— Thomas L. Friedman , ‘In The Age Of Pirates,’ The New York Times , 15 April 2009
For navies, the current era is the stuff of versatile ships, not grand fleets. The big combatants of today’s fleets are fighting an old fight: before the USS Winston Churchill (DDG-81) captured ten Somali gunmen in January 2006, the U.S. Navy had not fought pirates in more than 150 years. 1 But history will likely continue to favor the small and swift. When Commodore David Porter confronted West Indies pirates in 1823, his Mosquito Fleet was composed of 16 mostly small and shallow-draft ships. Within two years, he had crushed all opposition. 2
Today, from the public statements of organizations such as al Qaeda in Yemen, we know that irregular opponents continue to regard large, manpower-intensive ships as lucrative targets. 3 And while we know big warships can do anything from destroying satellites to rescuing captive merchant captains, they are an expensive and obvious means for some of these missions.
The problem today is that overkill has become unaffordable. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are facing crises in shipbuilding costs, schedules, and quality. In big shipyards, managerial support is uneven; from the government, little fiscal relief is in sight. The plan for 313 ships was recently considered a mere “point of departure.” Now, it is a lost hope. 4 Indeed, what the Fleet requires is an asymmetric response to asymmetric threats. The Sea Services need a fresh and confidence-building start. We propose a cost-effective and revolutionary answer for new and old problems.
A Real USV
For a moment, think outside traditional steel or aluminum hulls crammed with sailors, Marines, big sensors, and heavy weapons. Consider what’s required just for overmatch against pirates, with the range and speed to pursue them as far as they might go. Think of a boat with a stabilized machine gun, and perhaps some lightweight torpedoes or antiship missiles for broader tasks, a boat with a range of more than 2,000 nautical miles, but without the overbearing concerns of operational tempo and personnel tempo. Picture, that is, a boat without a crew—or at least with no crew in the boat.
To be sure, we mean something quite different—and larger—than the 11-meter, fleet-class unmanned surface vehicle the Navy is currently working to acquire for its Littoral Combat Ship squadrons. No, we mean at least a 16-meter unmanned surface vessel that can operate independent of the Fleet when required—a vessel unlike any other to date, and in two breakthrough ways:
First, a larger-but-lighter hull. USVs with advanced composite hulls, offering unmatched range and payload-for-weight, could provide the numbers and capabilities the Fleet needs to control the seas from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa, and the Persian Gulf. So far, the Navy and its suppliers have been choosing to build USVs from rubber, aluminum, or fiberglass—all safe, but dated, choices. 5 The Navy may eventually have lots of these little unmanned boats, but their payloads are small, their seakeeping in high seas limited, and their operating ranges short. 6 Carbon fiber has already been employed successfully in warships as large as the highly regarded Visby -class corvettes of the Royal Swedish Navy, so there is little technical risk in using it in a much smaller vessel.
The will to treat long-range USVs like long-range UAVs. Most of the U.S. Navy’s work in this area has been on smallish craft “meant for littoral operations, not open seas,” and paired directly with specific, manned mother ships. 7 The concept is familiar, but well behind the state of the art in military aviation. If the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force can control attack aircraft flying over Afghanistan from cubicles in Nevada, there is little reason why the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard cannot accomplish many of their missions with a fully remotely operated patrol vessel. There must be a ground crew of sorts, but such range provides flexibility in basing. The vessels may refuel, rearm, and refit from either mother ships or shore bases, but they need not be operationally tied to any specific point or platform.
Missions Across Operational Lines
An immediate and obvious role for such a vessel is convoy escort, as the right-sized solution—both physically and economically—to piracy and water-borne terrorism. Technology and science writer Erik Sofge has called this fight robots versus pirates , noting that “a favorite tactic of modern-day pirates is to put out a distress call, then ambush any ships that respond.” 8 Ambushing the unmanned is, of course, less lucrative than ambushing the unarmed. But while today’s unmanned craft may have the weapons, sensors, and loudspeakers needed to drive off pirates, they are only effective at short distances from their mother ships. Larger boats, controlled by satellite link from the United States, or anywhere else in the world, would have no such logistical or operational tethers. Better yet, high-seas USVs moving independently neatly sidestep the problem of armed merchants entering foreign ports.
Countering piracy and shadowing gun runners, though, is just the start. Like mobile sound surveillance-system stations, unmanned patrol vessels with passive acoustic and optical sensors could form pickets to constantly surveil sea lanes, or whole areas such as the Gulf of Aden or the Persian Gulf. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is thinking just this, having recently launched a project for an antisubmarine-warfare continuous-trail unmanned vehicle, a drone ship that would stick to sonar contacts like paint to a railing. 9 Vessels like these could also loiter silently for days or even weeks, then sprint at 45 knots to intercept potential threats. Heavily armed versions could participate in surface or antisubmarine action, delivering Hellfire missiles or Mark 54 torpedoes from where they would be least expected. 10 With more than enough horsepower to tow a sled, they could perform the minesweeping tasks we have long expected of drone boats. With enough electrical power for heavy loads, they could also carry signals intelligence or spoofing payloads. What admiral would not want an expendable ship that could simulate a whole battle group?
Not every contested coastline, of course, requires a full battle group. Yet despite all this potential, the Navy’s wave of enthusiasm for USVs recently crested, perhaps because its budget is under such self-induced stress. 11 We find this parsimony misplaced, for large USVs can be much more cost-effective than yet larger, manned vessels.
The lower procurement costs are obvious. Exclusive of weapons, and depending on the mission package selected, a carbon-fiber vessel of this size should cost just a few million dollars. That’s a far cry from the cost of a destroyer, or even a corvette, for effective surface surveillance, reconnaissance, and attack. The logistics footprint is also much less: smaller vessels burn less fuel, need less maintenance, and require less dock and pier frontage.
Significant savings are also to be found in the smaller and remote crews. Consider that a U.S. Air Force expeditionary squadron of four Predators requires just 55 troops in theater. For a U.S. Army UAV platoon and its four Shadows, the number is just 16. Some small unit of boatswain’s mates, gunner’s mates, and electronics technicians would be needed along a nearby shore, or afloat on a mother ship, to refuel, rearm, and repair the vessels periodically. But anyone involved in command, piloting, navigation, and actual gunnery could easily be stationed stateside, where their personnel tempo would be much less disconcerting.
Strategic Value Around the World
Today, the personnel tempo-stressing, far-off wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought partially remotely because the opposing foes have few antiaircraft guns, and certainly no jet fighters, to threaten drones. And while those battles are landlocked, it is easy to imagine where the model can be extended at sea.
Fighting piracy off the Horn of Africa with USVs would provide the experience useful for preparing to deal with boat swarms, minefields, and even submarines around the Strait of Hormuz. It’s uncertain how well a Revolutionary Guard naval commander would deal with a drone-boat swarm coming in the other direction (call that the hybrid threat in reverse). And if a Navy drone squadron could manage those threats, intercepting and shadowing narcotics traffickers in the Caribbean—until a proper cutter could arrive with a law enforcement detachment boarding party—should prove easy. It is clear that a vessel of this class would have more than the range needed to handle such tasks.
Moreover, if any local flotilla were caught short, reinforcement could just mean flying in more ships. The SEALs and the Air Force have successfully dropped 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boats more than 100 times from C-130s and C-17s; it is no stretch to imagine dropping a 16-meter boat from the latter. 12 Consider how air-mobile USVs could help ward off an invasion fleet in the Taiwan Strait. The Pacific Fleet might have a week’s sailing from Pearl Harbor, and Air Force bomber dwell times over the battle area would be short. But after just a short flight from the West Coast, Hawaii, or Guam, USVs could destroy Chinese transports with Hellfires, Harpoons, and even antisurface torpedoes, just like PT boats attacked the Tokyo Express in the Solomons in 1943. 13
If all this is to happen, the staffing model (as it is said in business) will need to change. There is no fundamental reason why a unit of unmanned patrol boats cannot be controlled by Navy Reserve crews at a base in Arizona or Texas or North Dakota, right alongside National Guardsmen controlling Predators or Reapers. DARPA is already envisioning how its long-range antisubmarine USV “will operate under a sparse, remote, supervisory command-and-control model, with a shore-based supervisor providing high-level mission objectives and monitoring autonomous performance through an intermittent beyond line-of-sight communications link.” 14
The allure of this duty could be considerable. The high retention rate in the Naval Special Warfare groups is an indication that many sailors like new-and-different independent work; similarly, the Air Force may lack F-15 drivers who want to go to Las Vegas, but it has no shortage of volunteers from non-rated communities who want to fly Reapers. 15 And the service is already training more pilots to fly unmanned aircraft than manned ones. 16
Admittedly, there are technical-operational challenges to address. Navigation may be easy, but piloting and threat classification are other matters. In the air, even small private aircraft constantly broadcast their positions; in the Persian Gulf, the thousands of dhows underway may or may not observe regulations like a Coast Guard–licensed mariner. 17 But on the high seas, if the situation is difficult to read from the comfort of Nevada, the crew can readily break off contact if no convoy or Fleet asset is imminently under threat. Predator crews routinely provide close-air support for soldiers and Marines in close contact with hostile troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; at sea, the sight lines to potential noncombatants are usually more clear.
In theory, some challenging scenarios could call for an optionally manned variant to improve situational awareness with just a few good men in the loop. 18 However, the temptation to routinely build all larger USVs as optionally manned must be avoided. Actual use of USVs against pirates has been limited, but the Republic of Singapore Navy has led the way in building operational experience with several deployments of Protector USVs to the Persian Gulf. Although the Protector has been used mainly in line-of-sight fashion from a mother ship, it seems clear even from this experience that the decision-making one expects with a USV is a function of the sensor payloads.
A 16-meter boat can carry a higher-quality and fuller sensor suite to effectively create a “human on board” experience that has hitherto been impossible on smaller USVs. Sailors still invariably rely on sensors to determine their next steps in any incident. Ironically, the compromise of optional manning may itself significantly compromise sensor quality and craft performance, simply because the boat needs to be designed for human carriage as a norm, rather than optimized as unmanned from the start.
Inevitably, human intervention from a manned ship will still be needed for many operations—particularly counter-piracy—as crewmen on the water must board, search, and seize weapons and evidence. An unmanned craft still cannot do this, but its ability to simply tag and track the suspect vessel makes the handoff to a manned vessel quite efficient. There is frequently nowhere for miscreants to hide from modern sensors on the open ocean.
Catching Up to the Air Force
Eventually, these vessels need to be integrated into the Fleet as independent assets, without undue worry regarding whether a manned or unmanned asset “is a conventional, irregular- or hybrid-warfare platform.” 19 With the budget in shambles and globalism’s discontents smelling hesitation, it is time to seize the most cost-effective options for keeping the peace at sea. Progress is already being made.
The Navy and Coast Guard now plan to keep their 13 Cyclone -class patrol combatants, the future of which was once in doubt. The Navy recently flirted with the idea of buying 23 joint high-speed vessels. 20 Robert Clifford of Incat, though, once spoke of how the Defense Department could need as many as 100 such ships. With the Army and Air Force planning to have more than 800 Warrior, Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk long-range UAVs by 2020, why should the Navy and Coast Guard not have at least as many long-range USVs? 21
1. James Kraska and Brian Wilson, “Fighting piracy: International coordination is key to countering modern-day freebooters,” Armed Forces Journal , February 2009.
2. Angus Konstam, The History of Pirates (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2002).
3. “Al Qaeda in Yemen Responds to Airstrike with New Threats,” 27 December 2009, translation by the NEA Foundation. See Congressional Quarterly ’s “Behind the Lines,” 11 January 2010.
4. Christopher P. Cavas and John T. Bennett , “Fleet plan: 313 ships ‘point of departure’,” Navy Times , 3 February 2010.
5. Richard Burgess, “A New Generation: An array of unmanned surface vehicles soon will take to the seas,” Seapower , July 2006.
6. Comment by Willard Sokol III, branch head for combatant craft naval architecture at NSWC Carderock, in Harold Kennedy, “No Crews Required: Unmanned Vessels Hit the Waves,” National Defense , October 2005.
7. Rita Boland, “Unmanned Vessels Sail Closer to Shore,” Signal Magazine , July 2007.
8. Erik Sofge, “Robot Boats Hunt High-Tech Pirates on the High-Speed Seas,” Popular Mechanics , 31 October 2007.
9. See Lewis Page, “U.S. plans crewless automated ghost-frigates,” The Register , 2 February 2010; Jeremy Hsu, “DARPA’s Robotic Ghost Ships Will Stalk Submarines,” Popular Science , 3 February 2010; Phil Ewing, “The Navy’s unmanned (war)ship,” Navy Times , 3 February 2010; and David Axe, “Robot Frigate to Chase Quiet Subs?” War Is Boring , 2 February 2010.
10. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYXBvCrzbHo . The CB90 is only slightly larger than the minimal size of vessel we are recommending.
11. Breanne Wagner, “Navy Slows Pursuit of Autonomous Vessels for Coastal Surveillance,” National Defense , March 2008. See former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s remarks to the Hudson Institute in Colin Clark, “‘Incompetent’ Navy Wastes Money,” DoD Buzz , 22 May 2009.
12. “Special Boat Operators Reach Milestone MCADS Drop,” Naval Special Warfare East Public Affairs press release, 2 April 2007. See David C. Walsh, “Navy explores use of robot boats,” Washington Times , 5 March 2009.
13. Thomas P. Ehrhard and Robert O. Work (now Under Secretary of the Navy), The Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration Program: A New Dawn For Naval Aviation? (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2007). See also Greg Grant, “Iran Sends Small Boats, Big Message,” DoD Buzz , 1 December 2009.
14. Industry day announcement accompanying solicitation DARPA-BAA-10-43, 1 February 2010.
15. Louis Hansen, “A Wave of Change for Small-boat Sailors,” Norfolk Virginian-Pilot , 12 January 2009. See also Mike R. Smith, “Air Guard Predator pilots increase combat air patrols,” National Guard Bureau news release, 18 August 2008.
16. Walter Pincus, “Air Force Training More Pilots for Drones Than for Manned Planes,” The Washington Post , 11 August 2009.
17. Maryann Lawlor, “Crewless Craft on Steady Course,” Signal Magazine , July 2007.
18. James Jinnette, “Unmanned limits: Robotic systems can’t replace a pilot’s gut instinct,” Armed Forces Journal , November 2009.
19. ADM John Harvey of Fleet Forces Command at the 2010 Surface Navy Association meeting, in Greg Grant, “Tackling Hybrid War With Today’s Navy,” DoD Buzz , 13 January 2010.
20. Christopher P. Cavas, “JHSV gets larger role in Navy, Marine plans,” Navy Times , 3 February 2010. See also Christopher P. Cavas, “U.S. Fleet Of Mother Ships,” Defense News , 15 November 2004, and P. W. Singer, “Military Robots and the Laws of War,” The New Atlantis , December 2009.
21. U.S. Department of Defense Aircraft Investment Plan for Fiscal Years 2011–2040, February 2010.
Mr. Belden is vice president of Zyvex Marine, a division of Zyvex Technologies. He is also chief designer of the Piranha USV. Zyvex has developed Arovex™, a proprietary carbon-fiber prepreg reinforced with carbon nanotubes, which provides the strength and stiffness needed for open-ocean craft at 75 percent less weight than fiberglass and 33 percent less than conventional carbon fiber.
Mr. Hasik is a business consultant who has been working with Zyvex Performance Materials to refine its operational and marketing concepts. He is a doctoral student in public policy at the University of Texas and a former U.S. Navy officer.
Mr. Soon is president at Zycraft, a Singapore-based USV services company. He was formerly fleet commander of the Republic of Singapore Navy.