Return to Trust at Sea through Unmanned Autonomy

By Commander Chris Rawley, U.S. Navy
The prevalence of unmanned systems operating below, on, and above the oceans over the next few decades will inevitably influence the Navy’s culture and approach to operational art at sea. Today most of these vehicles are controlled remotely, with a human operator directing the platforms, monitoring their systems, and re-tasking them as the weather deteriorates, operational priorities shift, or mechanical problems occur. In the near future, however, changes in technology and threats will drive unmanned naval systems away from remote operation and toward autonomy.

Technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence have already developed autonomous behavior in some systems. For example, the Navy’s X-47B Unmanned Carrier Air System Demonstration program validated autonomous functions across the aircraft’s flight profile, including takeoff, landing, and even aerial refueling. This innovation also produces cost savings and efficiency. Existing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are generally each flown by a single pilot. Improved autonomy will allow a single operator to pilot several vehicles, which will reduce the most expensive component of these systems— people.

The Need for More Independence

More than any other factor, though, platforms operating in contested electromagnetic environments will require higher levels of independence. Unmanned systems will increasingly operate beyond the line of sight of their controllers and in areas prone to GPS or other electronic jamming, spoofing, and interference by adversary forces. Counterterrorism intelligence gathering and strike missions currently flown by UAVs in low-threat environments allow for constant data links and telemetry; a challenged electronic spectrum will require UAVs to make their own decisions.

Environmental factors also necessitate autonomy. Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) need automation for the reasons mentioned above plus the simple fact that normal methods of navigation such as GPS do not work due to the limitations of electromagnetic propagation under water.

Someday, autonomy will allow dynamic re-missioning of unmanned naval platforms without human intervention, improving their effectiveness in battle. As noted in the U.S. Air Force’s Technology Horizons: A Vision for Air Force Science and Technology, 2010-30, autonomous vehicles will enable “operational advantages over adversaries who are limited to human planning and decision speeds.” One of the first tests of this sort of autonomy will occur in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program called the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV). This detects and tracks quiet diesel electric submarines across thousands of miles of ocean for several months at a time. In order to perform this mission, ACTUV will need to demonstrate several facets of advanced autonomous operation. The most fundamental is navigation. The ability to safely negotiate long transits in open water while following the rules of the road, avoiding collision, grounding, and counter-detection is not a trivial task. Whereas UAVs can operate safely in a “stack” separated from manned aircraft by altitude, the ACTUV and other autonomous surface vehicles will avoid collision through reliance on advanced sensors and artificial intelligence in place of the seaman’s eye. The ACTUV’s other more tactical operations may require a degree of autonomy, such as the decision to deploy or direct various sensors in response to radar or sonar contacts.

The upper end of the decision-making continuum for unmanned systems is combat. It is not a stretch to assume that one day smarter, more discriminating sensors will allow unmanned platforms to make their own attack decisions in certain combat environments. Contemporary discussions on the ethics of unmanned platforms gloss over the fact that legacy weapons such as land and sea mines kill much more indiscriminately than weapons enabled with smarter software algorithms. Tomahawk missiles can be sent on a one-way trip to a certain geographic location; “fire and forget” anti-ship missiles may be shot along a bearing toward a radar target dozens of miles away. Though precisely targeted and accurately guided, there is no guarantee that these weapons will hit their target at a time and place that minimizes harm to non-combatants. Despite ever-higher aversions to collateral damage in modern warfare, it is still assumed to be culturally acceptable for these relatively dumb weapons to be used in high-end naval combat.

The People Factor

Advances in sensor technology will allow mission planners to direct unmanned vehicles to automatically execute a general task, for example “find and destroy the enemy submarine matching a signature” that adheres to criteria such as specific electronic emissions or sonar characteristics. Note that regardless of the autonomy inherent in future unmanned systems, the development of rules of engagement and the initial decision to kill will remain with a human commander, just as they are today. If anything, unmanned maritime systems will be more discriminating than contemporary weapons and subject to self-recall or mission abort if targeting criteria are not met.

Unmanned systems will enhance the distribution and number of naval platforms. Whereas in the past an individual ship or submarine might have been put on station to collect intelligence, tomorrow that same vessel may act as a mother ship for dozens of unmanned “drones” operating independently and scouting an area of interest. So while a shrinking Navy may result in fewer ships on station in a given area, the actual units of action at sea will be higher in number and require delegated operations.

Unmanned-system swarming is another concept challenging the status quo of operational art. John Arguilla and David Ronfelt describe this tactic for modern warfare as a

seemingly amorphous, but deliberately structured, coordinated, strategic way to strike from all directions at a particular point or points, by means of a sustainable pulsing of force and/or ?re, close-in as well as from stand-off positions . . . Swarming will work best—perhaps it will only work—if it is designed mainly around the deployment of myriad, small, dispersed, networked maneuver units. Swarming occurs when the dispersed units of a network of small (and perhaps some large) forces converge on a target from multiple directions. The overall aim is sustainable pulsing—swarm networks must be able to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, then dissever and redisperse, immediately ready to re-combine for a new pulse.1

The advent of lower-cost, more capable unmanned systems brings Arguilla and Ronfelt’s vision closer to reality. Swarming as an asymmetric tactic will be applied across all domains of naval warfare. In May 2013, researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School flew ten UAVs simultaneously to test swarming behaviors including target engagement, defense, search, and survey. The aircraft were remotely controlled, but in the future autonomous swarms will be possible, mimicking the biological behavior of insects or schooling fish operating in concert with one another. Other ongoing experiments with swarming UUVs will enhance the speed and efficiency of underwater survey work and mine countermeasures.

Command and Over-Control

Ironically, as we become more comfortable with machines making their own decisions, the opposite situation has emerged with human operators. Vast ocean distances meant the Navy traditionally prided itself as the service in which commanders operated remotely and independently from higher authority. Because of this, for hundreds of years commanders relied on succinct guidance usually relayed by various minimalistic forms of transmission such as signal flags, flashing light, or teletype. Higher-echelon commanders’ guidance delivered prior to battle required independent execution by Fleet units in the event those arcane communication methods were not available. From Lord Horatio Nelson’s simple battle orders that “no captain can do wrong if he puts his ship alongside the nearest enemy” to Vice Admiral “Bull” Halsey’s terse direction to task-force commanders prior to Santa Cruz: “Attack—Repeat—Attack,” naval commanders aggressively interpreting orders have produced success in sea combat. These orders were issued on the assumption that the flag officers’ subordinate commanders were competent and would make solid decisions in the heat of combat.

Fast-forward to the past 30 years, when the introduction of high-bandwidth satellite communications, always-on email, and computer chat have changed the way the Navy commands and administers the Fleet. Unfortunately, the quantity of required reports and data has also increased to fill these new forms of communication. The concise and even pithy operational guidance in World War II has given way to minutely detailed operational tasks for each warfare area, with concomitant real-time oversight during mission execution. Bandwidth-hogging quad charts, multi-slide concepts of operations, innumerable and often redundant electronic reports for operational units at sea have become so burdensome that the Navy recently introduced a crowd-sourced effort to reduce administrative distractions in the Fleet.

Additionally, rightly or wrongly, Fleet-level maritime operations centers (MOCs) are now making decisions that once were made by local task-force or unit commanders. Even video teleconferences to afloat units are commonplace. The necessity of seeking permission to conduct activities that previously fell under the authority of seagoing commanders slows down the decision-making process. In peacetime these delays are a nuisance, eroding the authority and trust placed in commanding officers. But in combat they will be deadly.

This constant stream of communications is not all bad. Timely email to sailors’ loved ones and the opportunity to watch the Super Bowl live at sea are certainly morale builders. More important, the capability for ships to have access to the same intelligence and high-resolution imagery that are normally only available at the Fleet level is an operational benefit.

In the other direction, real-time video gives distant Fleet and higher-level commanders a better perspective on the battle situation. The now-famous photo of the National Command Authority in the White House situation room watching live UAV video feeds during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden demonstrates improved situational awareness without the accompanying micromanagement that is a risk with this technology. Regardless of these positives, the net result of these technologies in the Navy has been a slow cultural shift undermining the confidence in our frontline leadership.

Return to Past Practices

The same operational and environmental factors impacting unmanned systems will disrupt the links between ships and their higher headquarters ashore, meaning that a return to past practices is clearly necessary. Even with modern encryption, data links and communications pathways can be jammed or otherwise disrupted. Networked weapon systems and perhaps engineering controls of future combatants might be vulnerable to hacking or takeover. When fighting in a so-called anti-access/area-denial environment, emission control will once again become paramount for U.S. Navy platforms, as it was during the Cold War.

Might these threats become the impetus to transition the Navy back toward our more traditional roots of command by negation? And will scores of unmanned systems operating dispersed across the sea spur a return to decentralized command and control in naval warfare? Interestingly, the normally big formation-fixated conventional Army, recognizing that future battlefields will be more distributed with smaller ground units of action maneuvering alone, has turned to a concept called mission command. According to joint doctrine, this “is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based upon mission-type orders.” Sound familiar?

Even with autonomy, tracking and controlling distributed unmanned systems will be a challenge for future naval platforms. Trying to control them all centrally from an MOC or higher headquarters will be virtually impossible, in terms of both data bandwidth and span of control. As ships delegate decisions to smarter and more autonomous off-board systems, the ships themselves will need freedom to improvise in war and peace without the constant supervision enabled by higher levels of data transmission.

Technological improvements and their accompanying cultural shifts are a recurring theme in naval warfare. From sail to steam, battleships to carriers, and guns to missiles, newfound confidence in technology has driven wholesale changes in the philosophy of command and control. It appears inevitable that we’ll have no choice but to empower unmanned systems with the ability to make certain operational decisions. Will we again do the same for our human operators? Historically, trust and confidence in subordinate commanders has led to innovation, an imperative in wartime leadership.2 A shift in culture to accommodate the multitudes of naval drones in tomorrow’s Fleet can also help reverse the erosion in trust of our combat leaders.

  1. John Arguilla and David Ronfelt, Swarming and the Future of Conflict (RAND National Defense Research Institute, 2000).
  2. B. J. Armstrong, “Long Nights and Book Strewn Desks: Trust and Innovation,” Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, 12-14 October 2013,

Commander Rawley is a surface warfare officer serving as the deputy commander of a joint special-operations element in the Horn of Africa.


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