ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
‘Disaggregation’ Called the Future of Naval Warfare
SYDNEY — It’s Dec. 7, 2031, and a pair of Australian Air Force battle management operators are casually chatting as they monitor the control center screens. Suddenly, 1,000 incoming targets appear. The operators sound the alarms, and the fleet in the harbor engages air defenses.
However, it’s no match for the incoming missiles, aircraft and electronic deception that overwhelm the defenses and sink the ships in the harbor. Reports come in from around the country indicating similar attacks.
While fictional, that scenario was informed by Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea that decimated the Ukrainian navy, said Rob Sutton, managing director of Mirragin RAS Consulting, during a November presentation at the 2023 Indo-Pacific Sea Power Conference in Sydney.
Ukraine learned from its 2014 losses, adapted in preparation for Russia’s 2022 invasion and achieved more effective sea denial, he said.
“This time they achieved it using uncrewed surface vessels, or USV, cobbled together from readily available equipment and ordnance,” he said. “The Ukrainian USV would navigate to their target using the Starlink internet service. … The use of USV enabled Ukraine to expand the area of sea denial because Russian warships found it increasingly risky to venture from the heavily guarded harbor at Sevastopol. Without a navy, innovation and adaptation had given Ukraine an edge.”
The concept of “adaptation battle” has been at play throughout the war, he continued. “Ukraine innovates; Russia responds. Russia acts; Ukraine adapts.”
The key adaptation Australia needs to make is to incorporate autonomous and robotic systems into its military and develop sovereign production capability, he said.
“The ongoing war in Ukraine has accelerated the use of autonomous technology in warfighting, and Australia must ensure that it is not on the wrong side of the asymmetric advantage in any future conflict,” he said.
Australia is hardly the only country drawing such conclusions from the war in Ukraine. The conflict highlights macro trends driving toward a future where naval operations will rely less on large ships and more on masses of uncrewed vessels, said Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, during a panel at the exposition in Sydney.
“The growing threats posed to naval forces are playing out in two different ways when you look at the littoral operations versus open ocean operations,” he said. “In the littoral environment, what we’re seeing is an increasingly contested environment to the point where manned naval forces in a combat situation will have difficulty surviving at any scale, even with improvements to self-defenses.
“Even with more resilient ships, you get to the point where naval forces in the littoral areas are going to have difficulty operating and surviving,” he continued. “So increasingly, we’re seeing that be a role turned over to unmanned systems.”
That is driving requirements for “command and control [and] orchestration of unmanned systems in very chaotic, nearshore environments — especially when conducting kinetic operations against enemies and trying to do that in an effective way,” he said.
In the open ocean, different trends are playing out.
“The ability of long-range weapons to be able to hold at risk naval forces at thousands of miles away from an enemy’s coast — for example. China is driving towards distribution to try and create more targets to dilute those attacks over a wider number of potential contacts,” he said.
“But that distribution is limited because we can only buy so many manned platforms. And so, you get to a certain point where distribution is unable to be expanded.”
That again means turning to unmanned systems, he said.
“The other macro trend we’re seeing is with regard to manpower and cost constraints, or financial constraints on navies,” he said. Whether it is the U.S., Australian or Japanese navy, there are human capital limitations.
“When we try to expand the number of contacts or targets that need to be asked to engage, or we want to distribute the force more … those are going to have to be unmanned systems to a large degree — or potentially optionally unmanned systems where you have a manned platform that can be unmanned — in a high threat environment,” he said. “That’s the way that we’re going to be able to distribute the force over a large number of platforms.”
That means thinking about “functionally decomposing our traditional multi-mission platforms into a larger number of less multifunctional platforms,” he said. “And that puts demands on orchestration and command-and-control, networking and also automation, because those individual unmanned or optionally unmanned platforms will have to be able to operate with very little human interaction [for] potentially very long periods of time.”
“So, automation is not just a matter of making the system smart enough to do guidance and control,” he said. “It also means making it able to address mechanical failures and address unforeseen situations and navigate in a GPS-denied environment.”
Those are challenges industry is trying to solve, said James Cowles, senior business development manager for L3Harris Autonomous Surface Vessels, during a demonstration of the company’s technology in Sydney Harbor.
If the objective is to have a swarm of UAVs moving in formation, “we can go do that tomorrow,” he said, adding that so far, the company has only operated about five vessels together in an autonomous formation.
“I don’t think there are any insurmountable challenges,” he said. “I can go and put hundreds of USVs out, and I put them in formation and it will be fine — I don’t need more or new software to do that. It will be really labor-intensive and quite hard. But it’s really doable.”
However, having hundreds of USVs conducting complex, independent missions and operating with self-healing network capabilities, that’s a different matter, and the technology isn’t there yet, he said.
“It’s developing the system so that one, there’s a coordination in it, but also the coordination is not node specific,” he said. So, if a node vessel is sunk, it doesn’t render the other vessels helpless.
Then there is the question of the desired behaviors of the robotic vessels, he said.
“OK, you see a potential hostile asset, and you go and swarm around it. Is that what we’re trying to do? Are you trying to form a barrier? Are we trying to swarm around our vessel to protect them? What’s the goal?” he said.
The goal is complexity for the adversary, Clark said.
“You’ve got a littoral combat ship and a bunch of unmanned surface vessels, one way to use them would simply be to use the unmanned surface vessels to extend the reach and the range and persistence of that manned platform, which hasn’t really changed from the enemy’s perspective how you’re going to fight and just means a few more targets to shoot at,” he said.
“But if instead, you free those unmanned systems to go off and conduct independent operations that you may have loose control over to create more challenging, more complex operations for the enemy to target, or to give you sensor capabilities for longer-range engagements, or for you to be able to conduct [anti-submarine warfare] over a larger area, those are different ways of fighting that you decompose or disconnect or decouple the manned platform from most of the elements of the kill chain,” he continued.
“So, we go from having all the pieces of the kill chain inside of your manned platform, inside the skin of your ship … to instead, I’ve got to rely on basically the entire kill chain being off of my ship, and the only thing that I’m doing is maybe the command or control and then launching a weapon — everything else is being done by something else,” he said. “That’s a very different model.”
It’s a model the Defense Department is exploring through initiatives like Replicator, which seeks to accelerate the development, procurement and fielding of thousands of attritable, autonomous systems in all domains in 18 to 24 months.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told reporters in November U.S. Central Command’s Task Force 59 is where much of the Navy’s autonomous surface and subsurface experimentation is taking place, and that experimentation is both about technology and tactics.
“The Ukrainians are showing a lot of how that rapid iteration is happening, and how much you have to adjust [tactics, techniques and procedures] as you go,” she said. “It’s not all about the technology and the initiatives that we’ll push through.”
The systems and platforms will have to “ride alongside” concepts of operations and tactics, techniques and procedures growth, she said. “And that’s where things like Task Force 59 — not the only place we’re doing it — where we can bring all that together and move quickly through experimentation and exercise to fielding is so important to how we’re going to get there in that 24-month timeframe.”
The required sea change in tactics and doctrine might be more difficult than developing the technology, Clark said.
“We’re kind of at the point now where the new technologies have gone beyond just making the existing way of fighting better, but they force you to think about fighting entirely differently,” he said.
“It’s going to come when we’ve got leaders that are willing to embrace a new approach to delivering military capability where you think about decomposing or disaggregating the functions of our traditional platforms into a broader collection of manned and unmanned assets,” he said.
That is ultimately a culture change, he added.
“Culture is a huge part of that, because you have to have a military that’s willing to change how it fights and be able to embrace those [changes] and then instill those lessons throughout the entire force,” he said. “That’s difficult in the U.S. military because the services and communities within each service have their own norms and doctrines that are difficult to change when new technology comes along.” ND
Topics: Maritime Security