can change how the surface fleet would be configured.

But I would argue that this will be most significant, at least in its first phases, in terms of delivering proactive ISR to the fleet.

The challenge will to translate that proactive ISR into the distributed strike and defensive capabilities which can empower the entire combat force, not simply the surface fleet.

This opportunity and challenge ultimately rests on the capability to deliver C2 to the tactical edge as well as the ability to then be able to provide for decision making which can find ways to leverage a crisis management force postured for distributed operations.

In their study, they highlight the role of C2 as follows:

U.S. surface forces will likely operate in a contested and congested EMS during future conflicts. To overcome this challenge, DoD is investing significant resources in the development of resilient and adaptable communications architectures, including new low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, UAV relays, and jam-resistant radios.

Despite these investments, U.S. forces may be unable to sustain high or moderate bandwidth communications over wide areas due to their proximity to adversary jammers and the long distances between U.S. units and theater commanders. Rather than expend scarce resources to build a new communications architecture to support desired C2 structures, communications requirements could be reduced through an alternative approach to C3 that adapts existing C2 structures to accommodate communications availability. This concept, which could be described as context-centric C3, relies on decision-support tools to help junior commanders develop and execute plans even when communications are lost with senior leaders.

Under context-centric C3, junior commanders would employ automated decision aids to support operational planning and execution. Several of these tools are under development today and could be fielded by 2030. When they are unable to receive orders from senior leaders, decision aids would help junior commanders develop courses of action to pursue objectives using the units in communication at that time. In a degraded or denied communications environment, planning tools would help coordinate a commander’s plan with those of friendly forces that are out of radio contact by predicting the actions of other forces given the guidance of senior leaders and sensor data on friendly and adversary units. (Page 26)

The C2/ISR challenge is really at the heart of what maritime autonomous systems can or cannot deliver to the maritime force.

Without considering the key role which fifth generation air systems are delivering as well as the reset which the Navy-Marine Corps team is working through in terms of the integratable air wing or the evolving amphibious task force, one can overstate what maritime autonomous systems can really deliver to the force.

It is clear that the network is a weapon.

But one of the key challenges facing maritime remotes is their potential “capture” by an adversary and the turning them into “inside” the network weapons against the blue force itself; that is certainly something which the blue side is working on with regard to adversaries.

From my perspective, the importance of the CSBA study is challenging force planners to think in terms of the coming of maritime remotes not simply as additive elements but as core elements of a redesigned force in which the manned element is dispersed as well throughout the deployment of autonomous systems.

And that manned element is clearly what I would call C3 but in a bit differently from the authors of the study.

The third C to me is confidence in information and that is at the heart of how decisions will be taken at the tactical edge, namely, deployed at the tactical edge, warriors WILL take decisions based on the information they have the most confidence in, not simply, what is potentially available from a waterfall of information from edge of the battlespace.

What the study highlights is the importance of simply not having a 30 year shipbuilding plan which ignores what shifting to the concepts of operations of a distributed integrated force requires, and one which is clearly joint.

It is not simply about ships: it is about sea bases within a distributed integrated force which reaches out to air and land basing as well of various sorts.

For example, a key contributor to providing crisis management dominance to a surface fleet with mixed UUVs, USVs and manned surface combatants, would almost certainly be the US or allied fifth generation tactical fighters or P-8s or Tritons, along with either long range strike or proximate strike platforms.

And certainly, one of those platforms in the period projected in the CSBA study when remotes become a key element of the surface navy will be the B-21 bomber.

This bomber can get to the crisis management area more rapidly than any ship at distance.

And with the fifth-generation combat systems onboard with the very flexible payloads which it could carry, can be customized to the presence force engaged in crisis management and provide it with tailorable assets to provide for scalable dominance.

In short, maritime remotes are clearly a key part of the redesign of the surface fleet but understood in the broader redesign of the distributed Integratable joint and coalition force.

Also, see the following:

Shaping an Australian Navy Approach to Maritime Remotes, Artificial Intelligence and Combat Grids

The Integrated Distributed Force and Maritime Operations