Shaping a Way Ahead for Maritime Autonomous Systems in the ADF: A Discussion with Commodore Darron Kavanagh


By Robbin Laird

At first blush, some readers would expect a title that focused on maritime autonomous systems to focus primarily upon their role within the Royal Australian Navy, rather than looking at the role within the overall ADF.

But because these systems are entering the force as it works its next phase of shaping joint operations, maritime autonomous systems can be viewed as enablers for and beneficiaries of the transition.

In my recently published book with Ed Timperlake, we focus on the reshaping of concepts of operations for the joint force upon kill web operational concepts.

It is about a distributed force where payloads to missions is a key element of building the modular task forces at the tactical edge which form the combat nodes from which force integration can be built in a fluid combat situation.

Maritime autonomous systems are defined by the payloads and the software which enables those payloads to support the missions in the distributed battlespace, rather than by the platforms which hold them.

This is a very different way around from the legacy approach to platform prioritisation and platform development. While certainly, core air, sea and ground platforms built under evolving systems engineering models will remain a key element of force design and development, the path for maritime autonomous systems is significantly different.

As Commodore Darron Kavanagh put it in our meeting at his office in September 2022: ”As soon as I say I’ve got requirements for a combat system, I immediately go into a classical systems engineering approach. But that approach doesn’t actually allow for the agility necessary rapidly to change that combat system.

“If I look at classical primes, they are often hardware first companies, software second. And there’s a lot of legacy in the design.

“One of the things we’ve been looking at is how would you take a software first approach to accelerate our maritime autonomous systems capabilities. This is one of the reasons that the sovereign industry players that we’ve selected recently to work with in the autonomous systems areas are software driven in their development rather than platform focused.”

The ADF has been looking for some time to work rapid software development and insertion into combat forces. This is much harder to do with core platforms than with software driven, payload defined, maritime autonomous systems.

This is why a key contribution to the ADF as a joint force can be provided by the kind of acquisition and operational models being shaped around maritime autonomous systems.

A key way ahead for these systems is to also shift from a classical understanding of product development.

While the approach does develop prototypes: this is not the primary focus.

It is about focusing on operational effects: as both contributions to the force in being and continuous and ongoing experimentation for force development under actual operational conditions.

The Commodore has his own MEGA hat – Make Experimentation Great Again. Maritime autonomous systems are purpose built to deliver the desired combat effects from the payloads onboard.

And working ways to cross-integrate data from payloads below the sea, on the sea and in the air will provide a key capability for building out a kill web enabled force, that can shape combat clusters able to operate in contested combat operations as well as throughout the full spectrum of warfare.

As he underscored: “if you actually want to deliver something different, if you want to actually get what I’d call asymmetric war fighting effects, then you must be prepared to experiment.

“Because those concepts of operations are not going to come from replacing what you have. Or indeed, an incremental improvement of what you have.

“You actually have to leverage what the technology will give you. It is because less and less it’s about a platform. It’s more and more about your intent. So, that’s command-and-control, and the payloads that deliver that intent.”

Commodore Darron Kavanagh underscored that the ADF is evolving and building out an ADF capable of effective distributed operations. And maritime autonomous systems will be a key enabler for such operations.

To do so, the systems need to be operating in the force as part of the overall operational capability for the force. As the ADF gains experience with these systems, these systems will face ongoing development and experimentation, both in terms of the payloads they carry as well as the operating systems on the platforms, as well as seeing platform development to better enable payload performance and targeted relevance to the operating force.

As he put it: “The challenge is being able to field them at the speed of relevance.  That is the difficulty in a bureaucracy such as any military.

“And so, one of the reasons it’s important to spend that time to work out how do we constructively disrupt? We are not building a one off system. The focus is upon delivering asymmetric warfighting effects again and again.”

I have found that one challenge facing the way ahead for acceptance of maritime systems into the operating force is not just the question of ensuring that one is deploying a trusted autonomous system: it is equally about the challenge of understanding the con-ops of a kill web force.

As we argued in the book: “when thinking through a kill web force, payloads are key building blocks for the distributed integrated capability which gives the force the necessary combat power. Those payloads can be found on a variety of sources, from air combat platforms, ships as sea bases, islands, land bases, mobile or expeditionary bases. The kill web mosaic is about having the launch point for key payloads which are appropriate to combat and escalation dominance,”

And we argued in the book that with a variety of ways to deliver payloads to missions, this also opened up the need to rethink what operational task forces might look like. We highlighted what we called “modular task forces” which can be formed within an operational context; rather than be defined with regard to what was initially deployed for an operation in terms of platforms making up that task force.

And this allows for mission command to guide a distributed force able to achieve integrated effects. As we argued: “Mission command guides a diversity of modular task forces, which deploy into the areas of interest, and provide engagement density. Sensor networks and C2 at the tactical edge enable modular task forces to execute their assigned missions and to do assessments and with their inherent ISR capabilities are able to ensure that the mission effect is being achieved.”

What this means for maritime autonomous systems is twofold. Either the USV or UUV can contribute to a modular task force as either individual or wolfpack capabilities or USVs, UAVs, and USVs can themselves operate as a modular task force.

One mistake in much analysis of this area of work is to focus on how various maritime autonomous systems are hermetically sealed or stove piped options: USVs compete with each other; UUV compete with USVs, and UAVs, compete with both.

That is old style platform think; what we are looking for here is complimentary in payloads for a variety of launch platforms. Shaping wolfpack operations for diverse maritime autonomous systems in a modular task force is a key way ahead for both operations and force development.

Recently, I looked at the Eager Lion 2022 exercise and highlighted the importance of such an approach:

“Recently, Iran temporarily capture a Saildrone Explorer  in the Red Sea. It would make sense to operate it with the Devil Ray which can provide some protection against adversaries trying to seize the saildrone.

“But the U.S. Navy to recapture the Iranian seized saildrone had to deploy manned assets to recover the UAS. According to the U.S. Navy: “While transiting international waters around 11 p.m. (local time), Aug. 29, U.S. 5th Fleet observed IRGCN support ship Shahid Baziar towing a Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel (USV) in an attempt to detain it.

“U.S. Navy patrol coastal ship USS Thunderbolt (PC 12) was operating nearby and immediately responded. U.S. 5th Fleet also launched an MH-60S Sea Hawk from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26, based in Bahrain,” 5th Fleet said in an Aug. 30 statement about the first incident.”

“It makes sense to find better ways to defend a UAS such as the saildrone by working with a wolfpack UAS  “task force” such as the Devil Ray or Mantas UAS.”

Commodore Kavanagh emphasized that the terminology is important in understanding what maritime autonomous systems are and how their role within the operational force will grow over time.

“I refer to these systems as uncrewed systems. And the reason I use that term is that it is less and less about the vehicle that actually delivers the effect.

“The payload is really important as it could be on all sorts of different vehicles, whether it’s in the air, below, in certain circumstances, or on the surface. This requires you thinking in a different way about how do you plug and fight different elements into the combat force.”

Featured Photo: Australian Defence Force personnel prepare to lower a MARTAC T38 Devil Ray unmanned vessel into Jervis Bay in Jervis Bay Territory, during Exercise Autonomous Warrior 2022.

Autonomous Warrior 22 (AW22) is a Navy-led Operational Experimentation (OPEX) activity conducted over the period 16-27 May 2022 in the vicinity of Jervis Bay and from several remote sites in Australia and overseas. Conducted against an overarching theme of Remote and Autonomous Systems and Artificial Intelligence (RAS-AI), Autonomous Warrior is the largest unmanned systems OPEX conducted in Australia. In 2022 it provided Australian and international military and industry partners opportunities to demonstrate innovations in autonomous and uncrewed systems and related technologies for use in the maritime and littoral domains, including operations in complex, congested and contested environments.

May 23, 2022

Australian Department of Defence