SPECIAL REPORT: Unmanned Systems Make a Splash During RIMPAC
This is part 2 of a 3-part special report on the Rim of the Pacific Exercise.
PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — The Rim of the Pacific military exercise — first held in 1971 — might be middle-aged as a concept, but with each iteration it looks to try out fresh concepts and technology. RIMPAC 2022 was no different, with dozens of experimental technologies being tested during the biennial exercise.
“We’re taking initiatives that were identified throughout the past two years that we wanted to test, and we brought them out here to RIMPAC,” said Capt. Dan Brown, assistant chief of staff in the N8/9 directorate of 3rd Fleet.
With 26 nations, 38 ships, four submarines, 170 aircraft and 25,000 personnel participating in the exercise, “it’s a great way to get things on the ships and get it evaluated in the hands of sailors and see if it works out,” said Brown, who was overseeing experimentation during the exercise, which took place in Southern California and Hawaii Jun. 29 through Aug. 4.
And while there were critical experiments going on to test cybersecurity, networks, virtual reality training systems and personal protective gear, there was clearly a crowd favorite among the participants.
“What’s also new in this RIMPAC is a lot more integration of unmanned systems — both on the surface, in the air, under the surface,” said Vice Adm. Michael Boyle, the commander of RIMPAC 2022.
The four unmanned surface vehicles that the Navy brought to the exercise carried specialized payloads for anti-submarine warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, domain awareness and communications capability, he said. “So that’s all kind of new.”
Two of the USVs were designed and built as unmanned vessels: the Sea Hunter — originally developed by the Defense Advanced Research and Projects Agency — and the Sea Hawk — developed through the Office of Naval Research. The other two — Nomad and Ranger — were previously manned vessels that have been retrofitted with autonomous technology through the Ghost Fleet Overlord program.
Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk steamed from San Diego to Hawaii autonomously, Brown said. “This is the first time they’re participating in an exercise to this magnitude, or really [the] first time they’ve done an extended exercise or been away from port.”
All four conducted numerous operations during the exercise under the watch of Cmdr. Jeremiah Daley, head of the Navy’s recently established Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One.
Sea Hawk and Sea Hunter are now a few years old and had gone through extensive testing by their developers before they were transferred to Daley’s control, he said. “What comes with time is more additional reliability from a whole mechanical, electrical [standpoint] and the autonomy itself has had more time to mature.”
At RIMPAC, the ships were testing and demonstrating the physical platforms and the capabilities, including autonomous systems, electronic warfare, ISR, anti-submarine warfare and other payloads, Daley said.
“We’re working both things at the same time,” he said. “Both the capabilities of how we bring value to the high-end fight, from a tactical standpoint, and then the ability to build confidence and mature the technology for the ships themselves to operate safely unmanned.”
The trimaran Sea Hawk sailed with a towed array of anti-submarine warfare electronics and was controlled afloat from the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Fitzgerald via satellite communications. The Sea Hunter, also a trimaran design, and its electronic warfare payload was controlled by the destroyer USS William Lawrence through satellite communications and the Link 16 tactical network, according to Brown.
Unlike aerial platforms such as the MQ-9 Reaper drone — typically piloted in real time by a remote operator — the unmanned ships operate autonomously through mission commands that can be sent from a ship or the operation center in California. “There is no stick control,” Daley said.
While command and control is generally handled from one source, the sensor data from the USVs can be shared by anyone on the tactical network.
“They weren’t attached to a specific unit all the time,” he said. They behaved as if they were another manned platform providing long-range targeting data for another manned platform to use, he added.
Since international interoperability is one of the pillars of RIMPAC, command and strike groups were assembled with ships and commanders from different nations. For example, a South Korean rear admiral commanded the amphibious assault ship USS Essex as the lead ship of an expeditionary strike group. That meant the unmanned vessels were often tasked to international ships or officers.
“We worked in the chain of command,” Daley said. “In one group, we worked for a Singaporean sea combat commander that was working for a two-star Korean admiral as the task force commander. We were integrated with not just U.S. assets tactically,” but with multinational task force partners.
In those instances, the partner commanders did not have direct access to the unmanned platforms and their classified operating technology but rather gave mission orders to U.S. service members controlling the platforms. However, the international participants had access to all the sensor data just as they would from any shared platform, according to Daley.
Command and control worked as expected during the exercise, but there was an incident with one of the manned ships that required transferring USV control from afloat to ashore, he said.
“That was a tremendous effort on the part of the command structure,” he said. “We were postured to do it, and it was good from a data-collection standpoint, which helps further develop the concept of operations and the concept of employment for real-world operations.”
In addition, the unmanned vessels got a taste of rough seas when a tropical storm neared the Hawaiian Islands. “The seas were within our operating limits, and we continued to execute the mission right in conjunction with our manned platforms,” Daley said. That provided additional data to show the platforms are safe and seaworthy.
“The payloads operated as expected and as my team had planned to integrate with the fleet and the larger fleet,” he added, saying that he is confident the platforms showed they can add value in functions ranging from passive sensing to delivering kinetic payloads.
And it wasn’t just the USVs that caught people’s attention during the exercise. The MQ-9B, the next generation of the MQ-9A Reaper, was also getting a workout during the exercise.
“It seems like a pretty capable platform for the [Defense Department] as a whole,” Brown said. “The endurance it has, the payloads it can carry, it can do [anti-submarine warfare], it has radars onboard that can collect signals, and the fact that it can be flown from anywhere is pretty amazing. So, I think that this bravo model is an advancement.”
The MQ-9B factored into a range of exercises, he added, including providing video feeds of the two “sink exercises” where participants fired on and sank decommissioned ships.
Operators controlled the MQ-9B from ground control and mission intelligence stations at Pearl Harbor Naval Base, and the platform took off and landed autonomously from the Marine Corps Base in Kaneohe Bay, about 15 miles northeast of Pearl Harbor.
While the Navy was evaluating the performance of the unmanned platforms, it was also evaluating the networks used to transfer the data from the platforms back and forth to command nodes.
One platform being tested was a portable link system designed to provide a common operational picture. Brown described it as akin to a next-generation Link 16 platform — the current tactical data link used by the United States and many allies.
“Every commander who owns an operating area is going to want to be able to sense that battlespace in order to make decisions, it’s always going to be a challenge,” he said. “Is what you’re seeing the same as what your partners are seeing so you can kind of make decisions?”
In an exercise the size and scale of RIMPAC, with so many international participants, networks and communications are where problems are most likely to occur, Brown said. And while new systems might be under the microscope, sometimes the experimentation taking place is working with existing systems to identify gaps that need to be addressed with future technology.
“I think when we get done it’s going to be like, ‘Hey this stuff worked great and this stuff worked great,’” he said. “But working these two systems together, the communication — whether it be voice or data sharing — is going to probably be the biggest capability gap we’re going to see.”
And while there was no specific exercise to experiment with the Defense Department’s joint all-domain command and control initiative, it was hovering in the background of many of the exercises, he said.
“It’s going to be part of it,” he said. “As we do the reports for RIMPAC, and we look at how we worked together, the JADC2 team, I would imagine, is also going to grab the data and say, ‘How did this stuff work, where are we missing, and what do we need to do to get together on this?’”
From his vantage point, Boyle felt the networks and data transfers between unmanned platforms and command nodes performed well.
“What I have seen so far is that we’ve been successful in both unmanned air and unmanned surface pushing that data back,” he said.
He and others said during the closing days of the exercise that they were digesting the results and data and looking toward the next phases of experimentation and fielding of technology.
“Exercises of the scale of RIMPAC can provide the right level of data and the right level of granularity to inform,” Daley said. “And we’re going to continue to move forward with maturing the technology and bringing the right capabilities to high-end fight.”
In addition, Daley and his team will be presenting lessons learned to Unmanned Surface Vessel Division One and higher commands to help integrate capabilities into the program of record.
“The more informed the fleet is on just what is available in the capability world, informs them on creating what the requirement is for said capability and employment,” he added.
That was a point stressed by Boyle — that the conversation has moved past whether the Navy can operate USVs safely, and the focus now is on the use case.
“And so now we are talking about what is the capability?” he said. “To be able to tow [an] array and do anti-submarine warfare, or to be able to have ISR capabilities that plugs into a larger command-and-control structure and to … think about, how would these be able to enable the warfighter? How would they be able to make us more lethal?”
The next step, he said, is to turn the experiments from RIMPAC into programs of record.
“And start to investigate, how does it get into the budget? How do we do manning? How do we do the sustainment?” he said. “So, this information is critical to the [chief of naval operations] and all of the folks back in the [Pentagon] … who figure out where we’re going to spend your tax dollars.”
Part 1: Allies Flex Muscles During RIMPAC Exercise
Part 3: Coast Guard Packs a Punch at RIMPAC