Maritime Autonomous Systems and the Operational Force: How to Accelerate the Effort?


By Robbin Laird

Recently, I had a chance to continue my discussions with CDRE Darron Kavanagh who is Director General Warfare Innovation, Royal Australian Navy Headquarters, concerning maritime autonomous systems. Kavanagh has been one of the most articulate leaders of the development and introduction of maritime autonomous systems in Australia.

It is well recognized that autonomous systems are critical to provide the mass necessary for the kind of multi-domain operations which the ADF requires. For example, as Vice Air-Marshal retired Zed Roberton noted at the 27 September Williams Foundation seminar: Going forward, Roberton argued that “we will see a massive focus on things like uncrewed aerial vehicles, uncrewed sea vehicles or land vehicles, the ability to have pre-positioned missile systems and of course, synchronized with cyber and in space effects.”

But how to get the effort started operationally?

We need to move from science projects and exercises to regular use by the combat forces to realize the opportunities inherent in maritime autonomous systems.

But how to do so?

Kavanagh started our conversation by underscoring that it is important to understand what these systems are and what they represent. They are not traditional platforms that you are focused on integrating with the force.

He argued: “They don’t replace platforms; they complement the integrated force. They are complimentary to that force in that they interface rather than being fully integrated with the current force elements.”

With the introduction of new crewed platforms, one must focus on backward engineering legacy systems to work with the new ones. That takes time and has high costs. This is understandable because warriors’ lives are at risk.

This is not the model by which to understand maritime autonomous systems, and certainly not the way to understand how you get them into the hands of warfighters for operations. They are not crewed, and your concern is with efficacy, not a primary emphasis on survivability.

Maritime autonomous systems interface with and complement the existing force to enhance their lethality. They extend the ISR and C2 range of the force and add to the non-lethal and lethal weapons available to the combat force.

Maritime autonomous systems add to the survivability of the force. As CDRE Kavanagh noted: “We have a finite number of crewed exquisite platforms. By leveraging autonomous systems these platforms can extend their defensive perimeter and provide various tools to complicate the adversaries attack profile on those crewed systems.”

For example, in effect, USVs can play the role of the picket ships in World War II, thereby enhancing the survivability of the destroyer and carrier fleet.

Or to use a Fifth Fleet example, USVs operating with destroyers can operate as a buffer between these key assets and Iranian patrol boats. The USVs function as the police guard dogs and if the Iranians were to attack them, the destroyer’s Rules of Engagement then allows it to destroy the Iranian patrol vessel.

And because of how maritime autonomous systems are developed and built, you can shape the kind of affordable mass which we discussed in the multi-domain strike seminar held by the Williams Foundation on 27 September 2023.

As CDRE Kavanagh underscored: “When you start leveraging maritime autonomous systems that are low cost, you can create affordable mass, and you’re setting up a system that allows for resilience. You can manufacture them at mass. Not only can I build them in peacetime but we can keep developing them and delivering them quite quickly during hostilities.”

And by focusing on complementarity rather than integration, there can be a much wider search within the commercial sector to adopt the rapid innovations in the commercial sector occurring in terms of autonomous systems.

CDRE Kavanagh specifically mentioned the Australian mining sector as one where rapid progress is being made on autonomous systems. If you are not using unique military specs which are designed in order to integrate with the extant force but rather providing complimentary capabilities which can directed by the force, then there is a much wider canvas of innovation from which to adopt autonomous system innovations.

Because there are a wide range of civilian and security missions that maritime autonomous systems are already being used for and their roles and numbers will increase to do so, the military can dip into this existing and growing capability as well. The protection of undersea infrastructure and wind farms are two examples which are suggestive of a broader trend.

According to CDRE Kavanagh: “We simply will delay adoption of autonomous systems by reducing them to the mantra of integration. By focusing on complementarity and finding ways to use the systems as compliments to the fleet and extending the range of the various effects desired, we can find a variety of missions which these systems can meet now and in the future.”

He noted that in the DSR, there is much focus on deterrence by denial. Autonomous systems can clearly help in disrupting adversary operations and deny them quick results against crewed platforms.

Then there is the key question of how maritime autonomous systems are being designed from the outset to operate in clusters or wolfpacks. And by so doing, they can operate as an interactive complimentary buffer force operating with the core integrated combat force to deliver persistent effects.

In short, one needs to focus on the broader con-ops of the operation of the forces, rather than on the integration of autonomous systems within the much more complicated integrated crewed combat systems. If you don’t, we simply won’t use them in the timely manner as we must in the era of strategic competition within which we live.

And an aspect of con-ops we discussed as well was the relationship of maritime autonomous systems and their operations to deterrence.

On the one hand, maritime autonomous systems can be deployed as part of a deterrence by detection strategy. This can be enhanced by sharing with partners who are not close allies, or the kind of allies you wish to integrate your crewed platforms with.

At the March seminar, Jake Campbell highlighted the importance of deterrence by detection as follows: “Adversaries are less likely to commit opportunistic acts of aggression if they know they are being watched constantly and that their actions can be publicized widely.”

On the other hand, when it comes to signalling, a key part of deterrence, sending in a maritime autonomous systems wolfpack simply does not have the same meaning as sending a Aegis led surface action group. It indicates concern, but does not raise the weapons threshold that such SAG is designed to do.

In short, maritime autonomous systems considered as complimentary capabilities which are controlled by but not built to be closely integrated with the combat force can deliver a number of the key capabilities which the DSR has called for.

Featured Image: 10 May 2022 photo of Rear Admiral Selby, when as the Chief of Naval Research, USN he visited Australia and met with CDRE Kavanagh and Michael Stewart, Director the Unmanned Task Force.