The Role of Maritime Autonomous Systems: Mission Thread Capabilities to Meet the Needs of Modern Warfare


By Robbin Laird

If you are looking at the potential role of maritime autonomous systems from the standpoint of traditional acquisition approaches, the legacy concept of platforms, and are not focused on the priority for software transient advantage in modern warfighting, then you will totally miss what the coming of maritime autonomous systems is all about.

During my March-April 2023 visit to Australia, I had a chance to meet again with Commodore Darron Kavanagh, Director General Warfare Innovation, Royal Australian Navy Headquarters, to discuss maritime autonomous systems and their role going forward. As a nation facing major maritime challenges, there is probably no nation on earth that needs to get this right more than Australia. Threats tend to focus the mind and the efforts.

Maritime autonomous systems don’t fit into the classic platform development mode or the sharp distinction between how particular platforms operate or perform and the various payloads they can carry. They are defined by the controlling software and the payloads they can deliver individually or as a wolfpack with the role of platforms subordinated to the effects they can deliver through their payloads. The software enables the payloads to be leveraged either individually, though more likely in combination as a wolfpack or a contributor to a combat cluster.

We started our discussion by focusing on mission threads as a way to understand the role and contribution of maritime autonomous systems. What missions does a combat commander need to accomplish? And how can maritime autonomous systems contribute to a mission thread for that combat commander, within the context of combat clusters?

As CDRE Kavanagh underscored: “One of the issues about how we’ve been looking at these systems is that we think in terms of  using traditional approaches of capability realization with them. We are not creating a defense capability from scratch. These things exist, already, to a degree out in the commercial world, regardless of what defense does. AI built into robotic and autonomous systems are in the real world regardless of what the defence entities think or do.

“And we have shown through various autonomous warrior exercises, that we can already make important contributions to mission threads which combat commanders need to build out now and even more so going forward.”

And that is really the next point. The use of maritime autonomous systems is driven by evolving concepts of operations and the mission threads within those evolving CONOPS rather than by a platform-centric traditional model of acquisition. CDRE Kavanagh pointed out that traditional acquisition is primarily focused on platform replacement, and has difficulty in supporting evolving concepts of operations.

This is how he put it: “We’re good at replacing platforms. That doesn’t actually require a detailed CONOPS when we are just replacing something. But we now need to examine on a regular basis what other options do we have? How could we do a mission in a different way which would require a different profile completely?”

Put another way, combatant commanders can conduct mission rehearsals with their forces and can identify gaps to be closed. But the traditional acquisition approach is not optimized for closing such gaps at speed through the use of disruptive technologies. The deployment and development of autonomous systems are part of the response to the question of how gaps can be closed or narrowed rapidly and without expensive solution sets.

In an interview I did earlier this year with a senior Naval commander, he identified the “gaps” problem. “Rehearsal of operations sheds light on our gaps. if you are rehearsing, you are writing mission orders down to the trigger puller, and the trigger puller will get these orders and go, I don’t know what you want me to do. Where do you want me to be? Who am I supposed to check in with? What do you want me to kill when I get there? What are my left and right limits? Do I have target engagement authority?

“This then allows a better process of writing effective mission orders. so that we’re actually telling the joint force what we want them to do and who’s got the lead at a specific operational point. By such an approach, we are learning. We’re driving requirements from the people who are actually out there trying to execute the mission, as opposed to the war gamers who were sitting on the staff trying to figure out what the trigger pullers should do.”

But how to close the gaps?

As CDRE Kavanagh argued: “We need to deliver lethality at the speed of relevance. But if I go after the conventional solution, and I’m just replacing something, that’s actually not a good use of my very finite resources. We need to be answering the operational commanders request to fill a gap in capability, even if it is a 30% solution compared to no solution on offer from the traditional acquisition process.”

These are not technologies looked at in terms of a traditional acquisition process which requires them to go through a long period of development to form a platform which can procured with a long-life use expectancy. CDRE Kavanagh simply pointed out that maritime autonomous systems are NOT technologies to be understood in this manner.

“We build our platforms in a classical waterfall approach where you design, develop and build a platform over twenty years to make them excellent. But their ability to adapt quickly is very limited. This is where software intensive systems such as maritime autonomous systems are a useful complement to the conventional platforms. Maritime autonomous systems are built around software first approaches and we are able to do rapid readjustments of the code in a combat situation.”

And the legacy acquisition approach is not well aligned with the evolution of warfare. Not only is the focus changing to what distributed combat clusters can combine to do in terms of combat effects but the payload impacts at a point of relevance is also becoming of increased salience to warfighting approaches.

What is emerging clearly is a need to adapt more rapidly than what traditional platforms and their upgrade processes can do. Gaps will emerge and need to be closed not just in mission rehearsals but in the combat operations to be anticipated in the current and future combat situations.

And to endure in conflict, it will be crucial as well to protect one’s core combat capital capabilities and platforms which calls for increased reliance on capabilities like maritime autonomous systems to take the brunt of attrition in combat situations as capital ships become mother ships rather than simply being the core assets doing the brunt of combat with whatever organic capabilities they have onboard.

As CDRE Kavanagh noted: “The nuclear powered submarine is absolutely necessary for what we need to do for our defense in depth, but what we’re focused on with maritime autonomous systems completely complements it, because what I want to do is ensure that the dangerous stuff gets done by the autonomous forces as much as possible, because we can rebuild that capability much more rapidly.  We can actually restore it whereas we can’t restore a nuclear powered submarine quickly if lost.”

I wrote in a previous piece about the shift from the distributed force being shaped in the Pacific to an enduring force. The distributed force and its correlated capabilities are a near to mid-term answer to providing for enhanced Pacific defense and deterrence, but longer-term answers are needed for an enduring force.

CDRE Kavanagh closed our discussion by emphasizing the crucial need for Australia to have an ability to stay in the fight in case of conflict in the Pacific. He argued that having their own abilities to innovate in autonomous systems areas was part of such a desired capability.

“Resilience in a combat situation is an ability to be able to experiment and adjust on the fly. To have an enduring force that can operate until statecraft can shape an end state, the warriors and their support community must adjust the combat force rapidly to the real-world combat conditions. By shaping a deployment and ongoing development process in the maritime autonomous systems area, we are contributing to such a combat capability.“

Featured Photo: Director General Warfare Innovation, Royal Australian Navy, Commodore Darron Kavanagh inspects the ‘Dive-LD’ autonomous underwater vehicle. Credit: Australian Department of Defence

Also, see the following:

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