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Eliminating the “You” in UMV

By Lieutenant (j.g.) Alex Borgelt, U.S. Navy

The Navy’s domain is the ocean. This service gave birth to the first type of combat to involve massive craft fighting for strategic dominance. Warship capabilities, crew effectiveness, tactics, and weather created an art and culture different from anything previously experienced in warfare. Self-sufficiency, fighting proficiency, and time at sea formed the core of the Navy culture. World War II, while witnessing the advent of aviation, still maintained the essence of the centuries-old art of naval combat. However, highly sophisticated radars and the ranges of missiles have now relegated this traditional form of warfare to a shadow of its former self.

What happens to naval combat and culture when the next evolution in warfare, the unmanned maritime vessel (UMV), is introduced to the Fleet? In the Air Force, MQ-9 Reaper pilots have become the new “jet jocks” despite the slow speeds and steady flights of these propeller -driven airframes. The combat exposure and flight hours are altering a culture that once glorified a pilot’s ability to maneuver at high speed, tolerate G-forces, and destroy enemy aircraft. The Navy’s adoption of the UMV will mark the demise of the art of traditional naval combat and the culture of the service. Most of the service’s human force will move to shore-based installations, which will remove several tactical layers of the decision-evaluation process. Thus the culture of going to sea will be lost. Weapons-release decisions become policy as the authority is migrated to senior levels removed from the tactical levels of the engagement.

The human decision-making process of observe-orient-decide-act (the OODA loop), the roles of Navy personnel working with UMVs, UMVs and maritime and warfare law, the missions that the Navy will develop these craft to carry out, and the intelligent integration of UMVs into the Fleet, all hold fundamental roles in the erosion of the art of naval combat and the alteration of the Navy’s culture. It is up to the service to plan effectively to best adopt the UMV and transition smoothly to an unmanned fleet.

Fire and Genuinely Forget

The last time the U.S. Navy actively engaged in fleet-on-fleet engagements was World War II. Massive crews fought warships bristling with guns employing traditional and proven maneuvering. They experienced visceral combat that closely mirrored the carnage experienced by their brothers centuries earlier.

The next evolution of naval warfare occurred during the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942). The Japanese and American fleets never sighted or engaged each other physically. Aircraft engaged each other and the enemy fleet. This marked a tactical and strategic paradigm shift in naval combat. Opposing forces could engage at distances once unfathomable by striking from the air, leaving the wounded (or destroyed) fleet unable to retaliate. There was no ability to visually track and outmaneuver the enemy, leaving the force vulnerable to subsequent attack. Missiles and the advent of the fire-control radar in the 1960s solidified the demise of the art of close-quarters maneuvering and combat. The exponential development of sophisticated missile and radar systems such as the Aegis AN-SPY1D (360-degree coverage out to 250 nautical miles) dramatically reduced the likelihood of participating in the type of warfare that just 50 years earlier had been the status quo.

Current missile, fire-control, and radar technologies allow navies to engage each other over the horizon (OTH). Ranges are extended with the aid of airborne assets. Fighting the ship has been relegated to a limited selection of maneuvers and a reliance on various countermeasures that attempt to defeat supersonic, highly maneuverable antiship missiles or torpedoes. Offensively, the ship has to ensure the correct course and speed and, more important, that sensors and radars are functioning as designed. No more crossing the T or holding fast as men-of-war maneuver for a broadside volley.

Naval combat machines will all but extinguish conventional naval warfare. Even though missiles and OTH targeting have largely removed the fire and maneuvering art of naval combat, the ship’s crew and chain of command still play an integral role in the OODA loop. Captains, executive officers, tactical action officers, officers of the deck, and the chief petty officers and sailors provide layers of decision-making and reevaluation to ensure that rules of engagement are adhered to and weapons are accurately placed on target. This cycle kicks into overdrive when attempting to evade an incoming missile or detect, track, and engage a subsurface enemy. Likewise, if the ship is hit, the OODA loop and multi-layered reevaluation execute damage-control efforts properly and swiftly to save the ship and weigh the cost each action has on the hull and crew.

Integrating the machine into the OODA loop can have one of three outcomes depending on the sophistication of the unmanned combat vessel and relationship with the sailor. In the first scenario, the vessel’s systems and ability to provide an accurate, intelligible battle-space picture to the sailor is well integrated. The transfer of information from the vessel is fed in a digestible stream that allows the sailor to employ the OODA loop in an effective manner, maximizing the ability to make informed decisions in a combat or maneuvering situation.

The second scenario involves an autonomous vehicle with complex sensors and artificial intelligence (rules of engagement and doctrine included). The OODA loop is a closed loop. It demotes the sailor’s role to that of a “kill switch,” providing weapons-release ability, terminating a mission, or ordering the vehicle to depart the battle space.

The third scenario includes a craft that feeds too much or too little information to the sailor, destroying his or her ability to employ the OODA loop. The consequences are detrimental to the ability to fight effectively. In this final scenario, the craft overrides the sailor’s orders or the sailor makes an ill-informed decision resulting in unintended consequences.

These three situations encompass the best and worst situations that service members could face concerning their ability to employ the OODA loop in tactical engagements with an unmanned vehicle. Regardless of the role of the sailor, the mere fact that a vessel is unmanned reduces the part played by the human in the OODA loop. As unmanned naval vessels evolve, how does that affect the greater roles of the officer corps and enlisted ranks? Already removed from the actual fighting vessel, the entire naval force takes on a stronger support and maintenance role.

The greatest commodity that these systems will affect is the human being in all aspects of the military, ranging from force size to recruitment and training. The introduction of the unmanned vehicle into the surface and subsurface fleets of the U.S. Navy will lead to greater specialization across the officer corps and enlisted ranks, but consign them to shore and, at best, mother-ship support vessels. The officer corps will shrink, to what degree is uncertain. The enlisted ranks face the possibility of a much more dramatic force change as their roles can either be greatly enhanced or diminished when faced with the new fleet of autonomous warships and small craft.

An Officer and a Technician

Unrestricted line officers will need to have technical backgrounds (or at minimum, to pass a comprehensive technical training pipeline). As in the nuclear community, where every officer is certified to run a nuclear-power plant, officers will be required to have the same background and training to knowledgeably manage specific hulls and oversee maintenance. Computer science, engineering, and physics are the types of disciplines that will prove critical.

Rather than performing the duties associated with a combat or bridge watch team, the officer corps will largely oversee the execution of maintenance, ensuring that all assigned units are warfare-ready. As in the drone program, officers and senior to mid-level enlisted personnel will play roles in the combat employment of the system, approving kinetic weapons release rather than participating in actual tactical employment and “fighting the ship.” The officer’s role (paralleled to that of mid-career aviators) will be to ensure the unit is administratively sound and able to meet mission requirements.

Regarding actual batteries-release authority, policy will dictate weapons-release conditions and programmed doctrine will reflect that policy. Hence, it will be at the discretion of the most senior naval commanders at the task-force level to enact that doctrine. The “action officers” are removed from the OODA loop and merely supervise so that doctrinal programming for the autonomous vessel is properly uploaded and systems are completely operational.

Drone Technician 2d Class or GS-10 Equivalent Contractor?

While the change in the officer’s combat role is a paradigm shift for the Navy, the enlisted force will follow one of two paths, the first one involving minimal change. The service is technologically heavy, providing a solid foundation for an unmanned fleet. It will be necessary to fuse current rates to create specific rates for UMVs. For example, combat-system rates of electronics technician and information systems technician could be combined to allow one sailor to focus on the overall sensor and communications suite of a particular hull type. The same could follow for hull rates, combining propulsion and hull-maintenance disciplines.

To retain this highly specialized knowledge, the warrant-officer and limited-duty-officer programs will be expanded to ensure retention and consistency concerning maintenance and operation of the systems. Additionally, this could affect the unrestricted line officers, adding to additional cuts in their numbers.

The second path will parallel the Navy’s Maritime Sealift Command (MSC) fleet, the logistical arm of the service responsible for replenishing and refueling ships under way. MSC ships are unique in that their crews are largely composed of civilians. The Navy embarks detachments that comprise uniformed personnel to assist with communications and defense of the ship. As unmanned and autonomous surface and subservice vessels become more sophisticated and complex, the enlisted force could face severe cutbacks when maintenance and operation are shifted to the private sector, mirroring the uniformed manning requirements of the MSC fleet. Crew manning is a major issue already. The littoral combat ship (LCS) is billeted for roughly 50 sailors (up to around 100 with mission support teams). The new Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyer (DDG) only requires a ship’s company of 168, compared with our current Arleigh Burke-class DDG that requires around 330. The technical advancements in LCS and Zumwalt reduce the need for larger crews due to their levels of automation and efficiency, but require significant outside activity (non-uniformed personnel) to service when major repairs are required. The numbers will further dwindle with smarter hulls.

Removing the human factor from the warship forces the next question, which centers on maritime-navigation law (mainly fault of collision) and the rules of armed conflict. Operator error, responsibility, and culpability can no longer be pinned directly on the captain or crew. Collisions at sea, negligent discharges, and friendly fire incidents cannot be traced down the chain of command. How can a court charge an unmanned warship?

Who Has the Right of Way?

Autonomous navigation and guidance systems have made leaps in their sophistication and abilities. From the Oshkosh TerraMax ground vehicle system that successfully self-navigates over adverse terrain and finds efficient routes, to the more mainstream Google cars that are in their final stages of development and obey traffic laws, it is evident that the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) can be applied to naval unmanned systems. While the Navy’s new fleet of ships and boats will not navigate the ocean like nautical iRobot Roombas, these systems are still susceptible to failure or damage (regardless of hostile action or mechanical failure) as a result of collision, grounding, or combat.

Modern naval navigation, surface maneuvering, and lighting identification standards are dictated by the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) COLREGs. Published in 1972, the “rules of the road” list 19 navigation laws for maneuvering vessels to facilitate safe travel in restricted and piloting waters and open ocean. (Surface warfare officers may have horrible flashbacks of the “shall” versus “may” line of questioning during their officer-of-the-deck Boards). These rules provide a basic framework for computer programming and logic, but in the construct of international maritime law, there are several questions that span a stratum of technical and legal issues.

The most pressing question is fault of collision. Collisions at sea, despite the high sophistication of radars, sensors, autopilot programs, and global positioning systems, still occur. In August 2012, the USS Porter (DDG-78) collided with a Japanese tanker while transiting outbound from the Straits of Hormuz. An investigation determined the Porter was at fault, and disciplinary action was taken.

But who is to blame and receive the proverbial lashings when an autonomous warship collides with another vessel? Is the country to which the ship belongs at fault? Or is it the contractor that developed the navigation or weapons programming? Does responsibility fall back on the military element tasked with providing the watch for the vessels while on station? It is critical that the IMO and powers that seek to employ unmanned warfighting vessels should work together to define navigation and watch standards for such craft. The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (1978) dictates requirements for humans, and a similar publication needs to be authored to set the benchmark for any unmanned vessel (warship or otherwise) navigating the seas.

Blue Screen of Death

Most of the Navy’s warships will be unmanned, meaning people will be removed on various levels from the warfighting OODA loop and the engagement process. Regardless of how many human layers are removed, the programming and artificial intelligence employed to fight these vessels will allow the execution of extensive missions. Ideal missions for the unmanned vessel are attacking enemy naval forces, air and ballistic-missile defense, strike warfare, and intelligence collection. In these instances, clear-cut doctrine can be translated into programming that allows the vessel to execute its mission. Programming allows for the fluid execution of orders based on enemy vessel and aircraft characteristics.

The next sets of missions that create a level of uncertainty are those of blockades, piracy patrol, and escorting high-value vessels. An unmanned vessel, depending on its degree of autonomy, ability to accurately process information, and execute the OODA loop, may or may not be able to perform these missions. Each task requires that the vessel identify a contact as friend or foe and use that information to determine the appropriate response. What complicates this is the ability to put observations in context. Just because a contact breaches the threat zone (the last layer of defense for a ship) of a high-value vessel does not mean it intends to do harm. If a dhow maintains the same position for several days, this does not necessarily mean it is assessing merchant vessels for vulnerabilities. A merchant vessel steaming at 15 knots could have the same acoustic signature as a hostile frigate at the same speed. In these scenarios, the human role in the OODA loop may or may not be required. It boils down to the sophistication of an unmanned vessel’s sensors, ability to interpret the environment and situation, and programming logic.

Where the unmanned warship’s role has to be halted is the release of nuclear weapons. The Navy maintains a third of the nuclear triad, operating 18 Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines that function as both deterrence to hostile nuclear strikes and an offensive strike capability. There needs to be a presence on board to pull the plug or override a shutdown in the event of a launch. Until the human psyche and attitude concerning nuclear-weapons usage changes (highly unlikely), layers of human involvement in the decision-making process are required.

Sending Hindsight to Davey Jones

Rather than address what we should have done 10 years ago, it is necessary to define what we should do in the next decade. The Navy operates a vast array of vessels, ranging from the new Ford-class carrier (1,106 feet) to the Ticonderoga-class cruiser (567 feet) and Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (505 feet), to the smallest patrol boats (25 feet). While these warships are staples of the surface Navy, it is the amphibious Navy that holds the key to integrating unmanned combat vessels and eventually converting the Fleet into a largely unmanned and/or autonomous force.

Instead of primarily serving as a delivery force for Marines and shore assault craft, amphibious ships assume a role as mother ships. The landing platform dock (LPD, 682 feet) and landing helicopter dock (LHD, 831 feet) carriers serve as ideal platforms to develop, test, and employ unmanned warships. Their ability to provide command and control, on-station maintenance, and flood a wet well facilitates such missions. By employing tactics akin to those used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ small-boat forces, amphibious vehicles can deliver unmanned fighting vessels at a rapid pace in a consolidated fashion to execute staple naval missions such as strike, patrol, and deterrence. The next phase is the conversion of the amphibious fleet to an unmanned force. Crews will largely consist of maintenance teams, while the mother ship navigates herself. The traditional roles of sailors on board warships as integral components are eliminated. Following that will be the cruiser/destroyer and subsurface combatants.

You’re Smarter Than You Look

By assuming a greater role in the OODA loop, UMVs will gradually relegate sailors to shore-based support roles, severing them from the ocean and eliminating the essence of naval culture. Combat decisions will be made further up the chain of command, and the quintessential tactical-decision and reevaluation responsibilities will be turned over to the vessels themselves. This is not to say the Navy will lose its ability to effectively execute its mission to “maintain, train, and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.” It is, however, a fundamental change. Despite this assessment, one may look to the migration of the Navy from the seas to the stars as the catalyst for restoring the traditions and essence of naval culture: Technology has to reintegrate with its human masters before being released on its own.


Lieutenant Borgelt serves as the assistant operations officer and navigator for Coastal Riverine Squadron Two. Previously he served as the strike officer and auxiliaries officer on board the USS Cole (DDG-67). In August 2014 he will start at the Navy Intelligence Officer Basic School, and before joining the Navy, he served for four years at the FBI in intelligence analysis and operations.


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