The Technology is Important: But the Con-ops Against a Reactive Enemy is Determinate


By Robbin Laird

With the coming of maritime autonomous systems, we are reminded once again about the importance of understanding what a technology does and does not do for an organization. If you keep the structure of the organization the same, you simply wait for the technology to be useful to that legacy organization. Your focus is not upon – how can I use that technology now because it is important I do so?

How do I change the way I operate so I can use it NOW?

There is no better case in point than the conventional thinking about the U.S. Navy and maritime autonomous systems.

To be clear, there are those in the U.S. Navy who get it, such as Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, Commander U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. Task Force 59 within 5th Fleet has provided practical leadership for the way ahead in using (not endlessly developing) maritime autonomous systems.

A good illustration of the challenge was highlighted in a recent USNI piece published on 30 November 2023.

In this piece, the author indicated that the unmanned future of the U.S. Navy is “murky.”

I would have used the term “confused” instead.

And the difference gets to a key point about how these systems can be used now and not after China has seized Taiwan.

The story highlights the deployment of four autonomous ships which was a months long deployment at the behest of the PACFLEET commander. The goal of the deployment was to demonstrate utility of such ships to the fleet, and the commander involved was quoted as saying: “The long-term goal … is to find ways to integrate these unmanned systems across the continuum – subsurface, surface and air – while having the ability to close kill-chains faster, keep them closed longer and be able to operate in a contested environment.”

But this a variant of the vision of a so-called ghost fleet which mimics what a legacy fleet does, only doing so with “unmanned vessels” and doing what is referred to as “manned-unmanned” teaming.

And these larger vessels will cost serious money to build and will almost certainly follow traditional production methodologies.

That is not going to get the Navy where it needs to go and will not keep it ahead of strategic competitors.

A different understanding is required.

First, the new generation autonomous UAVs or the new smaller maritime autonomous systems do not have to be designed to be integrated with the combat systems of the extant manned fleet. That misses the point.

As Commodore Kavanagh of the Royal Australian Navy has put it: “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.”

Second, they are part of a kill web, not an integrated kill chain. They can create a combat cluster rather than part of an integrated task force. You give them specific missions and they perform what that limited mission might be. Their job is fully focused on a specific mission thread not replacing a multi-mission manned system.

Put another way, you change the con-ops of the fleet from a task force manned scoped fleet designed for multi-mission operations to one in which manned fleet assets have at their disposal clusters of autonomous systems to which one can delegate a specific mission which the manned assets does now not have to perform.

This is not manned-unmanned teaming – this is delegation of a mission to a wolfpack of smaller autonomous vessels.

Third, the battlespace is conceived as a chessboard. There are significant gaps on that chessboard which the legacy force can not address.

Autonomous systems – the next generation air or maritime autonomous systems can fill those gaps – in addition to providing complementary ISR, C2, logistics or strike capabilities.

The article mentions one desired effect from PACFLEET which is to create “hellscape” for an adversary looking to occupy terrain in the Pacific.

The article notes: “To keep sailors and Marines out of the deadliest of the Pacific crucibles, they want to overwhelm the invasion force with lethal drones to create what PACFLEET calls “hellscape.” The plan calls for thousands of lethal drones on, above and under the sea, creating chaos for the invaders.

“[Enemy] ships are getting damaged, slowing down, big timings are getting thrown off, some are getting lost, some ships are probably going to get sunk,” Clark told USNI News last week.

“This hellscape, this churn you cause in the invasion lets you mobilize, get your act together and start delivering the long-range fires that are going to actually take out the larger amphibious ships and surface ships,” he added.

“The concept has been taken up by the Pentagon and folded into the overarching Replicator initiative.”

To do this in the near term is possible but not by focusing on long-terms LUSV builds.

To do so requires building kamikaze boats with ordinance aboard which can attack the adversaries’ assets.

One company, MARTAC, has recently created such a kamikaze boat (the M-18) in five weeks, and could be available in the short term.

There are other ways to use smaller boats to enable a Hellscape con-ops but the point is that the con-ops change to drive the technology you tap.

And associated with that is creating a manufacturing model which could build smaller boats to scale, and such a model has virtually nothing in common with legacy shipbuilding models but can be done through the leveraging of smaller more agile companies that can activate a supplier chain more rapidly than the legacy prime contractors.

And to be blunt, whether you are a legacy prime or a smaller company it is all about the supply chain, and that will not exist at the scale needed without significant demand.

By focusing on a con-ops at hand – a maritime kill web force – one can find the place for maritime autonomous systems ready now for identifiable mission threads – rather than waiting for a ghost fleet that mimics the legacy fleet.

After all you want our sailors not to become ghosts while waiting for that futuristic ghost fleet.

Featured Photo: The MARTAC M-18 on the water. Credit: MARTAC