WEB EXCLUSIVE: 'Tsunami' of New Tech Complicates Anti-Sub Warfare Mission

By Laura Heckmann
Anti-submarine MK-50 torpedo

Navy photo

ARLINGTON, Virginia — Approaching anti-submarine warfare in 2023 is a study in lessons learned, carrying industry leaders back 70 years to look for answers as today's undersea environment grows ever more complex, experts in the field said recently.

The field of detecting, tracking, deterring and destroying enemy submarines is growing more complex, said David Lewis, senior vice president of maritime programs at Leidos and a retired Navy vice admiral. He painted a picture of mysteries and puzzles dating back to 1953 during a panel discussion on anti-submarine warfare at the American Society of Naval Engineer’s Combat Systems Symposium Feb. 2.

Undersea warfare in 1953 was a time of mystery, he said. Nuclear power, analog and digital computers, tactical, ballistic and cruise missiles, nuclear weapons, jet engines — even spaceships — were emerging. The questions were: “What do we do with them?” and “How do they fit into our fleet?” he said.

By 1973, the mystery had turned to puzzles. Challenges were less about technological solutions and more about how many, when and where to deploy, Lewis said. The difficulties facing anti-submarine warfare today more closely resemble 1953 than 1973, he said. The Navy is facing mysteries, not puzzles. Today's "mysteries" are a result of a “tsunami of technology” in the form of AI, quantum computing, machine learning, cloud processing, uncrewed vehicles, ubiquitous communications, advanced networks and a “host of related and supporting technologies.”

Seventy years ago, the mysteries were solved by engineers and sailors working together, Lewis said. And that’s what needs to happen again. When the mystery solving of the 50s transformed into the puzzle solving of the 70s, “we created the valley of death,” Lewis said, referring to the problem of technologies that are developed, but never reach the field for bureaucratic reasons.

As technology becomes more complex and adversaries more capable, Lewis suggested the Navy needs to return to mystery solving, and “turn the valley of death into the zipline of innovation.”

The key to solving those mysteries is putting the technologies in the hands of the sailors and Marines, he said. “They — not our engineers and scientists — will tell us what works,” he said. “We are missing a key element today – that part that solves mysteries. The fleet. Our sailors and marines. The great grandsons and great granddaughters of those 1950s sailors, Marines and guardsmen.”

He called the operators the Navy's  “greatest asset” and “strongest performers,” saying they are “largely absent” from the technology development, as the service faces its greatest challenges and opportunities.

Lewis quoted Heidi Shyu, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, who said the Defense Department will see more new technology in the next decade than it has in the last 50 years. This “tsunami of technology” presents an adoption problem  It can't get it into the hands of sailors fast enough, he said.

In 1953, the mysteries were solved by engineers and sailors working together.  “It is past time to bring in the fleet to form our powerhouse mystery-solving team. It worked last time, and many times before that,” he said.

Rick Kitchens, director of Navy programs at L3Harris, said enemy submarines are becoming quieter, and the likelihood of developing new sensor technology or capabilities that makes the ocean more transparent is unlikely. Sailors will have to work with what they have, or what is in development, to make the anti-submarine warfare mission more effective, he said. Accomplishing that will including squeezing “much more” out of existing systems – including employing artificial intelligence.

Learning how to utilize artificial intelligence, and trust it, is one of the mysteries Lewis alluded to. The problem with AI is it only knows what it’s taught, Lewis said.

“You train an AI in a peacetime environment or in a benign environment and then a shooting starts, and that’s a different place. They catch up, but there’s that time in the middle there,” he said.

Tony Lengerich, vice president of naval programs at Advanced Acoustic Concepts, said the key is understanding when AI can be trusted — is knowing how AI got the answer. There is already technology out there that will explain how it got the answer, in English, and why it got the answer, he said.

Bryan Clark, senior fellow and director at the Hudson’s Institute’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology, said during the panel that one area AI could prove useful is in real-time modeling and simulation, allowing for evaluation of the ocean environment in a way that supports anti-submarine warfare mission planning.

Kitchens identified real-time modeling and simulations as an example of existing capabilities that can be utilized more effectively to aid anti-submarine warfare. “It can get much better,” he said.

Predictive analysis “really helps us understand where to go look, how to optimize the employment of sensors,” Kitchens said. The Navy is doing this already, but “but I think there’s more that can be done.”

Clark said unmanned systems could also be used more aggressively.

Drones could help alleviate what Clark identified a primary challenge in today's anti-submarine warfare tactics: it’s expensive and does not scale well. Drawing upon research done at the Hudson Institute, Clark said the cost of traditional anti-submarine warfare operations and sustainment alone can climb as high as tens of millions of dollars – potentially billions after procurement costs.

Anti-submarine warfare requires a “large number of unmanned platforms,” he said. Today’s approach is “fundamentally flawed,” he said, offering unmanned systems as a potential cost-cutting solution. He said the cost savings alone would pay for the systems, and unmanned systems are also easier to scale.

Kitchens, however, cautioned against focusing solely on robotics, encouraging a blend of both manned and unmanned systems.

“The trick is how do we come up with the most effective undersea warfare solutions? How do we improve the effectiveness of what we have and what’s emerging now?” The goal should be making the team the most productive with what they have, he said. The technology exists. The focus needs to be placed on properly and effectively utilizing it, he added.

Somewhere between new technology and old, mysteries and puzzles, the panel agreed: the landscape is changing, and anti-submarine warfare must evolve.

“What we’re doing is not going to work in the next decade,” Lewis said. “We have to adapt.”

Topics: Maritime Security

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.