By Robbin Laird
Recently, 3rd Fleet completed what it called its “Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21” exercise. Here the Navy was able to work with a number of different companies bringing either their maritime remotes or autonomous systems to be seen and tested in a number of mission areas.
To be clear, the overwhelming majority of these systems are remotely piloted rather than operating autonomously. This is an important distinction because this affects the manpower demand side as well as the data management side of the equation, both key considerations when considering how to include these assets within the fleet.
According to Rear Adm. Robert M. Gaucher, director of maritime headquarters at U.S. Pacific Fleet. “By exercising our full range of unmanned capabilities in a Pacific warfighting scenario, UxS IBP21 directly supports U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s warfighting imperative of driving lethality through experimentation.”
“The overall goal is to integrate our unmanned capabilities across all domains to demonstrate how they solve CNO and Fleet Commander Key Operational Problems,” says Gaucher. “To get after these problems, UxS IBP21 will include maneuvering in contested space across all domains; targeting and fires; and intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance.”
The challenge is a practical one: how to shape an effective operational way ahead?
The military as an organization is often described as risk averse, but since the military has to be prepared to fight tonight, disruptive change for its own purpose can degrade military capabilities rather than enhancing them.
What the U.S. Navy is clearly working is distributed maritime operations, or maritime kill webs to enable an integrated distributed force.
Maritime remotes and autonomous systems can provide significant inputs to this transition, but in the words of Vice Admiral Barrett, the former head of the Royal Australian Navy: “Trusted autonomous systems are the not the end state we are pursuing they are a means to the end of extending the capabilities of an integrated distributed force.”
With such a template, the role of next generation autonomous systems can enable either enhanced mass to modular task forces, or enhanced decision-making capability either at the tactical edge or at the wider tactical or strategic decision-making levels.
As WGCDR Keirin Joyce, the moderator of the recent Williams Foundation seminar on Next Generation Autonomous Systems put it: “we know that we have to go to war with what we’ve got. When you go to the next big thing in defense, you proceed from what you already have.”
From this perspective, the goal of efforts like “Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21” is to focus on ways to work new capabilities into the fleet and not leap to the scientific fiction world of Ghost Fleets. The quest for remotely piloted or autonomous maritime systems fits into the evolution of the evolution in the art of warfare.
For the U.S. Navy this revolves around shaping the distributed integratable force in which combat clusters can operate at the tactical edge with enough capability to achieve their tasks as allocated by mission command requirements. Distribution is about working multi-domain warfighting packages. Next generation autonomous systems can provide increased mass for each combat cluster notably with ISR payloads already on the way.
To gain some insight with regard to participation in the “Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21,” I recently talked with Bruce Hanson, CEO of Maritime Tactical Systems (‘MARTAC’), a Florida-based unmanned maritime autonomous system company. The company brought their T38E Devil Ray USV maritime autonomous system to the event to work a particular mission set. They also brought along a smaller T8, 8-foot MANTAS craft which can operate off of the larger vessel as well independent on the mission set.
Notably, the video released by the U.S. Navy about the event began with a T38E Devil Ray operating in the water.
The first point which he highlighted was they and other participating companies were able to provide first-hand information to a wide variety of distinguished visitors to the event and during the running of the event could demonstrate their capabilities as well. This is an important part of the cross-fertilization process to familiarize the broader maritime community about what is really possible now with regard to these systems, and what is really longer term.
The second point he made was that it was very clear the difference with regard to what the unmanned piece could provide. As he described it, for the particular exercise, they included two men on the vessel as part of the effort. Normally, for the mission they performed they would not include men on the ship as they are not needed for the mission execution. But for the San Diego port safety requirements, they manned the vessel.
According to Hanson: “There were relatively high sea states in the exercise area. And these high sea states required us as a manned vessel to operate at 25 knots or below. The vessel unmanned would have been operated at 60-70 knots. This highlights what an unmanned capability can bring to the effort compared to a manned crewing element. Truly Beyond Human Capability”
The third point he highlighted was that they brought an autonomous system to the event, not a remotely piloted one. This was illustrated that during the event, the Navy observers of their vessel were shocked when the MANTAC person sitting with them said: “I am going to lunch.” The observers reacted: “Who is going to control the vessel?” The MANTAC person said: “The vessel is autonomous it will take care of itself.”
What this highlighted is the importance of adding an adjective to “autonomous maritime systems.” Namely, unattended so that what MANTAC was operating was an “unattended autonomous maritime system” or “Unattended Autonomy” for short.
In closing, for MARTAC, the event provided an opportunity to highlight what they can do now; for the U.S. Navy the event allowed them to work with a variety of companies and to see what can be done now with these systems and to imagine the mid-term future as well.
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