Maritime USVs, UAVs and Reshaping ISR/C2: A Discussion with Lt. General (Retired) Steve Rudder


By Robbin Laird

To deal with the challenges in the Pacific, the United States has and will continue to have a significant shortfall in core platforms to implement a classic warfighting strategy. That is why I wrote a book with my colleagues published in 2013 entitled, Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific.  At the heart of our argument was the need to reinvent the way forces were deployed, connected and empowered.

Nothing that has occurred since we wrote that book has changed the essential argument. Only the technology which we highlighted in the book has now arrived in part, and new capabilities are within reach now.

Underlying our argument was our characterization of the new approach as an adaptation of the World War II big blue blanket approach.

As we explained it at the outset of the argument in the book:

“We look at the geographical context, the role of allies, and the need to shape an effective defense approach, which we identify as shaping an attack defense enterprise, or an interactive “big blue blanket” over the Pacific. In World War II, the USN shaped what became called the big blue blanket of ships to cover the Pacific operations. Obviously, this is beyond the ken of current realities, but shaping a connected set of U.S. and allied forces able to work together to shape defense and security in the Pacific is not.”[1]

A technological development which we mention in the book is creating new opportunities for force development, namely, the arrival of unmanned surface systems which can operate as an integratable partner with a new generation of unmanned air vehicles.

Rather than having UAVs as a strategic asset supporting a strategic level directed tactical operation, more transient UAVs operating off USVs or working in tandem with forces at the tactical edge are now possible.

This then enhances significantly the capability of operating task forces with modular flexibility and with enhanced understanding of their battlespace to deliver the desired effects within that battlespace.

Rather than operating with top down ISR, distributed modular task forces can create ISR clusters which can push data back towards higher level command elements, and at the same time operate more effectively in their local operating area.

Recently, I discussed these developments with Lt. General (Retired) Steve Rudder. I last met with him in Honolulu in a visit in 2021 when he was MARFORPAC.

Now recently retired, he continues to focus on the evolution of concepts of operations for the maritime forces.

He started our conversation by highlighting the changing strategic environment, which demands speed in accurate decision-making.

And to do so, raises an inherent challenge of centralized control and decentralized execution.

“As the operational forces have enhanced ISR capabilities at the tactical edge, there is a natural friction point between them and decision making with regard to how much authority is released to those forces to act on their own. In a conflict situation, this becomes an authority’s dilemma for in stride targeting.  The tactical forces are increasingly becoming connected to more capable operational and tactical ISR creating a need for higher-level command authorities to be pushed down.”

Rudder then explained that the evolution of UAVs and USVs and their ability to work within an edge mesh network, gives forces at the tactical edge new capabilities, necessary for them to execute their missions. As he underscored: “Solving the question of how to best use such capabilities should not hinder or delay necessary innovation and implementation. As TF59 proves each day with their unmanned experimentation, the technology is available today.”

With regard to USVs, the U..S Navy faces a major problem of coming to terms with how to use small boats. The shipbuilding plan is not one which highlights the kind of small boats which USVs require, and which operate differently carrying ISR payloads, naturally operating more like wolfpacks than being mere footnotes to a classic naval task force.

The Navy needs such wolfpacks of UAVs and USVs to deal with a number of operational threats and challenges. 

One challenge which Rudder highlighted was the threat from long range low flying cruise missiles. Such wolfpacks can clearly provide timely over the horizon visibility to such a threat. And as technology develops these in no reason payloads could not be placed on UAVs or USVs to defeat such missiles.

The Navy has UAVs and USVs in different stove piped program channels which also makes it difficult to think in wolfpack terms.

How to build in synergy between UAV and USV development?

How to accelerate their contribution to distributed maritime operations?

Another consideration is working with allies.

Shared data is crucial to have common decision making. Exquisite data which is provided by high value strategic assets are shared with very few allies. This is not enough to work with the patchwork of partners in the Pacific which the PLA are contesting with the liberal democracies.

We heed to build shared networks to cover the patchwork of the Pacific in terms of partners.

By creating a network of USVs and UAVs whose function is to generate such data, deterrence is enhanced.

It is about the spectrum of operations not just the question of deployments simply for the highest end of operations. Capabilities already exist to build such a network, which is a low hanging fruit for the build out of UAV-USV collaboration.

And for the United States, such an approach builds a “big blue blanket” with partners which competes with the Chinese version of this already in place. The Chinese fishing fleet empowered by mobile phone technology has built their vision of the network.

As Rudder notes: “There are areas were simply do not have the kind of persistent domain awareness we need. We don’t have the capacity to put capital assets in place to provide for that gap. UAVs and USVs, notably working together, can fill such a gap cost effectively and are available now.”

[1] Laird, Robbin; Timperlake, Edward; Weitz, Richard. Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st-Century Strategy (Praeger Security International) (p. 7). ABC-CLIO. Kindle Edition.)

The featured photo: The MATAS Devil Ray UAS making a high speed run. Credit Photo: MARTAC

For a look at the U.S. Navy and the work of Task Force 59, see the following:

Digital Horizon Wraps Up: Task Force 59 Perspective

Unmanned Integration at Sea: A Perspective on Task Force 59

Task Force 59: Another Perspective

Task Force 59 and Unmanned Maritime Assets