A Few Disruptive Thoughts

By Lieutenant Ryan Hilger, U.S. Navy

Admiral Greenert’s most recent directive, his Navigation Plan , emphasizes the integration and fielding of unmanned systems across all domains: new munitions for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), small- and large-displacement unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and seamless integration of unmanned payloads for current manned platforms, to name just a few. 2 Other naval and defense leaders clamor for money to field unmanned systems; they seem to be the solution to all of our problems. These systems, they say, will allow us to remove human operators from risk, along with their associated costs, by acting throughout the observe-orient-decide-act-assess (otherwise known as OODAA) loop. But digging beneath the speeches reveals a foundational flaw in the future naval structure—we simply do not understand the full range of capabilities, limitations, and implications of unmanned systems.

‘Repairing the Bedrock’

Repairing the bedrock on which our future naval capabilities may well rest will require a significant course correction—or at least a thorough soul-searching—before we deploy these systems throughout the Fleet. Standing athwart their development, both as student researchers in and future operators of unmanned systems, we need to look beyond the capabilities unmanned systems provide to the strategic, operational, and tactical effects they will produce. That is the real revolution in military affairs. To ensure that the Navy stands ready to dominate in the unmanned battlespace, the Navy should explore how unmanned systems will be employed against us, fundamentally rethink how they can change naval warfare, educate and develop our officer corps to fully exploit their potential, and develop new organizations to produce more rapid technological developments.

Prior to the end of the Cold War, combat seemed like a black and white business. Orders of battle counted the numbers of troops, ships, planes, missiles, and more. The logic went, we have to quantitatively exceed that or develop qualitative force multipliers to compete on a level playing field. First seen two decades ago, on a public scale at least, the U.S. military faced combatants without uniforms, the laws of armed conflict suddenly thrown into confusion. That trend continued throughout the 1990s, reaching its current point in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Intelligence estimates of the enemy became exceedingly hard, making conventional military planning a truly wicked problem. Our adversaries began countering our conventional weapons with improvised explosive devices. The simple technologies and materials needed were widely available to make them an effective weapon against us, forcing us to fundamentally alter our military strategy and adapt our complex, expensive systems to meet the task at hand. As we groped for new and effective strategies for counterinsurgency operations, our enemies continued to wear away our forces. Unmanned systems employed by our adversaries will likely result in the same effects.

Terrorists’ Access

The U.S. government is not the sole entity developing and using unmanned systems. In the coming years, the technology will become increasingly available at lower and lower costs while growing more capable. The non-state combatants who have given us such a hard time over the past decade or more can easily acquire them. A terrorist group could cheaply and easily gain new intelligence-gathering and attack systems with items that could be obtained mostly from Amazon.com: a Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 quadrotor, controlled with an iPhone, costs $300; a GoPro camera, easily mounted to the quadrotor, costs $200. And these people seem to be able to acquire explosives with exceptional ease. Combined with the open-source, Internet-connected sensors around the world, such as Google Maps, oceangoing wave gliders, or the Northeast Pacific Time Series Undersea Networked Experiments (known as NEPTUNE) sonar arrays, for example, adversaries of the United States can significantly close the tactical and operational parity gaps without the need for a leviathan military-industrial complex. The United States must factor this coming reality into the operational concepts of our future forces, both manned and unmanned, to stay ahead of the game.

The development of unmanned systems, from both a military and commercial perspective, will force us to reconsider how we fight, even as we deploy these systems in greater numbers. Our nation-state adversaries are developing unmanned systems at a rapid pace and would benefit greatly from our efforts. A recent event reveals the dark risk of more expensive, military unmanned systems falling into the wrong hands. On 4 December 2011, a stealthy, futuristic, and hitherto unacknowledged drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, was brought down over Iran intact. Then-Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz made several startling, albeit interesting, comments, stating, “There is the potential for reverse engineering, clearly. . . . Ideally, one would want to maintain the American advantage. That is certainly in our minds.” He continued, “If [the jet] comes into the possession of a sophisticated adversary, there’s not much the U.S. could do about it.” 3

Following that incident, many defense leaders scoffed at the idea that Iran had captured any actual data from the drone; it was designed not to store anything. But that argument is beside the point. A highly advanced unmanned system had fallen into adversaries’ hands, giving them the potential for an exponential leap in their own technological efforts. Once the drone is broken into, what would stop Iran from selling the information and technology to our other adversaries, such as China, Russia, or North Korea? China, with its ability to reverse-engineer a system and improve it, could then field our drone designs back against us, strengthening their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) defenses in Southeast Asia.

The Name of the Game: ‘Red Cells’

This case highlights the unintended strategic consequences that unmanned systems will bring to military affairs if we are not careful. Pausing to think about the strategic implications of each new class of unmanned system that we field will yield dividends in the future. To accomplish this, the Navy should stand up “red cells” now to game us. They could explore how unmanned systems will be used against us, how the loss of one of our systems—the RQ-170, for example—would alter the operational and strategic calculus, and thus inform our own developments. The nature of war is immutable. Sun Tzu’s adage of “know thy enemy” still applies, and knowing how unmanned systems could be used against us will make us better prepared for the future.

At the operational level of war, unmanned systems will fundamentally alter naval warfare. Admiral Greenert, a few months after taking the helm of the Navy, articulated his vision for the Navy of 2025 in Proceedings , emphasizing the side-by-side role that unmanned systems will play with manned platforms. Discussing the undersea domain as an example, he stated,

With their range and endurance, large UUVs could travel deep into an adversary’s A2/AD envelope to deploy strike missiles, electronic warfare decoys, or mines. Smaller UUVs will be used by submarines to extend the reach of their organic sensors, and will operate in conjunction with unattended sensors that can be deployed from surface combatants, submarines, and P-8A patrol aircraft. The resulting undersea network will create a more complete and persistent “common operational picture” of the underwater environment when and where we need it. 4

The integration of unmanned systems into our naval air and surface forces will be just as complete. Coupled with advances in electronic warfare, to include electromagnetic and cyber warfare, the tools available to a combatant commander will be vastly different from those available today.

To extract every possible advantage that unmanned systems can provide, the Navy must change its mindset from what capabilities the system brings to how we want to fight in the future and how unmanned systems can contribute to that. Consider the following scenario: a U.S. submarine deploys with several UUVs equipped with sonar systems into an A2/AD environment to locate and neutralize a submarine threat. The U.S. commanding officer deploys the UUVs and, after a lengthy search, gains contact on the elusive enemy submarine. Conventional wisdom, training, and doctrine would likely result in our submarine closing to gain sonar contact on her own systems before engaging, possibly even recovering the UUVs first—slow, cumbersome, and somewhat predictable.

Now consider an alternate approach to this tactical problem that shows the required change of mindset. The submarine force, recognizing the potential value of UUVs and the payloads they can carry, alters its tactical-engagement doctrine to use the vehicles in a wholly new and different role. Now the submarine commander deploys the UUVs, equipped with transducers to conduct deception operations in addition to the sonar array, which begin their search. The UUVs gain contact in a short time. The submarine commander does not wait or close range, but instead orders the UUV to disguise itself as an American attack submarine and broadcast sounds of launching a torpedo. The UUV then shifts its disguise to that of an advanced-capability Mark 48 torpedo. The prey, now panicking, does what seems logical by fleeing as fast as possible away from the weapon, right into the jaws of the waiting American submarine, which completes the kill before the enemy realizes what has happened.

‘Two Major Challenges’

Thinking of revolutionary ways to fundamentally alter the way we fight will guide our development of unmanned systems and ensure that they provide the capabilities that will keep the parity gap wide. As bold as the CNO’s vision is, transforming it into reality presents two major challenges.

First, the operational-level naval leaders of 2025 are already in service today, mainly as lieutenants and lieutenant commanders. They have already ingested the current service culture, but are still junior enough to accept and help create a new direction if provided with sufficient impetus to do so. The Navy must educate and train these officers on unmanned systems—not just on how to use them, but what they can and, more important, cannot provide to naval warfighters.

At its core, an unmanned vehicle is simply a collection of sensors, communications, propulsion, and potentially weapons. The vehicles are subject to the laws of physics. Assumptions that went into their design have tactical ramifications, such as the accuracy and latency of sensor data or the endurance and persistence of the propulsion system. Officers must be trained to understand the limitations as thoroughly as they understand the specifications and operating characteristics of a gas turbine engine or a nuclear reactor. Simply handing a submarine or destroyer captain a complement of unmanned vehicles with a few technicians to operate them will not develop the broad corporate body of knowledge needed to ensure both the success of the system at that time as well as the future success of these officers as they reach the higher echelons of command.

Officers who completely understand the physical and performance limitations of a particular unmanned system will be able to tactically innovate with those systems, advancing naval warfare further than those who simply employ them as directed with insufficient understanding to question it. To maintain our asymmetric edge at the operational and tactical levels of warfare, the Navy must elevate unmanned systems to the level of a core competency and treat it as such within the Navy’s professional military education system.

Second, it takes significantly longer to research and develop a single capability and integrate it into an unmanned system, whether new or existing, than Hollywood tends to portray it. Innovation takes time, especially in a fiscally constrained environment, where research-and-development money is at a premium. The grandiose visions of our senior leaders seem to grasp at this only in a tangential manner, such as Admiral Roughead’s previously mentioned indictment in his 2011 speech.

New Ways to Innovate

The pace of technological development is accelerating in the commercial sector, and the potential for the military to be left behind is quite real. Fixing this process does not require an exponential leap in the evolution of unmanned systems, but rather a fundamental restructuring of how the Navy innovates. A few organizations inform how the Navy could transform its innovation and development processes. The Navy Warfare Development Command has taken a promising first step in breaking the traditional development cycle with the implementation of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cells (CRIC). Employing the varied education and operational experience of mid-grade officers, CRIC provides selected officers with the means to conduct independent research in emerging technical areas that address urgent naval problems. 5

The CNO’s Strategic Studies Group (SSG), whose primary mission is the development of revolutionary warfighting concepts, operates on a ten-month cycle, with a new cohort of officers entering every year. The SSG has been a hidden hand in guiding the Navy toward development of various naval systems and concepts of operations for almost 20 years, developing some truly revolutionary concepts along the way.

And finally, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) operates on a much shorter cycle than most research institutions, and its methodology has enabled it to achieve breakthroughs in record time. Two former DARPA project managers discussed the efficacy of temporary project teams, which “brings together world-class experts from industry and academic to work on projects of a relatively short duration. . . . These projects are not (italics original) open ended research programs.” 6 Some of DARPA’s most notable developments, GPS and micro-electromechanical sensors, for example, were completed in only a year or two.

Combining the best traits of each of these organizations into a new technical-innovation center or program may allow the Navy to achieve a faster pace of capabilities development, which will help keep the tactical and operational advantage firmly on our side. As an additional benefit, the Navy could combine the new innovation concept with the need for officer professional education, thereby allowing officers to rotate through an unmanned systems-innovation cell as a short tour of duty prior to an operational assignment with a heavy unmanned systems component. It would allow officers to see the technical side of system research and development and gain an appreciation for the capabilities of unmanned systems while contributing to the next generation of unmanned capabilities.

Unmanned systems have an incredible potential to revolutionize how we fight and how our enemies fight back. The realization of that untapped potential will only come with a change in our service culture and the full consideration of the implications and limitations that unmanned systems bring, at all levels—technological, tactical, operational, and strategic. The Navy must take steps to educate and develop its officer corps, develop a new and innovative research system, and rethink the role of unmanned systems deployed by us and our adversaries in both peacetime and combat through red cells. These changes must also be conditioned on the rapid technological advances of both our adversaries and the commercial sector, to ensure that we retain our military advantage in all domains and are prepared for the imaginative use of unmanned systems against us. The days of scrimping along with legacy systems and making do with what we have must end. Unmanned systems can usher in the next generation of naval systems and tactics if we want them to. It is time to make the choice.

1. ADM Gary Roughead, USN, “Remarks at the 2011 AUVSI Unmanned Systems Symposium and Exhibition on August 19, 2011,” www.navy.mil/navydata/people/cno/Roughead/Speech/110819%20AUVSI.pdf .

2.ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, “CNO’s Navigation Plan,” www.navy.mil/cno/Navplan2012-2017-V-Final.pdf .

3. David Majumdar, “Iran’s captured RQ-170: How bad is the damage?” Air Force Times , 9 December 2011, www.airforcetimes.com/article/20111209/NEWS/112090311/Iran-s-captured-RQ... .

4. ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, “Navy 2025: Forward Warfighters.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , December 2011, www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2011-12/navy-2025-forward-warfighters .

5. “Application Period Open for CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell,” Navy Warfare Development Command , 25 June 2013, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=75038 .

6. Regina E. Dugan and J. Gabriel Kaigham, “Special Forces Innovation: How DARPA Attacks Problems,” Harvard Business Review , October 2013.

Lieutenant Hilger recently reported for duty as a Director’s Fellow at the Chief of Naval Operations’ Strategic Studies Group in Newport, Rhode Island. His article “Modernize NATO for the 21st Century” appeared in the September Proceedings .

2013 Unmanned Maritime Systems Essay Contest Winners


“A Few Disruptive Thoughts”Lieutenant Ryan Hilger, U.S. Navy


“Unman Your Battle Stations!”Commander Michael J. Dobbs, U.S. Navy (Retired)


“Beyond Sensors and Batteries: The Future of Unmanned Operations is Unmanned Analysis”

Ensign Chris O’Keefe and Ensign Shane Halton, U.S. Navy



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